A brief story of dispossession, American-style – and what you can do about it

US Politics
on 28 Comments
Bayou Farewell 020
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.

About Lizzy Ratner

Lizzy Ratner is a journalist in New York City. She is a co-editor with Adam Horowitz and Philip Weiss of The Goldstone Report: The Legacy of the Landmark Investigation of the Gaza Conflict.

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28 Responses

  1. Dan Crowther
    November 30, 2011, 9:57 am

    Lizzy Fckin’ Ratner!! Wonderful piece, well done..

    See, this is what I was talking about the other week on the “problem with “occupy” in the Occupy movement” thread – This essay is about what is going on NOW, and this is totally F’d up……lets do something about it!

    Im signing that sht post haste! – I still can’t get over the fact that a CORPORATION can refuse paying restitution on the basis of the plaintiffs not being “a recognized people” im really at a loss….

    • Dan Crowther
      November 30, 2011, 1:00 pm

      Not to be “comrade crowther” over here, but a system that provides full “person” status to arbitrary legal constructs, but denies it to actual human F’ing beings, is a system just impossible to defend on moral grounds. I mean, what more can be said? A piece of paper in a file cabinet in Delaware or somewhere enjoys legal protections and entitlements humans could only dream of… but you know, who cares right? The celtics are gonna start soon, and the sox just hired bobby valentine……How do the defenders of “liberty” on the right take themselves seriously? How does a system like ours jive with any rational idea of “individual liberty”? I really hope the libertarians on the right can think this over, and answer some of these basic questions about state capitalism…..

      • Woody Tanaka
        November 30, 2011, 1:39 pm

        Dan, I think you are exactly on point with this criticism. But don’t fall for the nonsense that the people on the right say about their being concerned with “liberty.” It’s a massive con. Theirs is a philosophy that says that a thief is in the right if he can bribe the government to say his theft is okay, and that the biggest sin is for victims to band together to fight for their rights. They are, almost literally, insane.

      • seafoid
        November 30, 2011, 5:01 pm

        but you know, who cares right? The celtics are gonna start soon, and the sox just hired bobby valentine…

        Don’t forget the girls, Dan..


      • thetumta
        November 30, 2011, 9:23 pm

        “I mean, what more can be said? ” Most people seem to understand “Well, no” if it’s said with no uncertainty”?

      • RoHa
        December 1, 2011, 12:34 am

        “Not to be “comrade crowther” over here”

        Why not? The free-market capitalists have had their way, and the result is a disaster. Time for a little red-blooded socialism, preferably backed up by guillotines.

      • Dan Crowther
        December 1, 2011, 8:45 am


        I wouldn’t call them “free market” capitalists ( cuz they break all the market rules, all the time) but yea, F ’em. “The guiilotines” have been a regular part of my posts for a while now…….your right RoHa, play time is OVER!! :)….. ” From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” !!!

  2. iamuglow
    November 30, 2011, 10:11 am

    Great article. I suggest repeating the petition link at the bottom…it took some searching to see it in the text. Great stuff.

  3. FreddyV
    November 30, 2011, 10:25 am

    May I make a small correction here:

    British Petroleum merged with Amoco (formerly Standard Oil of Indiana) in December 1998, becoming BP Amoco plc.

    British Petroleum hasn’t existed for 13 years. Sorry, but I get a little tetchy about the ‘British’ association after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Take a look at the shareholder stats:


    British investors own less than half, with Americans a close second.

    Second of all, check out The Jones Act:


    An American crew was running the Deepwater Horizon. One could argue that they weren’t the best crew for the job, but what do I know?

    Point being is that suggesting BP PLC is ‘British Petroleum’ is incorrect and rather obscurantist in my opinion as a proud Englishman.

    • thetumta
      November 30, 2011, 9:50 pm

      “Proud Englishman”. Considering what’s been going on in the British Foreign Office lately the term is a bit dated, don’t you think? Neo-con occupation on both sides of the Atlantic it would appear? Occupation is nothing to be “Proud” of. It’s degrading.

  4. American
    November 30, 2011, 11:06 am

    So it’s not good enough to be “people” you have to be a f’ing federally recognized Tribe? F’ing unbelievable.

    Burn Washington to the Ground and Start Over.

  5. seafoid
    November 30, 2011, 11:06 am

    I read in Native Peoples magazine that many communities in the reservations in Arizona and elsewhere in the South West have no running water because of the setup of the hydro system. And the Colorado river is FU and almost BR. Apparently

    • Woody Tanaka
      November 30, 2011, 12:11 pm

      “I read in Native Peoples magazine that many communities in the reservations in Arizona and elsewhere in the South West have no running water because of the setup of the hydro system. And the Colorado river is FU and almost BR. Apparently”

      And yet we give away 3 billion to a bunch of ingrate fascists every year and let our own people suffer like this. America sucks.

