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Native American Group Hit Hard By Oil Spill

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Perhaps no other group of people stands to lose as much in the Gulf oil spill as the Houma Nation. This Native American tribe resides along the Louisiana coastline and has been living off the land for centuries. Host Michel Martin talks with Houma Chief Brenda Dardar-Robichaux about how the community is hoping for the best with the spill, but preparing for the worst.


As we've mentioned many times, the oil spill is having a profound effect on the people of the Gulf Coast, including a Native American tribe with about 17,000 members.

The United Houma Nation has called the coastal marshland their ancestral home for centuries. Now, as you might imagine, the tribe has faced a long history of natural disasters as well as the historic travails and conflict with the federal government. But now oil is threatening its existence in a way that few other challenges have.

Brenda Dardar-Robichaux is the principal chief of the Houma Nation. She's on the phone with us from LaRouche, Louisiana, that's about an hour south of New Orleans, where she's helping coordinate a summer camp for Houma youth. Chief, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. BRENDA DARDAR-ROBICHAUX (Principal Chief, Houma Nation): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, could you just tell us a little bit about the history of the tribe?

Ms. DARDAR-ROBICHAUX: The United Houma Nation has 17,000 tribal citizens who once resided in the area of Baton Rouge, which actually stands for Red Stick, which was a bounty marker between us and the neighboring tribe of the Bayou Goula. We continued a migration south, resided in the New Orleans area. Louis Armstrong Park actually has a commemorative plaque that states it was our ceremonial grounds and we played stick ball there.

Today, we reside along the bayous of southeast Louisiana from St. Mary Parish to Plaquemines Parish, all along the coastline of southeast Louisiana.

MARTIN: And how do most members of the tribe earn their living? What do people do?

Ms. DARDAR-ROBICHAUX: We still have a lot of our tribal citizens that live off the waters the traditional way as we have for generation after generation.

MARTIN: And what about oil, though. I mean, the oil as I understand it was discovered in the 1920s in the region. What affect has that had on the Houma Nation?

Ms. DARDAR-ROBICHAUX: We do have tribal citizens who make a living in the oil industry as well. We have not had a very good relationship when it comes to our traditional homeland with the oil companies. Many years ago, they came to our communities and it's important to understand that our tribal citizens did not have access to education until the Civil Rights Act in the mid '60s. Before that we actually had mission schools which afforded our Indian children a seventh or eighth grade education.

And so, as I said, it wasn't until the Civil Rights Movement in the mid '60s that we could come to school. And so the oil and gas industry would come to the areas. Our people did not know how to read and write and they would approach them and say, please sign this paper. We would like to drill on your property. That way you can be compensated if we should find anything. When in actuality it was a quick take and they were taking our people's land.

What they've also done is build location canals in order to do dredging. And so there's location canals that has allowed salt water intrusion into our tribal communities as well, which has afforded more coastal erosion and wetlands lost. And now it's going to allow the oil to seep in as well.

MARTIN: What is it that you're most concerned about?

Ms. DARDAR-ROBICHAUX: My biggest concern is the future of our people. We have lived off the land, we have lived in our traditional homeland for generation after generation. I have great concern of what the oil spill is going to do to our communities. You know, we grow up learning how to deal with hurricanes. We have experienced four devastating hurricanes in the last three years. Our people are resilient. We know how to gut out our homes, rebuild, repair our fishing vessels and move on.

But this is totally different. The impact that this could be totally devastating to our tribal citizens and it's quite frightening.

MARTIN: I think what I hear you saying is that despite the fact that you've dealt with and faced all the natural disasters that people are aware of that often affect the region, that the tribe has managed to rebuild its way of life. And you're saying that this time if the damage is as extensive as many people fear, that might not be possible at all. There might be no way. Are people talking about that among themselves?

Ms. DARDAR-ROBICHAUX: Yes. We are discussing the future of our communities. Our people are not able to go out on their fishing vessels anymore. The season has been closed and that's the way that they earn their living. Where other people live check to check, we live catch to catch. Those fishing nets are not in the water, so they are not catching anything. And they're not able to provide for their families.

You know, I grew up with my dad being a fisherman. He's 74 years old and he still does that today, as his father did prior to him. And so to see him now not being able to go out on his fishing vessel is just heartbreaking. He often describes it as being Christmas every day when he's out on his boat because there's a love that he has for that.

And at 74 and the fishing season being closed and not knowing when it's going to open again, my concern is that he may never experience another Christmas. And that's the case with a lot of our tribal citizens. This is the lifestyle that they know and love. It's not just a piece of land for us. It's not just something they do, you know, for recreation. It's our way of life. And to have that threatened is just devastating.

MARTIN: And I understand that this is very difficult to even contemplate, but what do you think members of the Houma Nation will do if they can't continue to fish there?

Ms. DARDAR-ROBICHAUX: Right now it's a we're fighting for our very survival. The future does not look good for us. What we're going to look like on the end of this once everything is said and done, I don't know what that's going to look like. It's not just our fishermen because it's the net makers who supply the nets to the fishermen. It's the restaurant people who cook the fresh seafood.

It's the people who process the seafood. So it's a trickledown effect. And so it's affecting our entire community. I don't know what the future holds, but in the back of our mind, we know that this is going to impact us for generations to come.

MARTIN: And I understand that and I think it may be worth noting that the United Houma Nation has been recognized by the state of Louisiana but not by the federal government. Does that affect the way you think about the future, plan for the future? Or are there resources, for example, that you are interested in seeking that are not possible because of that lack of recognition?

Ms. DARDAR-ROBICHAUX: The lack of recognition has hindered us on many levels. When it came time to recovery with the devastating four hurricanes in the last three years, we were left on our own. We did not receive direct assistance from FEMA as a tribe or as an indigenous nation. We did not receive assistance that other federally recognized tribes did. And so it was by the generous blessings of Indian nation, wonderful people from the across the United States that helped us in our recovery.

We had to do it on our own. And we're not receiving any assistance directly again from the federal government. And so it's quite disheartening, but it's something that we've learned to accept and just do things the best we can on our own.

MARTIN: Are you contemplating any legal action on behalf of the tribe?

Ms. DARDAR-ROBICHAUX: No, we are not as of this point looking at any kinds of class action lawsuit. We are hanging tight and going to see what the future holds before we go into that route.

MARTIN: And I do want to ask how the kids are doing. As I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation, you're helping to coordinate a summer camp for Houma youth and I just wonder how they're taking all this in.

Ms. DARDAR-ROBICHAUX: They're already seeing the impact it's having on their families and on their lives. We had a leadership training prior to this one. In which one of the activities we did was to place (unintelligible) charts on the wall and ask them a series of questions. And one of the questions was what are your present and future concerns. And 90 percent of the answers were oil spill, and this was several weeks ago.

And so to have a kindergarten child ask you how do you spell oil is heartbreaking. So have some of the older children who finally see that opportunity to go to college and now not sure how their family is going to be able to provide the resources for them and to see them express that concern is just heartbreaking. And so it's impacting them already. And they realize the importance of this oil spill's impact on their lives and on their family, even at such a young age.

MARTIN: Well, chief, we thank you for speaking with us.


MARTIN: Brenda Dardar-Robichaux is principal chief of the United Houma Nation. She joined us on the phone from Larose, Louisiana. Chief, thank you again.


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