Oil spill destroys Bayou Indians way of life

News From Indian Country reports on the United Houma Nation and the more than 20,000 American Indians in coastal Louisiana who trace their roots to Houma, Chitimacha, Choctaw, and Biloxi tribes.

Even before the oil spill in 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 from the multibillion-dollar fund started after the April 20 spill.

Kenneth Feinberg, the East Coast lawyer in charge of BP’s $20 billion compensation fund, met with them for the first time in February in south Louisiana at a gymnasium. 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.

“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 banishment to the west after Congress passed the 1830 Indian Removal Act.

Until the 1950s, most Indians lived in isolation, rarely interacting with whites. Indian children were barred from schools until the 1960s and were called “sabines,” a derogatory term.

Tribal leaders say they’re worried many tribal citizens won’t be compensated fairly, so they’ve hired a New York City law firm to help the tribes navigate the difficult claims process.

Bayou Indians

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