      • thetumta
        November 30, 2011, 9:55 pm

        “America sucks.” No, the occupation of corrupt idiots sucks. I would refer you to Uncle Ho’s constitution. It might be older than you are? Does it seem familiar?

      • Woody Tanaka
        December 1, 2011, 9:24 am

        ” No, the occupation of corrupt idiots sucks. ”

        Has America ever been free of the occupation of corrupt idiots? Until that time, it’s splitting hairs to distinguish the two.

      • Justice Please
        December 1, 2011, 12:44 pm


        Blasphemy! Thomas Jefferson certainly was no corrupt idiot.

      • Woody Tanaka
        December 1, 2011, 1:20 pm

        @Justice Please:

        “Blasphemy! Thomas Jefferson certainly was no corrupt idiot.”

        I don’t know if you are being facetious or not. If you are being serious, I would say “You can’t be serious!” Jefferson not only did nothing to stop the two most evil and corrupting idiocies in American history (slavery and the ethnic cleansing and theft of the Native Americans), he was a practitioner and supporter of both. (Although he cried and cried about the former without, it must be noted, doing anything about it. So add “hypocrit” to the charges.)

  6. Clif Brown
    November 30, 2011, 12:08 pm

    Property rights: what starts when the first white man declares land is his.

    • thetumta
      November 30, 2011, 9:27 pm

      I think it actually starts with the first claimant willing to use force? Regardless of race,color or creed. More about caliber, at least initially.

  7. Justice Please
    November 30, 2011, 12:21 pm

    The same solution applies as in I/P: Self-determination if native inhabitants want, recognized as a people (or several of them, if they want to be divided). If they don’t want, then full citizen status in the US.

    In any case, compensation and right of return to wherever they lived before the expulsion started.

  8. Potsherd2
    November 30, 2011, 12:24 pm

    Out of all the corrupt government entities in the US, Louisiana is right up there at the top.

    I agree totally with Dan Crowther. Americans can’t whitewash our own history if we criticize Israel for whitewashing its history. The rich and powerful will always prey on the less powerful, whenever they can get away with it. Only information and action can stop them.

  9. Pamela Olson
    November 30, 2011, 3:12 pm

    Where is the link to sign the petition? I couldn’t find it in the text. In general, I think it’s a big problem with the new design that links are nearly impossible to see. Can you underline the links like you did in the last design? Would be much appreciated!

  10. split
    November 30, 2011, 3:47 pm
    • annie
      December 1, 2011, 1:36 am

      You have mentioned Blackfeet Indian tribe poverty – On the eastern side of Glacier National Park, the most beautiful park on this planet on Blackfoot territory with the view on the Park from East, from St. Mary located between two lakes 75 km north to Canadian border on the way to Waterton Park in Canada (another jewel) and 100 km south to East Glacier Park Village there’s not one gas station or motel where you could rest after a whole day trip thru the Glacier Park.

      i’ve been there. there is a town right outside the park. i went to a powwow there. i know there is a gas station and a hotel there. what exactly is your problem and how does this even relate to lizzy’s excellent coverage?

      • split
        December 1, 2011, 12:00 pm

        Theres one in St. Mary, a gas station a general store and a motel runned by white family on leased land by the way on a route with thousands cars
        passing by daily during the season. The hotel is at the East Glacier Park Village around 100 km South from St. Mary.

        My point is that some tribes do prosper and some don’t but it’s not exactly the whities fault like Lizzy suggests.

  11. MHughes976
    December 1, 2011, 10:50 am

    Rebecca Solnit, in ‘Storming the Gates of Paradise’ remarks that Indians, unlike all other ethnic groups, are seen as Hollywood characters, therefore as works of art, tested and appraised for government recognition in the same way as Old Masters. Pretending to be a genuine Indian is, she remarks, a crime akin to faking a Rembrandt.

  12. dbroncos
    December 1, 2011, 12:58 pm

    Reminiscent of the quick cash scam in North Dakota where state child custody agencies were taking Native American children away from their parents on grounds of child abuse where no abuse was taking place. Hundreds of children have been removed from their homes and their parents and put into foster care as a means for the state to collect millions in federal subsidy cash on a per child basis.

    • split
      December 1, 2011, 2:30 pm

      “taking Native American children away from their parents” – That was done to white families too all over US in 20’s and 30’s ,…

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