“‘Come to Louisiana. Everything is fine’ say the BP ads. Well, they’re not fine. There are no oysters. There are no shrimp,” said Chief Albert Naquin of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw during a recent three hour conversation in Chaska, Minnesota.
Chief Naquin and Kristina Peterson were on route to Duluth for a consultation of American indigenous people focusing on the Mississippi River from its headwaters in Minnesota to its mouth in Louisiana, the site of the vanishing traditional home of the Isle de Jean Charles tribe.
Kristina is a professional community disaster recovery specialist who splits her time between the University of New Orleans Center for Hazards Assessment, Response, and Technology (CHART) and the Blue Bayou Presbyterian Church in Gray, LA, where she is the Pastor. Kristina had come to Chaska, MN two years ago as speaker for First Tuesday Dialogues: examining critical public issues locally and globally, a community forum of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church.
For three hours we discussed what was happening three years after the ecological tragedy America has almost forgotten.
ABOUT ISLE DE JEAN CHARLES
The people of Isle de Jean Charles have been there since 1830. They re-settled there after fleeing the U.S. government’s forced re-settlement program, leaving their native lands in search of a place where they could continue their culture and live together in hiding.
The place that became home was a piece of solid land hidden deep in the freshwater marshlands of the Louisiana Delta. When they settled there, the island measured 10 miles long by five miles wide.
From there they fished the coastal waters abundant in oysters, crabs, shrimp, and fish. They grew their own vegetables and fruit trees, and used its green pasture for horses and cows. The members of the tribe in hiding shared their seafood, dairy products, chickens, and produce with each other in a barter economy.
“My mother told me every time I went out to play, ‘If you see a stranger, hide.”’
THE 1940s: OIL CANALS
As Chief Albert tells the story, the accelerated erosion of the Gulf coastlands dates to the early 1940s. Big oil received a license from federal, state, and local authorities to dig canals through the Delta marshlands in search of oil. The new canals cut every which way, often crisscrossing, in search of liquid gold. And as they did, the marsh began to disappear. The salt water of the Gulf of Mexico seeped further and further into the Delta.
Chief Naquin and his people do not forget. They have long attention spans. They remember that oil canals were created by licensed permission under specified conditions. They remember that the licenses had time limits The time limits have long since passed. They remember what others have ignored or conveniently forgotten: the terms of the licenses required the oil companies to remediate the land at the conclusion of the license period.
The reclamation never took place. The Chief remembers. Click HERE for BP’s online promotion of its work to restore the Gulf of Mexico since Deep Water Horizon. There’s nothing about the canals or the licenses that required reclamation of the Delta.
ISLE DE JEAN CHARLES TODAY
The island that once measured 10 miles by five miles has shrunk to two miles long and one-quarter mile wide. The island will not survive.
Chief Naquin has been working to negotiate a suitable substitute for their ancestral home. The Army Corp of Engineers offered an alternative site that would have kept the tribe together, preserved their way of life, and helped bring income to the tribe by means of a visitor center for tourists.
A condition of occupying the new land, however, was that 100% of the tribe’s members vote Yes on the proposal. The vote was 85%. The 15% minority are mostly older people who have lived their entire lives on Isle de Jean Charles and insist they will go down with the island.
“When’s the last time any city, any nation, any group, any organization was asked for a vote of 100%?” asks Chief Naquin. “It’s impossible. We had 85% but it wasn’t enough.”
There is no hiding place. There is no lasting hiding place.
CHASING DOWN THE STRANGER: SURVIVAL BEYOND HIDING
Perhaps survival beyond hiddenness is the lesson of Isle de Jean Charles. Not just the Chief’s people who once hid from hostile powers in the Louisiana Delta, but all of us who hide from the harsh reality of the crony capitalism that grants a permit to oil companies to cut their canals through our fragile ecosystems and then allows those same companies to disappear into hiding from the initial terms of the licenses.
They call the oil rigs “rigs” for a reason. The whole thing is rigged.
If we see a stranger on what used to be Isle de Jean Charles; if we see canals still crisscrossing through the marsh; if we’ve seen the fires of Deep Water Horizon light up the Gulf of Mexico and slick the waters and estuaries with black gold; if we’ve seen the evidence of breaking-and-entering in the house of the Gulf Coast waters, if we see empty oyster shells where once there were oysters; if we’ve heard about the oil companies hiding without anyone playing seek, we can ignore the game or we can seek and find for the sake of survival.
There is a stranger on our island. The fire of Deep Water Horizon lit up the horizon to expose his hideout. The blazing fire in the Gulf of Mexico three years lit up the world with a previously hidden truth that called us to embrace the more transparent future we share with the shorebirds, shrimp, crabs, and oysters.
The oysters can’t hide. Will we, who can make moral choices, hide, or will we seek and call to account the strangers on our island?
This conversation about BP, the oil companies, coastal erosion, and the distribution of the BP Settlement Fund took place at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska one week before the 3rd Anniversary of the Deep Water Horizon explosion.
Albert Naquin is Chief of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, a subsistence fishing community whose traditional land and way of life are vanishing quickly.
Kristina Peterson is Pastor of the Bayou Blue Presbyterian Church in Gray, LA and a disaster recovery professional and researcher with the University of New Orleans Center for Hazard Assessment, Response, and Technology. Kristina was a speaker at First Tuesday Dialogues in Chaska, MN one year after the explosion of Deep Water Horizon. She returned with Chief Albert for this conversation on their way to a conference in Duluth, MN of indigenous people who live along the Mississippi River from its headwaters in Minnesota to its mouth in the Louisiana Delta of the Gulf Coast.
