Spill Imperils Native American Fishing Village

"This is the first time we face an uncertain future."

06-28-2010 // Aislinn Maestas
Woman looking out at marsh

Tucked away inside the maze of wetlands along Louisiana's coast is the town of Grand Bayou. Accessible only by boat, the fishing village is home to the Atakapa-Ishak, a Native American community that depends wholly on the waters surrounding it.

"The Atakapa-Ishak have lived here for centuries, for generations beyond numbers," said Rosina Philippe (pictured left), a member of the tribe. "We were one of the first people here. And we're still here."

As a subsistence community, the people of Grand Bayou have always been able to get what they need from Louisiana's lands and waters. Their traditions of fishing, shrimping, oystering, crabbing and trapping have survived countless storms and decades of wetland loss. Only now, as the gusher in the Gulf continues to spew oil into the bays and marshes surrounding their community, do they worry that their entire way of life could be destroyed.

"The oil spill not only imperils our ability to survive, but also our food supply," said Philippe. When asked how she thinks the spill will impact the coast, she explains, "all the marsh is going to die. All that depends on it will die. All the sea crabs and shrimp that come to it for sanctuary will die."

Hurricane-battered house near Grand Bayou

On the boat ride to Grand Bayou, you can still see the lingering devastation from Katrina. The hurricane-battered houses that remain standing (see photo to the right) serve as a reminder of the losses suffered by this tight knit community. Before the hurricane, 23 families lived in Grand Bayou. After years of rebuilding, nine families have returned, with plans to build houses for three more. Unlike a hurricane, however, the Atakapa-Ishak have no plan for how to come back from the oil spill.

"This is worse than a natural storm," said Philippe. "With a natural storm we have knowledge of how to deal with it. This is the first time we face an uncertain future."

Like many Native American tribes, the traditions of the Atakapa-Ishak have been kept alive by passing knowledge from one generation to the next. If the oil spill forces members of the community to leave their homes and go in search of other work, Philippe worries they won't be able to pass on the culture they inherited from their ancestors. "We hope to maintain our lives. Not only our lives, but our culture. Because our culture and heritage are very important.'"

In the face of an uncertain future, Philippe hopes the oil spill will force Americans to change the way they live." We need to start learning how to live with less oil in our lives," she said. "The future energy needs of our country lie in a renewable energy source."

In addition to being the eyes on the ground reporting oil spill impacts on wildlife, NWF is working to report back how the disaster threatens people and their way of life.
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