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Nikolas Kozloff

Nikolas Kozloff

Posted: July 26, 2010 03:54 PM

For the past few months, the mainstream media has focused on the environmental and technical dimensions of the Gulf mess. While that's certainly important, reporters have ignored a crucial aspect of the BP spill: cultural extermination and the plight of indigenous peoples. Recently, the issue was highlighted when Louisiana Gulf residents in the town of Dulac received some unfamiliar visitors: Cofán Indians and others from the Amazon jungle.

What could have prompted these indigenous peoples to travel so far from their native South America? Victims of the criminal oil industry, the Cofán are cultural survivors. Intent on helping others avoid their own unfortunate fate, the Indians shared their experiences and insights with members of the United Houma Nation who have been wondering how they will ever preserve their way of life in the face of BP's oil spill.

A culturally rich state, Louisiana has been home to people of mixed racial descent for hundreds of years. In the 18th and 19th centuries, French settlers intermarried with Indian women. The Houma is a Louisiana state-recognized tribe of about 17,000 people which lives along coastal marshes. Traditionally the Indians have survived off the land, working as trappers or fishermen.

According to the Minnesota-based non-profit Native Languages of the Americas, the Houmas are an offshoot of the Choctaw nation. The tribe originally lived in eastern Mississippi but was driven across the state border and later merged with Cajun communities. The Houma dialect of Choctaw has not been actively spoken since the 19th century and currently most tribe members speak English or Cajun French though some elderly converse in a unique Houma variant of Creole French. Before the spill, some Houma Indians were even working to revive their original language.

The BP spill, however, may throw such plans for cultural revival off kilter. Though the Indians have endured the environmental ravages of the oil and gas industry for almost a century, the current environmental disaster could destroy humble fishing villages. "The Gulf spill is an absolute threat on who we are as Houma people and our way of life," commented Thomas Dardar Jr., Principal Chief of the United Houma Nation. "Our homeland and the health of our people are at risk and we must plan for the long-term effects of this catastrophe," he added.

Bayou Pointe-Aux-Chenes and nearby Isle de Jean Charles are home to Houma as well as native Chitimacha tribe members. According to the tribe's official web site, the Chitimacha settled the bayous of southern Louisiana as far back as 500 A.D. The Indians lived in peace until marauding French began slaving raids into indigenous territory in the 18th century. A twelve year war ensued which the tribe barely manage to survive.

As if that were not challenging enough, the Chitimacha later faced encroachment by French, Spanish and U.S. settlers. According to Native Languages of the Americas, Chitimacha is now an extinct language though some of the younger generation is working to revive it. In the 18th century, most Chitimacha adopted Cajun French and the last native speaker died in 1940. Currently, 350 Chitimacha remain on the tribe's Louisiana reservation.

Along local bays and lakes, the Houma and Chitimacha search for shrimp, fish, crabs, oysters and crawfish. Already, however, BP's oil spill has ruined oyster plots, soiled crab traps and cut off shrimp trawlers from prime fishing grounds around Bayou Pointe-Aux-Chenes. On Isle de Jean Charles the culture of the "French Indians," as they call themselves, has been vanishing for some time. Even before the oil spill, many younger Indians weren't getting into fishing or shrimping as the business had become less lucrative. If the shrimping business goes belly up, much of the local culture along the bayous could vanish as well. That is because French is passed along on the shrimping boats as young boys learn to fish using the native French vocabulary.

From Cajuns to Atakapans

Losing the Bayou to an environmental disaster is bad enough, though the prospect of cultural extermination of Francophone Louisiana is arguably just as serious. In the 1700s, French-speaking people in Acadia -- now part of Eastern Canada -- refused to swear allegiance to the British. As a result, the French, or Cajuns as they came to be known, were exiled and took up life along remote Louisiana bayous.

Though life was physically challenging in their new home, the Cajuns enjoyed the incredible seafood bounty and striking natural beauty. Today, the Cajun population ranges from some 40,000 to half a million, depending on how strict a cultural definition is used. In some Louisiana towns, one can hear happy go lucky zydeco music on the radio, hosted by D.J.'s speaking the local patois. It's not uncommon to see people eating fried fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Head over to the town of Grand Bayou and you won't see any cars, just water and boats. The town is home to Atakapa-Ishak Indians, and their very survival is now jeopardized by the BP spill. The tribe, which is spread out over Texas and Louisiana, was originally a hunting and gathering society. In the late 19th century, the Smithsonian sent a linguist to the Gulf coast to write an Atakapan language dictionary but the expert gave up after he failed to uncover the language's origin.