The off-camera voice later in the conversation is the editor of Views from the Edge and Pastor of Shepherd of the Hill.
“Something is very wrong with a system that puts corporations above people.” – Kristina Peterson
The Chief is one his way to Duluth with Kris Peterson, a mutual friend and environmental activist pastor and researcher with the University of New Orleans Center for Hazard Assessment, Response, and Technology. Kris and her husband, Dick Krajeski, were guest speakers at First Tuesday Dialogues, a community program of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church, following the explosion of Deep Water Horizon.
Return here for a post later tomorrow on the interview with Chief Naquin re: the current state of affairs on Isle de Jean Charles three years after Deep Water Horizon.
Gordon C. Stewart Feb. 14, 2012
“Who was Jesus?” I asked the Jehovah’s Witnesses who had rung the doorbell. Through the upstairs window where I do my writing, I had seen the van pull over across the street and empty out. I thought perhaps there was a family gathering next door until two of them walked up the drive way.
An email response to “Whitney Houston, the Leper, and You” (posted below) reminded me of the conversation that ensued. Here’s the email from Ann in Texas:
“So nice to hear from you and feel your energy out there flushing out injustice and ranging around in the ‘big ideas,’ and formative experiences. Bravo! Passion writes action… and here’s mine… an odd reaction, I’m sure, but to the leper story, and the overturning of the tables and all the examples we use to cast aspersions on ancient Judaism that help perpetuate in my mind a subtle continuing contemporary anti-Judaism and the continuing need for an Israel that has morphed into “pants” to small to hold it. Now there’s a view from the edge!”
I share Ann’s concern. I hold my breath every time I preach or write on texts like this, painfully aware of the anti-Semitism that continues in subtle and not-so-subtle forms.
When the Jehovah’s Witness rang the doorbell, I was deep into writing a sermon on planetary stewardship and sustainability in the wake of the B.P. oil “spill” – Deep Water Horizon blow out in the Gulf of Mexico.
The dogs were barking up a storm at the two men standing on their porch. I went down, answered the door, and stepped outside to meet them.
They were kind and gentle people. They wanted me to know that the world was coming to an end. “Yes, I know,” I said, “what do you fellas think about the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico?” They preferred to talk about Jehovah, the Book of Revelation, the end of the world… and Jesus.
“Okay, let’s talk about that. “Who was Jesus?”
“He was the Son of God.”
“And who was the Son of God?”
“And who was Jesus Christ? Christ is not Jesus’ last name. It’s a title. So who was Jesus?”
“The Son of God, Jesus Christ.”
“Let me ask it differently. Who was Jesus of Nazareth?’ Who were his people and what was Jesus’ religion?
“What do you mean?”
“Well, Jesus was a real man, in real time. He lived in a particular time and place. Jesus didn’t suddenly plop down out of the sky. So who was Jesus of Nazareth?
“He was the Messiah, the Christ. He came to bring the new Covenant.”
“And what about the first covenant? What was Jesus’ religion?
“He was a Christian,” they said.
“Jesus was a Christian?! You can’t follow yourself. A Christian is someone who follows the Christ. Jesus was not a Christian. Jesus was a Jew. And he’ll always be a Jew. You don’t get to make him up like that. We can’t create Jesus in our own image. You don’t get to have a non-Jewish Jesus!”
We talked then about Jesus and the Book of Revelation. We discussed the fact that the Book of Revelation is a literary genre of the first century called “apocalyptic” that was peculiar to that time; that it was written by a disciple of Jesus held prisoner by the Roman Empire on the Isle of Patmos, who was denouncing the imperial claims of the Roman Empire, and proclaiming its end in bizaare images of Jewish Scripture (in Danile and Ezekiel). The Book of Revelation wasn’t, as so many think today, a book of predictions about the future or the end of the world.
“You’ve thought about this a lot,” said one of the men. “You really seem to have spent a lot of time studying this.”
I thanked him for the compliment and responded that although I’ve been thinking about these matters all my life, I still know very little.
At the end of the 45-minute conversation, I told them how much I respected their commitment to their beliefs and their sacrifices of time and money. I took their literature and invited them to think about what Jesus would have us do about the crabs, the oysters, and the oil-soaked birds drowning in oil in the Gulf of Mexico.
If we were all as committed to the healing of the planet and to the care of the poor as my visitors were that day to spreading their message with urgency, the world would be a better place.
Those of us who carry the name “Christian” don’t get to have a Jesus who is a Christian. The only Jesus we get to have was and always will be the Jewish Jesus of Nazareth, whose people have been crucified many times by the anti-Semitic pogroms of those who claim to follow him.
The Jesus who heals the leper also tells the leper to “go and show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing….” Jesus is telling the man to practice his Jewish tradition, but Christian interpreters typically fail to notice the startling clarity of Jesus’ Jewishness. Likewise, any reading that begins with the assumption that Jesus was a Christian mistakes Jesus’ turning over of the money-changers’ tables in the temple as his rejection of Jewish faith and practices rather than the deepest affirmation of the Jewish covenant by which he lived. In faithfulness to the covenant, he protested the abuse of the covenant by the religious leaders of his time who had forsaken their high calling by collaborating with and cozying up to the Roman economic and military powers that occupied Jerusalem – just like today.
Thank you, Ann, for the email that reminded me.