We just passed the third anniversary of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.
The subsistence fishers who have inhabited Isle de Jean Charles since 1830 see things differently from BP and the mainline press.
“ ‘Come to Louisiana. Everything is fine,’ say the BP ads. Well, they’re not fine. There are no oysters. There are no shrimp,” said Albert Naquin, chief of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, during a recent conversation in Chaska, Minn.
Chief Naquin and Kristina Peterson were on route to Duluth for a consultation of American indigenous people focusing on the Mississippi River from its headwaters in Minnesota to its mouth in Louisiana, the site of the vanishing traditional home of the Isle de Jean Charles tribe.
Kristina is a professional community disaster-recovery specialist who splits her time between the University of New Orleans’ Center for Hazard Assessment and Risk Technology (CHART) and the Blue Bayou Presbyterian Church in Gray, La., where she is the pastor. Kristina had come to Chaska, Minn., two years ago as speaker for First Tuesday Dialogues: examining critical public issues locally and globally, a community forum of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church.
For three hours we discussed what was happening three years after the ecological tragedy America has almost forgotten.
The people of Isle de Jean Charles have been there since 1830. They settled there after fleeing the U.S. government’s forced resettlement program, leaving their native lands in search of a place where they could continue their culture and live together in hiding.
Hidden in the bayous
The place that became home was a piece of solid land hidden deep in the bayous of the Louisiana Delta. When they settled there, the island measured 10 miles long by 5 miles wide.
From there they fished the coastal waters abundant in oysters, crabs, shrimp and fish. They grew their own vegetables and fruit trees, and used its green pasture for horses and cows. The members of the tribe in hiding shared their seafood, dairy products, chickens, and produce with each other in a barter economy.
“My mother told me every time I went out to play, ‘If you see somebody you don’t know, hide.’ “
As Chief Albert tells the story, the accelerated erosion of the Gulf coastlands dates to the early 1940s. Big oil received a license from federal, state and local authorities to build canals through the Delta marshlands in search of oil. The new canals cut every which way, often crisscrossing, in search of liquid gold. And as they did, the marsh began to disappear. The salt water of the Gulf of Mexico seeped further and further into the Delta.
Chief Naquin and his people do not forget. They have long attention spans. They remember that oil canals were created by licensed permission under specified conditions. First, the licenses had a time limit. The time limit has long since passed. Second, the terms of the licenses required the oil companies to remediate the land at the conclusion of the license period.
The reclamation never took place. The chief remembers.
Isle de Jean Charles today
The island that once measured 10 miles by 5 miles has shrunk to 2 miles long and one-quarter mile wide. The island will not survive.
Chief Naquin has been working to negotiate a suitable substitute for their ancestral home. The Army Corp of Engineers offered an alternative site that would have kept the tribe together, preserved their way of life, and helped bring income to the tribe by means of a visitor center for tourists.
A condition of occupying the new land, however, was that 100 percent of the tribe’s members vote yes on the proposal. The vote was 85 percent. The 15 percent minority are mostly older people who have lived their entire lives on Isle de Jean Charles and insist they will go down with the island.
“When’s the last time any city, any nation, any group, any organization was asked for a vote of 100 percent?” asks Chief Naquin. “It’s impossible. We had 85 percent, but it wasn’t enough.”
No hiding place
Perhaps survival beyond hiddenness is the lesson of Isle de Jean Charles. Not just the chief’s people who once hid from hostile powers in the Louisiana Delta 183 years ago, but all of us who hide from the harsh realities of the crony capitalism that grants a permit to oil companies to cut their canals through our fragile ecosystems and then allows those same companies to disappear into hiding from the initial terms of the licenses.
They call the oil rigs “rigs” for a reason. The whole thing is rigged.
If we see a stranger on what used to be Isle de Jean Charles; if we see canals still crisscrossing through the marsh; if we’ve seen the fires of Deepwater Horizon light up the Gulf of Mexico and slick the waters and estuaries with black gold; if we’ve seen the evidence of breaking-and-entering in the house of the Gulf Coast waters, if we see empty oyster shells where once there were oysters; if we’ve heard about the oil companies hiding without anyone playing seek, we can ignore the game or we can seek and find for the sake of survival.
There is a stranger on our island. The fire of Deepwater Horizon lit up the horizon to expose his hideout. The blazing fire in the Gulf of Mexico three years lit up the world with a previously hidden truth that called us to embrace the more transparent future we share with the oysters, crabs, shrimp and shorebirds.
The oysters, crabs, shrimp and shore birds can’t hide, nor can they seek. We can do both. Will we hide or will we seek?
The Rev. Gordon C. Stewart is pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska. He writes “Views from the Edge: Social Commentary with Gordon C. Stewart.”
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