[News] Fears of Cultural Extinction on Louisiana's Gulf Coast

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Tue Jun 15 11:25:10 EDT 2010

Cultural Extinction
Louisiana’s coastal communities fear they may 
never recover from BP’s drilling disaster

By Jordan Flaherty

As BP’s deepwater well continues to discharge oil 
into the Gulf, the economic and public health 
effects are already being felt across coastal 
communities. But it’s likely this is only the 
beginning. From the bayous of southern Louisiana 
to the city of New Orleans, many fear this 
disaster represents not only environmental 
devastation but also cultural extinction for 
peoples who have made their lives here for generations.

This is not the first time that Louisianans have 
lost their communities or their lives from the 
actions of corporations. The land loss caused by 
oil companies has already displaced many who 
lived by the coast, and the pollution from 
treatment plants has poisoned communities across 
the state – especially in “cancer alley,” the 
corridor of industrial facilities along the 
Mississippi River south of Baton Rouge.

“The cultural losses as a consequence of the BP 
disaster are going to be astronomical,” says 
Advocates for Environmental Human Rights (AEHR) 
co-director Nathalie Walker. “There is no other 
culture like Louisiana’s coastal culture and we 
can only hope they wont be entirely erased.” 
Walker and co-director Monique Harden have made 
it their mission to fight the environmental 
consequences of Louisiana’s corporate polluters. 
They say this disaster represents an unparalleled 
catastrophe for the lives of people across the 
region, but they also see in it a continuation of 
an old pattern of oil and chemical corporations 
displacing people of color from their homes.

Harden and Walker point out that at least five 
Louisiana towns – all majority African American – 
have been eradicated due to corporate pollution 
in recent decades. The most recent is the 
Southwest Louisiana town of Mossville, founded by 
African Americans in the 1790s. Located near Lake 
Charles, Mossville is only 5 square miles and 
holds 375 households. Beginning in the 1930s, the 
state of Louisiana began authorizing industrial 
facilities to manufacture, process, store, and 
discharge toxic and hazardous substances within 
Mossville. Fourteen facilities are now located in 
the small town, and 91 percent of residents have 
reported at least one health problem related to 
exposure to chemicals produced by the local industry.

The southern Louisiana towns of Diamond, 
Morrisonville, Sunrise, and Revilletown – all 
founded by formerly enslaved African Americans - 
met similar fates. After years of 
chemical-related poisoning, the remaining 
residents have been relocated, and the 
corporations that drove them out now own their 
land. In most cases, only a cemetery remains, and 
former residents must pass through plant security 
to visit their relatives’ graves.

The town of Diamond, founded by the descendants 
of the participants of the 1811 Rebellion to End 
Slavery, the largest slave uprising in US 
history, was relocated by Shell in 2002, after 
residents had faced decades of toxic exposure. 
Morrisonville, established by free Africans in 
1790, was bought out by Dow in 1989. Residents of 
Sunrise, inaugurated near Baton Rouge by former 
slaves in 1874, were paid to move as the result 
of a lawsuit against the Placid Refining Company. 
In the mid-1990s, Chemical producer Georgia Gulf 
Corporation poisoned and then acquired 
Revilletown, a town that recently freed Black 
families had started in the years after the civil war.

“We make the mistake of thinking this is 
something new,” says Harden. She adds that the 
historic treatment of these communities, as well 
as the lack of recovery that New Orleanians have 
seen since Katrina, makes her doubt the federal 
government will do what is necessary for Gulf 
recovery. “Since Obama got into office,” she 
says, “I have yet to see any action that reverses what Bush did after Katrina.”

Harden says Louisiana and the US must 
fundamentally transform our government’s 
relationships with corporations. “We’ve got to 
change the way we allow businesses to be in 
charge of our health and safety in this country,” 
she adds. As an example, Harden points to more 
stringent regulations in other countries, such as 
Norway, which requires companies to drill relief 
wells at the same time as any deepwater well.


Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe is a small band of 
French speaking Native Americans along Bayou 
Pointe-au-Chien, south of Houma, on Louisiana’s 
Gulf Coast. Their ancestors settled here three 
hundred years ago, and current residents describe 
the ongoing oil geyser as just the latest step in 
a long history of displacement and 
disenfranchisement. “The oil companies never 
respected our elders,” explains community leader 
Theresa Dardar. “And they never did respect our land.”

In the early part of this century, the oil 
companies took advantage of the fact that people 
living on the coast were isolated by language and 
distance, and laid claim to their land. Over the 
past several decades, these companies have 
devastated these idyllic communities, creating 
about 10,000 miles of canals through forests, 
marshes, and homes. “They come in, they cut a 
little, and it keeps getting wider and wider,” 
says Donald Dardar, Theresa’s husband and part of 
the tribe’s leadership. “They didn’t care where they cut.”

