“‘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?
A sermon three years after Deep Water Horizon on love, freedom, and caring for each other, the oysters and the crabs in the Gulf of Mexico.
A COMMENTARY FOR EARTH DAY – Rev. Gordon C. Stewart | Friday, June 4, 2010 – published by MinnPost.comThe “spill” in the Gulf of Mexico raises the most basic questions about how we humans think of ourselves.
We’re at a turning point. The crisis we can’t seem to kill in the Gulf of Mexico puts before us the results of a more foundational crisis than the black goo that is choking the life out of the Gulf. The uncontrolled “blow-out” raises basic questions about how we think of ourselves and the order of nature.
Fifteen years ago I was with a group of pastors who spent four days with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, whose mission is to protect and clean up the Chesapeake Bay. Our time there began with a day on the bay on a Skipjack, one of the last remaining motorless sailing vessels that used to harvest oysters by the tens and hundreds of bushels from oyster beds. The director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and an old waterman named Earl, who had worked the bay for 54 years, took us to school.
Back then the oyster population had shrunk to a fraction of 1 percent of what it used to be. Fifteen years before our visit the oyster population would filter all the water in the bay in three days’ time. A single oyster pumps five gallons of water through its filtration system every day.
The oysters were close to extinction; the bay’s natural filtering system was in danger. “It’s humans who’ve done this,” said the old waterman. “They’ll come back; I have to believe they’ll come back.”
Others were less hopeful. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources discussed the damage to the wetlands and the estuaries, the seedbeds of life. It had sounded the alarm for public action to protect the birthplaces of all the seafood we eat, the places on which the whole chain of life depends.
This week we heard from the Gulf of Mexico that the attempted “top kill” has failed and that the “spill” is spreading in every direction — not only on the surface, but below the surface — a glob the size of the state of Texas. I think of Earl and his Skipjack as I see the poisoned oysters in the hands of Louisiana oystermen whose livelihood depends on clean Gulf waters. “It’s humans who have done this.”
But it’s not every human who has done this violence to the Gulf. It was not the indigenous people of North America, nor was it the Moken people (“the sea gypsies”) who, because they see themselves as part of nature, anticipated the 2004 Asian tsunami while the rest of the world was caught by surprise. It was a specific form of humanity known as Western culture that sees humankind as the conqueror of nature.
Our language is not the language of cooperation with nature. “And God said, ‘… fill the earth and subdue; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth’ ” — (Genesis 1:28), a conquering view based in the idea of species superiority expressed in the phrase “top kill” for the attempt to plug the hole that is killing the oysters and fish of the sea.
Insofar as interpreters of the Book of Genesis have shaped this Western hubris, my Judeo-Christian tradition bears responsibility for this crisis. The idea of human exceptionalism springs from the Bible itself.
But no sooner do I sink into confession and despair than I remember a prayer that Earl called to my attention on the Skipjack 15 years ago, the prayer of St. Basil from the third century that offers a more hopeful understanding of ourselves, a view like Moken people’s that knows that the whole world’s in an oyster:
“The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. O God, enlarge within us the sense of kinship with all living things, our brothers and sisters the animals to whom You have given the Earth as their home in common with us. We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of man with ruthless cruelty, so that the voice of the Earth, which should have gone up to You in song, has been a groan of travail. May we realize that they live not for us alone, but for themselves and for You, and that they have the sweetness of life.”
Today’s Washington Post breaking news announcing that the U.S. will be one of five nations leading the way on limiting methane and soot (see earlier post with link below) prompts me to re-publish Climate Change commentary on “All Things Considered” (MPR.org) – personal reflection on a day with Earl, the old oyster fisherman, on the “Skipjack” on the Chesepeake Bay.