Gulf Oil Spill 'Slow Death' For Houma Tribe
American Indian Report
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
Spread out across several parishes in coastal southeastern Louisiana, the 17,000-member United Houma Nation, a state-recognized tribe, has prepared for and survived some of the most devastating hurricanes. But the oil leak that has pumped millions of gallons of toxic crude into the Gulf of Mexico is nothing like a hurricane. It’s far worse.
Houma citizens have been living, hunting, fishing, shrimping, crabbing, trapping and harvesting oysters in the Louisiana’s coastal marshes and wetlands for hundreds of years. Yet as Principal Chief Brenda Dardar Robichaux last week said in her testimony before members of the House Subcommittee on Insular Affairs Wildlife and Oceans, which is investigating the impacts of the BP spill, “This lifestyle is now in jeopardy.”
AIR talked to Dardar Robichaux about the spill — its impact on the tribe’s communities, the tribe's fears and what its citizens need to survive. Here is what she had to say:
AIR: Has the tribe ever contemplated a disaster like this?
Dardar Robichaux: No, we have not. We have learned to handle hurricanes over the years. We were actually impacted by four major storms over the last five years — Katrina, Rita and, three years later, Gustav and Ike. We know how to prepare, how to evacuate. We come home, we gut out our homes, we repair our fishing vessels and we move on. This is totally different than any hurricane. It’s very new to us and quite frightening.
AIR: How do you even prepare for something like this?
Dardar Robichaux: I don’t know that you can. The unknown is agonizing. It’s almost like a slow death because we know just with our history we have had with the four hurricanes in the last five years that another one is going to hit our area. We are just praying that the oil spill will be cleaned up before that happens. …
If we are impacted by a hurricane prior to this oil spill being cleaned up, you know, that’s more or less the death of our communities.Sometimes it is hard to come up with the words. I’m usually not at a loss for words, but when you think of the impacts, short- and long-term, that this can have on our communities, you almost can’t go there because it’s too painful.We are a strong, resilient people. You know, we have survived a lot of challenges throughout our history. To think that this is our greatest challenge and we have no control over it. …
AIR: It might mean relocating for many?
Dardar Robichaux: It might mean relocating for many. With our communities along the coastline of southeastern Louisiana, we are the first to feel the effects of coastal land loss. We are often left out of any type of levee protection system. There are no water control structures to speak of that protect us. There is no barrier island. So, we have learned to adapt.
AIR: Has the oil, in any shape or form, hit your homeland yet?
Dardar Robichaux: Oh, definitely. It’s right up against a lot of our marshes and right up in our communities.
AIR: Does the tribe have an emergency response team that is responding to it?
Dardar Robichaux: We have done the best that we can through other organizations and try to provide services. I made two trips to Washington trying to find a contact person to work with BP, to see what we can do to protect our own land because we know the marshes; we know what needs to be protected better than anyone else. …
AIR: What are your priority needs?
Dardar Robichaux: Making sure we have enough resources to be able to provide for our families — just basic needs of food and clothing and whatever that looks like — just basic needs of a family. … We need manpower. We need some type of vehicle that we can provide services, such as mental health services because we have great concern for everyone, from the children to our elders, and the impact it’s having that way.A lot of our tribal citizens who are fishermen did not have opportunities for education.
That did not come until the Civil Rights Act in the mid 60s. We have great concerns of them navigating their way through the [BP] claims process, great concern that they will be taken advantage of. So, we need case management to help them through that process as well as outreach. There is a lot of accurate, current information being disseminated. Because we are spread out through such a large area, we have concerns that information is not reaching our tribal citizens in an accurate and credible manner. …
AIR: In your testimony [Subcommittee on Insular Affairs Wildlife and Oceans], you said you need monitoring equipment for air, water and land.
Dardar Robichaux: Because people who are actually doing some of the cleanup work we feel are not really being educated on the long-term impacts of what this is going to do to their health. Normally, the training that is done lasts 40 hours … if you are going to work with this hazardous material. The training that they are being given is actually a four-hour training
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