Signs of oil company encroachment: a bayou in the midst of tribal lands, 2008.
(Photo: Lizzy Ratner)
On this site we talk a lot about dispossession – geographic, political, social, psychic. Mostly, and with good reason, we talk about Palestinian dispossession. But in this post I want to talk about dispossession in this country, dispossession ongoing and endless, dispossession that all too many Americans like to pretend was happily put to rest centuries ago. I’m talking of course about the dislocation and dispersal, murder and devastation of this country’s own original inhabitants: about the Shinnecock and Shoshone, Navajo and Hopi, Blackfeet and Sioux, and about a little known band called the United Houma Nation that, like the rest, is still fighting for its survival.
The story of the United Houma Nation, Louisiana’s largest tribal community, is a particularly imminent tale of dispossession unending. Battered by successive invading forces – European, American, multinational oil conglomerate – the Houma have been displaced not once, not twice, but multiple times, and are currently facing what could be their final displacement. The culprit this time? British Petroleum, the quaint little oil company with the sweet flower logo, and its fatally exploded Deepwater Horizon oil rig. One of the few things that could help weaken the blow? Federal recognition, which the United States government has thus far refused to grant but which the Houma continue to pursue. The question now is, can they turn a grassroots petition that expires tomorrow into an unlikely claim for the government to recognize them?
But let me explain. The United Houma Nation is a band of more than 17,000 men, women, and children who live, for the most part, along the bayous and byways of the state’s southern fringe. Before the Europeans crash-landed on their shores, they lived further north, along the Red River, in an area that has since been converted into the cinderblock horror of Angola Prison. They got on decently with the French but were less keen on the British, and as the various European powers – French, British, Spanish – slugged it out for control of the region, they migrated further and further south to the quiet swamps of the central southern part of the modern-day Louisiana. Call it the first displacement.
For the next century or two, the Houma lived lives of relatively undisturbed peace. They fished, trapped, farmed, and wove together a culture that was deeply connected to the rhythms of the bayou. True, the toxic sludge of southern racism seeped into their lives from time to time; the Houma, like most tribal communities, were in no way equal under the law (in fact, Houma children were not permitted to attend American public schools until the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964). But for the most part, they lived in merciful isolation from the “outsiders,” the “Americans.”
And then, in the 1930s, oil was discovered, millions upon millions of gallons of black gold just waiting under the surface of the lands where the Houmas made their home. Oil speculators rushed in and by hook, crook, sweet talk, and force stole the tribe members’ land. This was the second displacement.
“There was a variety of methods,” explained tribal historian Michael Dardar during a conversation we had several years ago. “They would come into the Indian community, and in dealing with Houma people, who, you know spoke the Houma French language and didn’t speak for the most part English, and most of them didn’t read and write, and so you would get lawyers and land speculators that would come in and say, look, we want to lease your land, just make your X right here, and we’ll pay you $20 a year, etc. And come to find out they were signing away their rights to their property.”
Another favorite ruse? Speculators or government officials, some of whom were one and the same, would show up at a Houma home and tell the owners that their home was located in, say, Lafourche Parish rather than Terrebonne parish, meaning that they’d been paying taxes to the wrong parish. And then they’d take their home. Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of this land grab, according to Dardar, was a company called Louisiana Land and Exploration, now in the hands of Conoco-Phillips.
Though no one knew it at the time, this second Houma displacement also contained the seeds of the third displacement, because the oil companies that stole the Houma’s land also tore up the wetlands on which they lived – and in the process helped create one of the greatest environmental disasters in American history. Thanks in great part to the oil company’s dredging and canal-digging, the bayou – a vast and irreplaceable ecological Eden – is now one of the fastest-disappearing coastal regions on earth. In any given year, as many as 25 to 35 square miles of bayou slip into the Gulf of Mexico, taking homes, gardens, trapping lands, fishing areas, and the Houma way of life along with it. In hurricane years, like 2005 when Katrina and Rita hit back-to-back or 2008 when Gustav and Ike did a tag-team number, the erosion is unimaginably worse. All four storms devastated the Houma, whose homes were often excluded from the levee system, raising the prospect that the Houma would cease to exist sooner rather than later.
“It frightens me like you would not believe because I don’t want it said that under my watch the Houma Nation ceased to exist as it did throughout our history,” Brenda Dardar Robichaux, former principal chief of the United Houma Nation, told me in an interview in 2008. “I don’t want that to happen under my watch. And that could be the case.”
This was the reality the Houma were contending with when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in April 2010, spewing nearly 5 million barrels of thick black crude into the Gulf of Mexico. With 90 percent of the Houma living in the six parishes most affected by the spill, the tribe was knocked swiftly off balance. Many of the Houma fisherman lost jobs, income, their subsistence living while traditional practices like Houma medicine which rely on plants, herbs, and other bayou critters were also threatened . Or as former chief Robichaux wrote in a statement released shortly after the spill, “All aspects of Houma culture and livelihood are in jeopardy from this oil disaster.”
To help minimize some of the danger, the Houma appealed to BP’s Deepwater Horizon Disaster Compensation Fund for assistance. They didn’t ask much – just over $400,000 to implement a four-part “plan of action” to “mitigate the cultural impacts and losses sustained as a result of the [disaster]” – and yet they were turned down, told their claim file would be closed for no other reason than that they are not a federally recognized tribe. Never mind that the Houma have been recognized by the state of Louisiana since 1977; and never mind that they have been agitating for federal recognition for decades and that this federal recognition drive has been stalled at least in part by the lobbying of the oil industry – their claim was turned down in less than 100 bureaucratic words:
While BP indeed processes claims from federally recognized Indian Tribes though this process, our review of your claim submission indicates that the United Houma Nation is not a federally recognized Indian Tribe entitled to assert claims pursuant to the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (“OPA”). Therefore, we are closing your claim file with regard to this matter.
In the hopes of righting this and so many other wrongs, the Houma have created a petition for federal recognition that is now posted on the White House website. Federal recognition would remove at least the first line of excuse that corporations like BP have used to trample Houma rights and deny them aid. But it would also open the way for a host of new rights and benefits, from education and health services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to resource protection to the right to form their own government. All they need is 25,000 signatures. The catch is they need them by the stroke of midnight tonight.
You might be too late to stop the crimes of Columbus, the pilgrims, and the rest of the colonial crew, but there’s still time to stop the dispossession of the Houma.