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Protecting the Seas to Save the Land

The environmental damage that the oil industry has caused over the years has only exacerbated the problems caused by rising sea levels.

Water Ceremony in New Orleans. (Photo: Indigenous Environmental Network)

“Speaking generally I seen oil on the water, oil of some kind, almost every day of my travels. I took very few trips upon which I did not see oil spots or oil glaze on the waters of Terrebonne Bay.”

These words were spoken by AB Patterson, a witness in Doucet v. Texas Co. (1944), a trial that would eventually see Louisiana’s Supreme Court rule in favour of Ludwig Doucet’s claim that the oyster beds of Terrebonne Parish had been killed by oil pollution. Ironically, more than seventy years after that judgement, the ‘good earth’ that Terrebonne Parish was named for is now being lost at an alarming rate as a mixture of climate change and the persistent environmental impact of the oil and gas industries continue to wreak ever more havoc on the lands and livelihoods of those living there. Such damage will only intensify as more and more drilling leases are auctioned off to the highest oil and gas company bidder.

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On Wednesday, March 23, in New Orleans, 43 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico were being offered for auction by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), to be followed by the auction of a proposed 47 million acres in 2017. To counter this, activists and campaigners — both in the Gulf of Mexico region and across the country — for the first time called for an end to new oil and gas drilling leases and in a historic action surrounded the Superdome auction site to protest against the devastation caused to their communities by oil and gas. For Indigenous communities in southern Louisiana, such as the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw and the United Houma Nation, no issue is more important.

The First “Climate Refugees”

Isle de Jean Charles is a narrow island that originally measured nine by twelve miles, but has now shrunk to only two miles by under a mile across. The families of those living on the island have been there for generations, making their home in Terrebonne Parish rather than be subjected to the suffering — including enslavement and forced relocation — that was endured by other Indigenous communities as a result of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. They lived there with little disturbance for over a hundred years until the oil industry moved in and began drilling around the island.

A graveyard on top of an Indian Mound in Chauvin, LA. (Photo: Bennett Collins)A graveyard on top of an Indian Mound in Chauvin, Louisiana. (Photo: Bennett Collins)

The environmental damage that the oil industry has caused over the years has only exacerbated the problems caused by rising sea levels. It has been so disruptive that, in January of this year, having lost much of their land and much of their population, the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw were awarded $48 million from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to relocate — an action that, if taken, will officially make them the first “climate refugees” in the United States. Although this is not a term with which everyone agrees — and it has no legal standing under existing international refugee and asylum law — it is a term that is being increasingly used to label the experiences of those communities who are forced to leave their land as a result of changing climate conditions. Isle de Jean Charles may be seen as the first such community in the United States, it won’t be the last. A number of Indigenous communities in Alaska are currently facing a similar fate — Kivalina, Newtok and Kaktovik among them. Of course, the decision as to whether the residents of Isle de Jean Charles will actually relocate is still being considered The community itself has voted against relocation twice before — once in 2002 and again in 2009. The decision will never be an easy one. As the senior public relations and media liaison for the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, Babs Roaming Buffalo Bagwell, said when asked about why they would stay:

Here our lands and homes pass from generation to generation, and our spiritual connection, our traditions and culture are deeply connected to this place… What we stand to lose is the fabric that has held us together for generations.

One of the Greatest Environmental and Economic Disasters in the Nation’s History

Although the situation facing the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw is extreme, for the members of the United Houma Nation, Pointe au Chien, and other local Indigenous communities, over 17,000 of whom live along the Louisiana coastline, losing their land and traditional livelihoods to a combination of industrial damage and rising seas is becoming an all too familiar reality. Beginning in the 1920s, levees and dams were built on the Mississippi River to control flooding. These had the unintended consequence of diverting the silt that would normally replenish the delta marshlands, leading to rising sea levels and the loss so far of around 2,000 square miles of land. This process has only intensified both with climate change and with the dredging of thousands of miles of wetlands for the pipelines and navigation canals that have been constructed by oil and gas companies now operating in the region.

The land occupied by these Indigenous communities, and the very seas that help sustain them, has become ever more vulnerable since the barrier Islands that normally offered protection disappeared underwater. Add to that the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, described by scientists as “one of the greatest environmental and economic disasters in the nation’s history.” Four years after the oil started surging into the Gulf of Mexico, the fishing and shrimping industries have declined, and the oyster beds have faced lasting damage. Additionally, saltwater intrusion has meant that where fishermen once caught freshwater fish they now find saltwater fish. As a result, traditional industries can no longer provide the employment they once did. This raises the possibility that the next generation will be divorced from practices that served not only to provide income, but to bind communities together in a shared heritage and culture. As Lanor Curole, project director of the United Houma Nation, said in in a recent interview with Al Jazeera, “How do you maintain a sense of your culture and community when the very land is disappearing underneath you?”

Who Decides on an Identity?