The canals have brought salt water, killing trees 
and plants and speeding erosion. According to 
Gulf Restoration Network, Louisiana loses about a 
football field of land every 45 minutes, and 
almost half of that land loss is as a result of 
these canals. Meanwhile, Pointe-au-Chien and 
other tribes have found they have little legal 
recourse. At least partly as a result of lobbying 
by oil companies, the state and federal 
government have refused to officially recognize 
them as a tribe, which would offer some protection of their land rights.

So late last month, when oil started washing up 
on the shores of nearby Lake Chien and fishing 
season was cancelled before it had even begun, 
members of Pointe-au-Chien took the news as 
another nail in the coffin of the lifestyle they 
had been living for generations. On a recent 
Sunday, a few residents gathered at the Live Oak 
Baptist Church, on the main road that runs 
through their community. They described feeling 
abandoned and abused by the government and 
corporations. They spoke of losing their language 
and traditions in addition to their homes.

Sitting on a church pew, Theresa said they had 
met with indigenous natives from Alaska who 
discussed their experience in the aftermath of 
the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. “We don’t know how 
long we’ll be without fishing,” said Theresa. “It 
was 17 years before they could get shrimp.” And, 
she noted bitterly, this disaster is already much 
larger than the Valdez, with no end in sight.

BP has promised payouts to those who lose work 
from the oil, but few trust the company to make 
good on their promise, and even if they did, they 
doubt any settlement could make up for what will 
be lost. “It doesn’t matter how much money they 
give you,” says Theresa. “If we don’t have our 
shrimp, fish, crabs and oysters.”

“It’s not just a way of life, its our food,” she 
added. “It’s the loss of our livelihood and culture.”

The anxiety that Theresa expresses is also 
increasingly common in New Orleans, a city whose 
culture is inextricably linked to the Gulf. “How 
do you deal with this hemorrhaging in the bottom 
of the Gulf that seems endless?” asks Monique 
Harden of AEHR. “That is just scary as hell. I’ve 
been having nightmares about it.”

As the oil continues to flow, people feel both 
helpless and apocalyptic; depressed and angered. 
Residents who have just rebuilt from the 2005 
hurricanes watch the oil wash up on shore with a 
building dread. “I never thought I’d be in a 
situation where I wanted another Katrina,” says 
Harden. “But I’d rather Katrina than this.”

Loss of Land and Culture

Across the street from the church in 
Pointe-au-Chien is a bayou, where frustrated 
fishers wait on their boats hoping against all 
odds that they will be able to use them this 
season. Behind the church is more water, and a 
couple miles further down the road ends in swamp. 
Dead oak trees, rotted by salt water, rise out of 
the canals. Telephone poles stick out of the 
water, along a path where once the road continued 
but now the encroaching waters have taken over.

The miles of swamp and barrier islands that stood 
between these homes and the Gulf used to slow 
hurricanes, and now the entire region has become 
much more vulnerable. Brenda Billiot, another 
local resident, gestured at her family’s 
backyard, about a few dozen yards of grass that 
fades into marshes and water. “This used to be 
land,” she says, “as far as you could see.” 
Billiot’s family is still repairing their home 
from the 2005 flooding, including raising it up a 
full 19 feet above the ground. She wonders if 
that will be enough, if there is anything they 
can do to make themselves safe and hold on to their culture.

A brown rabbit hops across her backyard, and 
Billiot describes the dolphins and porpoises she 
has seen swimming nearby. Walking along the bayou 
here, where generations of people have lived off 
the land and fought to protect their territory 
from corporate theft, you begin to sense the gravity of what will be lost.

Theresa believes that the government and oil 
companies are looking for an excuse to 
permanently displace the tribe. She believes this 
latest disaster, and the upcoming hurricane 
season, may spell the end for their language and 
culture. “I tell people; if we get another 
hurricane, take everything you want, because I 
don’t think they’ll let you back in,” says 
Dardar. “It’s scary because I don’t know where we’re going to go.”

Jordan Flaherty is a journalist, an editor of 
Left Turn Magazine, and a staffer with the 
Louisiana Justice Institute. He was the first 
writer to bring the story of the Jena Six to a 
national audience, and his award-winning 
reporting from the Gulf Coast has been featured 
in a range of outlets including the New York 
Times, Mother Jones, and Argentina's Clarin 
newspaper. He has produced news segments for 
Al-Jazeera, TeleSur, and Democracy Now! and 
appeared as a guest on CNN Morning, Anderson 
Cooper 360, and Keep Hope Alive with the Reverend 
Jesse Jackson. Haymarket Books has just released 
his new book, FLOODLINES: Community and 
Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six. He can 
be reached at <mailto:neworleans at leftturn.org>neworleans at leftturn.org.

More information about Floodlines can be found at 
Floodlines will also be featured on the Community 
and Resistance Tour this fall. For more 
information on the tour, see 

Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110

415 863-9977

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