Oil Spill Threatens Native American "Water" Village

The Gulf of Mexico oil spill threatens the existence of Native Americans who literally live on, and off of, Louisiana bayou water. Video.

The town of Grand Bayou, Louisiana, has no streets and no cars, just water and boats. And now the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico threatens the very existence of the Atakapa-Ishak Indians who live there. "We're facing the potential for cultural genocide," says one tribe member.

© 2010 National Geographic; videographer and field producer: Fritz Faerber



In the town of Grand Bayou, Lousiana, the main thoroughfare is the water.

There are no streets, no cars. Everyone gets around by boat.

Just recovered from Hurricane Katrina, the oil from the BP Deepwater Horizon well now threatens this community.

SOUNDBITE: Rosina Philippe, Atakapa-Ishak Tribe

“Well this is the Grand Bayou Village and we are a subsistence community. We have been here for centuries. And we live here. We make our living from the harvest of the waterways and this is also where we get our food that we eat.”

Rosina Philippe is Atakapa-Ishak, a Native American tribe. Like others, it is not recognized by the federal government.

For decades, the Atakapa and other native groups here have adapted to the loss of wetlands, the encroachment of the oil and gas industry, and hurricanes.

But the latest spill could be the final straw. Fishing and shrimping is at a standstill, and the oil keeps creeping into the marshes.

SOUNDBITE: Maurice Phillips, Atakapa-Ishak Tribe

“I can’t even think about leaving it. And the way the economy is, where are you going to go and live?”

The largest oil spill in U.S. history is killing wildlife, contaminating beaches and marshes, closing fishing waters and… threatening an entire way of life.

Tens of millions of gallons of crude have spewed into the Gulf of Mexico since the BP oil rig exploded April 20 and sank two days later.

Coastal Louisiana is closest to ground zero. Its fragile wetlands and beaches are oiled and wildlife faces possible mass die-offs.

But on top of the ecological disaster, unique cultures of the people living in Louisiana’s bayous could also vanish.

SOUNDBITE: Rosina Philippe, Atakapa-Ishak Tribe

“The oil spill has the potential to imperil all of us. We’re facing the potential for cultural genocide. “

Shrimp is a way of life here. Shrimp boats line the canals. Locals lower nets and scoop up the shrimp carried by the current.

SOUNDBITE: Maurice Phillips, Atakapa-Ishak Tribe

“I’ve been a shrimper all my life, and trapping. That’s all I ever did. We live off the land. We get all our wildlife, seafood, and everything off the land.”

Maurice Phillips has seen the ground vanish beneath his feet. Canals dug for oil and gas exploration decades ago let in saltwater that kills the marsh grasses – hurricanes wash away the soil left behind. And levees keep the nearby Mississippi River from replenishing the soil. A University of New Orleans map graphic shows how wide open water now fills areas once rich with freshwater marshes and wildlife.

Scientists say the Mississippi delta is vanishing at an alarming pace.

Matt Bethel leads a program to combine satellite and other data with the traditional ecological knowledge of Grand Bayou’s residents to try and find a way to restore some land.

SOUNDBITE: Matt Bethel, Environmental Scientist, Univ. of New Orleans

“What they are facing especially in the context of today with the oil spill and everything, they are facing their way of life being changed forever and not being able to keep doing what they love to do, which is shrimping, fishing, trapping.”

The Atakapa recently hosted visitors from Alaska. And while they are distinctive culturally, individuals at this gathering found much in common.

It might seem like they are from worlds apart, but Eskimos and the natives from Louisiana found much in common.

SOUNDBITE: Stanley Tom, Yup’ik Eskimo

“The people here are subsistence here just like in Alaska. The climate is a little warmer, but the landscape is just like my hometown. It’s just like tundra. And when we went boat riding it reminded me of my home.”

Tom and the other visitors from Alaska were attending a conference in New Orleans to focus on climate change and other threats to native communities around the world. The oil spill brought back memories of the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident.

They offered emotional support and advice to their hosts – who are used to a hard life, but fear the spill could be too much to overcome.

SOUNDBITE: Ruby Ancar, Atakapa-Ishak Tribe

“Nature, you can’t control. You can’t control a hurricane you can’t control a tornado. But when you have things that are man made: that destroys a person’s life or an entire village or an entire community, I mean, that’s uncalled for.“

The Atakapa hope the Gulf disaster will open eyes around the world to the importance of protecting the environment.

SOUNDBITE: Maurice Phillips, Atakapa-Ishak Tribe

“This land to me is like them movie stars in Beverly Hills. That’s my Beverly Hills – Grand Bayou. I love it. I love nature and I love everything about it. It’s everything God created and I love it.”