The project stalled until the 1930s, when an anthropologist finally found a native speaker and finished a dictionary which now lies at the Smithsonian. Today, several hundred people claim to be descendants of the Atakapa, though the federal government has so far failed to extend official recognition to the tribe. Community members are a mixture of Native American, black and Cajun, some of whom still speak French at home.

Grand Bayou is a community which lives off fishing. For years the tribe witnessed the loss of native wetlands, encroachment by the oil and gas industry and even hurricanes. Now, as a result of the oil spill, fishing and shrimping has ground to a halt. Grand Bayou residents are also concerned that chemicals used to disperse leaking oil could hurt fisheries for decades.

Amazonians Head to the Gulf

What could Amazonian leaders hope to add to the environmental discussion afflicting the Gulf? At first it might seem outlandish that South American Indians would tour areas of the Bayou affected by the BP spill and meet with the Houma. Yet Amazonian indigenous peoples have a lot of experience protecting their culture from oil disasters. At a town hall, the Ecuadorans spoke with the Houma and presented a report about severe oil contamination which was carried out in conjunction with the hard hitting environmental advocacy group Amazon Watch.

While the U.S. public is now focused on BP, few are aware of another devastating ecological disaster which hit Ecuador. For years Texaco (now Chevron) dumped millions of gallons of crude into the rainforest and left hundreds of unlined pits in the jungle. The Indians claim that the contamination caused outbreaks of illness, birth defects and cancer. To get a sense of the horrible after effects, be sure to catch the recent documentary film, Crude. Today, thousands of Amazonian Indians are pressing a historic lawsuit against Chevron that, if successful, could provide some environmental remediation.

From a cultural standpoint, oil development in the Ecuadoran Amazon had very disruptive effects. The Tetetes, a tribe which lived near the modern oil boom town of Lago Agrio, was displaced as a result of petroleum development. In the 1970s, missionaries could only find two native speakers of Tetete. Today, the tribe and its language are considered extinct. Other groups including the Siona, Secoya and Huaorani were decimated and lost much of their ancestral lands.

Before Texaco started to drill, the Cofán was a small but thriving tribe numbering some 15,000. Traditionally, the Cofán lived off fishing, hunting and subsistence agriculture. Oil exploration resulted in increased illness, road construction, crimes like murder and rape as well as cultural degradation. Lowland Quichua Indians, displaced by mestizo settlers, moved into Cofán territory. Thus began a process of "Quichuisation" of the Cofán, who in addition faced a growing wave of outsiders including missionaries, settlers and oil companies.

After thirty years of oil drilling, the Indians' numbers were reduced to less than a thousand and the native language placed in great jeopardy. Today the tribe is slowly trying to rebuild its culture by instituting bilingual education programs in Cofán and Spanish. School dress codes meanwhile require traditional clothing, and elder shamans are doing their utmost to transfer their medicinal knowledge to youth.

Perhaps, if there is any silver lining to the BP tragedy, it is that the oil disaster will bring indigenous peoples together. Like the tenacious Cofán, native peoples of the Bayou are determined to hang on in the face of adversity. The Cajuns, having already been expelled once from their homeland, are in no mood to give up or relinquish their independence. James Wilson, assistant director of the Center for Louisiana Studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, recently remarked "I would not expect to see any great migration away, regardless of what happens to these communities. It's a life-or-death decision for them: People can't see a life anywhere else. If they can't live the life that they're used to within their culture, then that is death."

Now that the BP story is fading from view, Bayou people hope that the rest of the country continues to pay attention to their plight. For far too long they, as well as other indigenous peoples from the Amazon rainforest, have paid a disproportionate cultural price owing to oil development.


Nikolas Kozloff is the author of No Rain in the Amazon: How South America's Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2010) and Revolution!: South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008). Visit his website, http://www.nikolaskozloff.com/