Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Monday, January 17, 2011

Cultural Genocide in America?

We wondered, why were the Louisiana forests dead?
One thing struck us as we drove away from the New Orleans Airport upon arrival last week:  the forests all looked dead.  It’s winter, so at first we thought maybe the leaves had just fallen off the trees.  We were wrong.  The trees were, in fact, dead.  A few days later, we learned the reason why, from a Native American tribe that calls the bayou their home.

Our visit took us to a village – accessible only by small boat – called Grand Bayou, where the Atakapa-Ishak tribe has lived for uncounted centuries. 
Rosina Phillipe of Grand Bayou
There we met tribal leader Rosina Phillipe, who showed us around.  Rosina explained how the village has supported itself entirely by fishing, trapping and planting for countless generations.  The bayou provided shrimp, oysters, fish, and abundant hunting.  Every home had a garden that put fresh vegetables on the table.

But recently, things have not gone well for Rosina and the Atakapa-Ishak people.  Of course, Katrina destroyed almost all the homes in 2005, and BP has dealt them another horrible blow.  But the problems didn’t begin there. 

How the bayou might have looked to Rosina's grandfather
The bayou country has been changing for generations.  Rosina’s grandfather remembered when the bayou was shaded and protected by tall cypress and live oak trees.  Fresh water flowed through the bayou’s channels, supporting rich and diverse habitats.  But then engineers built levees along the river, and – deprived of river sediment – the land began to subside.  Oil companies dug straight canals to the sea, and that brought salt water into the once-fresh bayous, killing off much of the ecosystem.  Rising sea levels – driven by the warming climate – flooded the land, raising the soil salinity, and killing all the trees.  What remains is a grassy salt marsh, toxic to any garden vegetables.

And speaking of toxic, then came the BP spill.  Now the oysters and shrimp that once supported the Atakapa-Ishak and Rosina are contaminated, and the gardens are salt.  The sheltering trees are gone, exposing Grand Bayou to rising sea levels and more intense storms. 

The bayou today, giving way to the rising seas
Rising seas, subsiding land, increasing salt levels and more violent storms are now joined by petroleum and chemical dispersants in their assault on the tiny village.  “Every time we get a chance, seems like there’s always something shooting us back down,” said Grand Bayou shrimper Maurice Phillips.

Maurice has seen the effects of sea-level rise in practical terms beyond the reach of outsiders like us.  “What used to be a duck pond you could hunt in, now you can trawl in it,” he said.  “It’s a bay.”  And when ponds become bays, the land is going back to the sea.

The Lower 9th was rimmed by a forest; now it's a bay
And as terrifying as the loss of the bayou is for Rosina, Maurice and the Atakapa-Ishak people, it’s not their problem alone.  The bayou’s decline – from freshwater live oak forests, to salt marshes, and increasingly to open sea water – is depriving the city of New Orleans of the all-important buffer that once protected it from tropical storms. 

Today it’s these Native Americans clinging to the edge. And to be honest, we take some shameful comfort when disaster strikes people different from us. But the rising sea doesn't care about race and ethnic origin: folks just like you and me are next.

Remember those dead forests back by the airport?  Rosina tells us they’ll be salt marsh or open sea in a few decades.  She should know: her village has been watching for generations as the bayou has collapsed under the heavy hand of human exploitation.

Rosina and her neighbor Ruby Ankar
Rosina Phillipe called this perfect storm of made-made disasters “cultural genocide,” and I think she may be right.  The Atakapa-Ishak people have never lived anywhere else, and that won’t change now. “We’re not going anywhere,” she said.

I am worried for her.  Really worried.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.


To see Rosina, Maurice and Grand Bayou, just click here and watch a short NatGeo video:

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