MONTEGUT, La. — Even before oil began spewing into the Gulf of Mexico last spring, Louisiana's American-Indian fishing villages were on the brink of collapse because of social change and the dramatic loss of coastal wetlands.
Now, Indians who've known nothing but fishing all their lives find their futures tied to the man handing out checks for damages, paid from a multibillion-dollar fund started after the April 20 Gulf spill.
Kenneth Feinberg, the fast-talking East Coast lawyer in charge of BP PLC's $20 billion compensation fund, met with them for the first time Friday night on the back bayous of south Louisiana at a gymnasium in Montegut, about an hour and a half from New Orleans. Dozens of fishermen showed up in shrimp boots and work clothes, speaking a mixture of French and English.
They want Feinberg to compensate them not just for lost wages, but a way of life that relied on the bounty of the marshes and now is in jeopardy.
"The people have been independent for so long, a lot of them will go trawling, they'll bring an ice chest (of seafood) to maman, grandpa, auntie, the uncles and all that," said Thomas Dardar, the principal chief of the United Houma Nation, the largest Indian tribe with about 17,000 members.
"With the oil, how long will it last? Oil isn't like a hurricane," he said. "You can't just pick up after it's over. The Indians in Alaska after Exxon-Valdez tell us they've been dealing with the oil for 20 years."
Many tribes moved into the swamps to escape enslavement or forced banishment after Congress passed the 1830 Indian Removal Act.
Until the 1950s, most Indians lived in isolation, rarely interacting with whites. Old-timers recall barefoot children scampering into the woods to hide when the first cars rattled into their villages in the 1950s. Indian children were barred from schools until the 1960s and were called "sabines," a derogatory term.
There are about 20,000 American Indians in coastal Louisiana who trace their roots to Houma, Chitimacha, Choctaw and Biloxi tribes.
Tribal leaders say they're worried many members won't be compensated fairly, so they've brought on a New York City law firm to help the tribes navigate the difficult claims process.
All the paperwork and documentation isn't easy in these marshes, a place where some people can't read or write, where lawyers and taxes often are blurry concepts.
Take Price Billiot, 63, who runs a seafood dock in Pointe-Aux-Chenes, a dilapidated and water-bound town that stretches along a bayou in the tall marshes near Montegut.
He quit fourth grade to start working on a boat with his father, cleaning oysters. His wife has to help him with all the BP claims paperwork, he said – he can spell and read a bit, but not enough to handle it on his own.
"The white people didn't want me to go to school," he said. "We couldn't go to the school, we couldn't go to the bar up the bayou."
With hurricane damage still to fix and business slow from the spill, he was gloomy about the future.
"Every year it gets worse. You can't make a living," he said as a rooster and peacock crowed in the grasses across the road. A fishing boat abandoned long ago sat rotting into the mud across the bayou. "When I was young you could make a good living."
For now, he's surviving, in part thanks to $65,000 in emergency payments BP gave him in June for his business losses. But Billiot said his company was worth $1 million a year and that he needed much more from BP to keep it going. Feinberg is now calculating long-term damage claims like one Billiot might file for potential future losses.
Feinberg told those at his first meeting with Indian tribes Friday that he wanted to pay them claims for the value seafood and hunting plays in their everyday lives – so-called "subsistence claims."
"It's a claim that my lifestyle has been adversely impacted by my inability to any longer live off the resources that I hunt or catch," he said. "... What I could go hunt or fish I now have to go buy.
"Those claims should be paid."
Even if they're paid the spill has created even more uncertainty for people on the bayous, where life is a struggle. Families have been driven inland from their ancestral villages, battered by hurricanes and low seafood prices. And their coastal land is disappearing: About 2,300 square miles of marsh have converted to open water since the 1930s largely because of the Army Corps of Engineers' construction of levees in the Mississippi River delta and thousands of miles of canals dug by oil companies.
Now it's nearly impossible to turn a profit for any seafood caught by people like Anthony Dardar, a 28-year-old fisherman in Pointe-Aux-Chenes who's trying to get back to fishing. He'd just brought in a few sacks of oysters.
"We can't hardly move the oysters, we could hardly move the shrimp, it's hard to move the crabs," he said. "Now, they're finding all kind of freakin' dispersant in the water. Who knows about the future."