Oil Imperils Native American Town, And Way Of Life Grand Bayou, a tiny Native American fishing village in the vast wetlands south of New Orleans, managed to survive Hurricane Katrina. But now oil menaces this community, which has revolved around seafood for centuries.

Oil Imperils Native American Town, And Way Of Life

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Melissa Block.


And Im Michele Norris.

Grand Bayou is a tiny fishing village of Native Americans located in the vast wetlands south of New Orleans. You can only get there by boat. Before the Cajuns, Spanish, French and Americans came, the ancestors of the people of Grand Bayou were living in the marsh, catching seafood. And they're still there. But now theyre scared because of the Gulf oil spill and the way it's threatening their way of life.

NPR's John Burnett has our story.

JOHN BURNETT: The people of Grand Bayou tend to stay put, like 66-year-old fisherman Raymond Reyes, with his shaggy white hair and a cross tattooed on his leathery, brown bicep.

Mr. RAYMOND REYES: Why leave heaven and go to hell? This is heaven here. You know? I tried in Texas, I can't make it. All I seen was cement and Mexicans. I can't understand Mexicans and I dont like cement. I like water.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOHN BURNETT: The water is their identity. They're surviving members of the Atakapa-Ishak Indians, one of the small Native American tribes that still lives on the bayous and marshes of southeast Louisiana. While other marsh men have taken jobs in the oil and chemical industries, the people of Grand Bayou resolutely try to live as their forebears did - fishing, shrimping, oystering, hunting and trapping.

A flatboat appears carrying a woman wearing colorful jewelry and her hair in a long black braid. She is Rosina Phillipe, the 54-year-old spokeswoman for the village.

Ms. ROSINA PHILLIPE (Spokeswoman, Atakapa-Ishak Indians): Welcome to summertime Louisiana.

(Soundbite of a motorboat)

BURNETT: Her brother, Danny Dean, who wears a straw hat against the punishing sun, guns the outboard. The little skiff noses into a placid canal, lined with storm-wrecked houses and just a few habitable ones.

Ms. PHILLIPE: This is Grand Bayou, the village. And these are some of the homes damaged during Hurricane Katrina.

BURNETT: Before Katrina, there were 23 extended families living in Grand Bayou. The hurricanes epic tide and wind decimated the little fishing outpost. Grand Bayou had just begun to get back on its feet when the oil spill happened. In the past five years, volunteers from Mennonite Disaster Services have rebuilt homes for nine families, with more planned.

But the oil spill has jeopardized the villages recovery. Residents who've been gone since Katrina are questioning whether it's worth moving back if they cannot fish the bayou.

Ms. PHILLIPE: Step out. Watch your feet.

BURNETT: Rosina Phillipe moved into her newly constructed house on stilts last August. She climbs the stairs to a simply furnished living room cooled by ceiling fans. She's pressed for time. Phillipe was planning on flying to Washington, D.C. in the afternoon, to impress upon Louisiana's congressmen and anyone else who will listen that the oil slick threatens the very existence of her indigenous community.

Ms. PHILLIPE: Grand Bayou for us is our place in the universe. This is where, since time began, the Creator saw fit to set our feet here. And we're going to do whatever we have to do to remain.

BURNETT: But what can they do? The oil slick is slowly seeping toward their settlement. Fishermen say its 35 minutes away by boat. Like other coastal communities, they dont know how long their shrimping and oystering grounds will be off-limits or whether their waterways will be poisoned.

But unlike other coastal communities, Grand Bayou depends on the water not just for its livelihood, but for its daily sustenance.

Ms. PHILLIPE: We've never faced this before. No matter what happened before, at the very least we were able to feed ourselves. Thats been taken away from us. Thats serious. Thats real serious.

BURNETT: This is an American community whose residents have not grown accustomed to running to the supermarket to buy ingredients for supper. As village elder Ruby Ancar says, the marsh is their provider.

Ms. RUBY ANCAR (Village Elder): One of the things my dad told me, the only thing that a Grand Bayou person needed from the grocery store was sugar, coffee and milk.

Ms. PHILLIPE: Or rice.

Ms. ANCAR: And rice, yes.

BURNETT: The waters of Grand Bayou have also traditionally provided recreation for the Atakapa-Ishak people bwho are, today, a mixture of Native American, black and Cajun. Some still speak French at home.

Rosina's 18-year-old daughter, Ani, a budding environmentalist, says she never wants to leave this bayou.

Ms. ANI PHILLIPE: You just go out in the marsh and its freedom. We were out chasing the porpoises in boat, they were along side the boat. You know, we were just riding with them the whole way up and down the bayou. So I mean, stuff like that, you cant really do that anywhere else.

BURNETT: Though the village has dwindled in size, it has hung on despite a host of threats - violent ones like hurricanes, and gradual ones like cultural dispersion. Rosina Phillipe cannot imagine living anywhere else.

Ms. R. PHILLIPE: We are who we are because of where we are. We are Grand Bayou people, and you cant be a Grand Bayou person if youre living in Ohio.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURNETT: Shes going to Washington because she believes the Atakapa-Ishak have to find a way to survive this latest calamity. She says she owes it to her ancestors.

John Burnett, NPR News, New Orleans.

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