The indigenous communities have tried to resist the oil and gas industries’ negative impact on the region. However, for Isle de Jean Charles, and the United Houma Nation their efforts have been exacerbated by their lack of federal recognition. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) designates a federally recognized tribe as “an American Indian or Alaska Native tribal entity that is recognized as having a government-to-government relationship with the United States … and are entitled to receive certain federal benefits, services, and protections because of their special relationship with the United States.” Both Isle de Jean Charles and United Houma Nation have only managed to obtain state-recognition, leaving them without the benefits that are granted to other tribal nations across the United States. Moreover, in the wake of the BP oil spill, the United Houma Nation appealed to BP for assistance but they were turned down. Their lack of federal recognition meant that they were unable to assert a collective claim. As Stephanie Fitzgerald noted in her recently published book, Native Women and Land: Narratives of Dispossession and Resurgence, a memo to the United Houma Nation from BP stated that:

While BP indeed processes claims from federally recognized Indian Tribes through this process, our review of your claim submission indicates that the United Houma Nation is not a federally recognized Indian tribe entitled to pursue claims pursuant to the Oil Pollution Act (“OPA”) of 1990. Therefore we are closing this claim file with regard to this matter.

This fight for recognition has been going on for over two centuries with the Houma making their first attempt at being acknowledged by the United States government in 1811. For the federal government, however, the Houma Nation ceased to exist towards the end of the eighteenth century after the man appointed as US Indian agent for the region, John Sibley, failed to visit any villages in the swamps of southern Louisiana, and thus failed to recognize the continuous existence of Houma communities.

A Houma Indian Mound in Houma, LA. (Photo: Bennett Collins)A Houma Indian Mound in Houma, Louisiana. (Photo: Bennett Collins)

This situation was further exacerbated in 1814 when a Houma claim to a piece of land lying on Bayou Boeuf and Bayou Black was rejected, leaving the Houma Nation effectively landless. Nevertheless, there was little interest in Houma land by those outside the community. That is, until exploitable resources – oil and natural gas – were discovered in the 1920s.

Once the industry realized the value of Houma land, the members of the United Houma Nation began to lose land rights in a variety of ways, including by fraud and coercion. In some cases, oil companies asked Houma to sign ‘leases’ that were in reality ‘quit claims,’ where if someone occupies a plot of land for 30 years without contestation that person can make a legal claim to the land, ignoring the fact that the Houma had lived there for over 100 years. This action alone left more than 150 Houma families without land. Moreover, the theft of Houma land was advanced by a structure of discrimination that denied the Houma community access to formal public education. The state was slow to construct any public schools in Houma settlements. Until 1964, when the Civil Rights act brought an end to segregation, Houma children were not allowed to attend public schools. Instead, they attended local missionary schools that were established by various religious groups.

At the same time that the Houma were being dispossessed of their lands, they were beginning their struggle for federal recognition. Then-Chief Thomas Dardar stated in a 2013 letter to the Bureau of Indian Affairs:

By way of background, our Nation’s petition for federal recognition has been pending for 28 years. As a non-federally recognized tribe, we often have the fewest resources and political support, yet we are expected to commit countless time, money, and energy — time, money and energy that are often in high demand — toward trying to comply with these regulations. This isn’t an ordinary commitment; this is a commitment of decades. Despite the bleak outcome, we take it on. We choose to fight this uphill battle because we believe that one day, the Federal Government will see us for what we are — a sovereign Indian nation.

In an attempt to stave off the loss of property rights to their land, they were forced to resort to private land purchase and ownership, placing the tribe in an even weaker position in terms of their legal rights as a tribal community. Moreover, they have consistently faced opposition to their land claims from the oil and gas industry. A lack of federal recognition means that they are much less likely to bring a lawsuit against either industry because without such recognition members of the community would have to sue as individuals, an action that is prohibitively expensive.

Lack of federal recognition also means there is little hope the federal government will step in to save their traditional lands because it is not officially recognized as such. As a result of cost constraints, for example, Isle de Jean Charles is being bypassed in a program of levee protection known as the Morganza to the Gulf of Mexico project. The government believes it is too expensive to route the levee system in such a way that would protect Isle de Jean Charles, a decision that effectively gives Isle de Jean Charles up to the seas.

Frontline Environmental Defenders

Indigenous communities along the Louisiana coastline have been forced to become the frontline environmental defenders in the climate crisis facing the United States. They haven’t asked for this role, but instead have had to assume it in the face of the devastating consequences of a combination of climate change and corporate greed. However what’s happening in Louisiana isn’t the end. Rather, it is just the beginning for the United States as the impact of climate change becomes ever more obvious.

More communities will be impacted in similar ways, more financial provisions will have to be made to try and protect the land before it is too late, more traditional industries will be lost, and more cultures and communities will be marginalized. The action taken at the Superdome in New Orleans to halt the federal land auction was in that sense necessary for the lives, lands, and livelihoods that depend on the Gulf’s fragile and threatened ecosystems — so that they may be protected from further damage. As this event made clear, to save the land there needs to be an end to leasing in the Gulf of Mexico.

The authors would like to thank Bj McManama, Walt Andrews, Kylie Courtney, Ingrid Lustig, and Lauren Santucci for their assistance in writing this article.

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