Louisiana's Pointe-au-Chien Tribe Struggles to Preserve Its Way of Life

(This article is published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the June 17, 2013 edition.)

Theresa Dardar, a member of the Pointe-au-Chien tribe in Terrebonne Parish, is down to the last bag of shrimp she froze in late April 2010 after the BP spill. The state opened the shrimp season early that spring before oil began lapping at the coast. Her husband Donald, a commercial fishermen, hauled in all he could that April and May. The Dardars have worked through their frozen supplies and aren't sure they trust fresh shrimp--something that's always been a staple of their diet.

Pointe au Chien, 20 miles southeast of Houma on Lake Chien, is a close-knit Native American community that was hurt by the spill and a string of hurricanes. Last week, Dardar said the area's shrimp catch is declining, some of the local fish look diseased and oiled marshes are rapidly eroding.

Residents include 68 families from the Pointe-au-Chien tribe, along with some Cajuns. "People here work mainly as commercial fishermen and a few are tugboat captains," Dardar said. She's a board member of GO FISH, a south Louisiana advocacy group formed after the spill. Her husband Donald is second chairman of the Pointe-au-Chien tribe.

The Dardars are distressed by what they've seen trawling. "Last year, my brother-in-law caught a fish that didn't have scales and threw it back," she said. "Then my husband pulled in what we call a triple tail, and it didn't have scales. Last summer, my husband's uncle started to prepare a drum fish he caught but saw it had hardly any meat."

Shrimp season opened May 13 and the catch is down for the second year in a row. "This May, my brother caught a fish that had a tumor on it when he was shrimping," Dardar said. Her brother-in-law reeled in a puppy drum with lesions. She discussed her concerns with Louisiana State University AgCenter. "I have the puppy drum in my freezer, and LSU has agreed to pick it up for lab inspection," she said last week. "I'm worried the lesions could be some form of cancer."

Dardar suspects BP oil and dispersants have taken a toll on seafood. "Tests were done on our seafood in 2010 and the results weren't good," she said last week. "Dillard University found heavy metals in our shrimp, and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade detected cadmium in our oysters." She wants to know whether the local catch is safe. "We want seafood in this area tested further," she said. "And I hope the
authorities will tell us the results."

In mid-October 2010, New-Orleans based Dillard chemistry professor Edwin Agwaramgbo, in conjunction with the People's Environmental Center in Treme, sampled soil, water and seafood at Pointe au Chien. They found high levels of Total Petroleum Hydrocarbons in water-bed sediments. Shrimp were full of arsenic and oysters were loaded with zinc. They found high levels of copper in the Pointe's shrimp, oysters and snails.

Oysters collected at Pointe au Chien in August 2010, and tested by Pace Analytical Service in Wisconsin in December 2010 for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, contained amounts of cadmium that greatly exceeded federal standards. Last week, Anne Rolfes, president of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade said LABB paid for that sampling at the request of the Pointe-au-Chien community. In large doses, cadmium is a human carcinogen.

Three years after the spill, all federal waters and most state waters have reopened for fishing. Federal and state officials continue to collect and test Gulf seafood. Tests show seafood in reopened areas is as safe to eat as it was before the spill, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Last week, Louisiana Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries spokeswoman Laura Wooderson said seafood samples are pulled monthly from Terrebonne Basin, home to Pointe au Chien, as part of the agency's safety testing. "To date, there have been no reports of fish samples--in Terrebonne Basin or elsewhere in the state--with levels of petroleum-related products that have exceeded FDA/EPA thresholds for human consumption," she said.

If a deformed fish is found, it should be stored in a bag of ice in a chest, with a layer of ice over the fish, Wooderson said. The nearest LDWF office should be notified immediately so the sample can be tested.

Meanwhile, Dardar and her husband, along with her brother-in-law and sister-in-law next door, are shying away from fish and shrimp. "Other people in this community are eating seafood since the feds and state say it's safe," Dardar said. "And that worries me. I'm more concerned about how children might be affected by bad seafood than I am about my husband and me since we're getting on in years."

Bigger fish are eating smaller fish, and "the problems are just going up the food chain," she said.

Dardar said oil remains in the Gulf and the bayous. "After shrimp season started this year, my brother-in-law and his cousin caught some tarballs," she said. "Last year, my husband's cousin caught a big block of oil that may have broken away from an underwater mat."

Land at Pointe au Chien has eroded more quickly since the spill. "Oil in the bayou is killing the marsh grass," Dardar said. "Once the grass is gone, there's nothing to hold the dirt together."

Dardar wants to see more attention to land loss. "A year ago, we asked Terrebonne Parish to install rif-raf to stop land erosion near a tree in our community," she said. Rif-raf or broken cement is sometimes used to shore up land. "The parish told us they'd do it, but never did, and now the tree is dead in the water and thirty feet from land."

Dardar said the area is known for its trees. Traditionally, it was called Pointe aux Chennes, meaning "point of the oaks." Today, it's name is sometimes translated as "point of the dog."

Barrier islands near Pointe au Chien are rapidly disappearing. "We want to see our barrier islands rebuilt," Dardar said. "In the past, they slowed incoming water and protected us. We've just about lost Timbalier, Whiskey and Last Islands, leaving us much more vulnerable to storms. Lower Pointe au Chien, where I live, gets water. And in recent storms that water has spread to Upper Pointe au Chien, which didn't used to flood."

The Dardars live ten feet above ground in a house they built with insurance money after Hurricane Juan damaged their mobile home in 1985. Lower Pointe au Chien residents need to be up high. "We had three feet of water in our yard two years ago from Tropical Storm Lee and then another three feet from Hurricane Isaac last August," Dardar said. "That's more than we used to flood."

Dardar likes some of what she's seen in the state's 50-year Coastal Master Plan, approved by the legislature last year. "In the last community meeting I attended on the plan, Whiskey Island was going to be saved," she said. "And I've been assured that the Morganza to the Gulf project will include Pointe au Chien. Depending on when it's built, that project could protect us."

Morganza to the Gulf is a planned, $10.3 billion system of levees and floodgates that will be funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state and local levee districts to protect Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes from storms. The state and the parishes are building parts of the levee system now but the fed's share still has to be approved. When those levees are finished, thousands of residents outside of them might be encouraged to relocate, according to the Army Corps.

Dardar said her neighboring community, Isle de Jean Charles, has been left out of the Morganza to the Gulf plan.

"We have a few, old levees here," in Pointe au Chien, she said. "But they're not really hurricane protection. The one behind our house is eight feet high and was built after Hurricane Juan."

Dardar said her tribe's burial grounds lie below Pointe au Chien and aren't included in the Morganza to the Gulf project. "We have four or five different cemeteries named after tribal leaders, and we visit them by boat," she said. "One of our ancestral mounds is already starting to wash away."

She explained why her tribe and other Native Americans live deep in the bayous by the Gulf. "Our ancestors were chased down here centuries ago," she said. "Andrew Jackson said he wanted every Indian killed and our people made their way down into the boondocks." Jackson oversaw anti-Indian campaigns before and during his two terms in the White House from 1829 to 1837.

In addition to the Pointe-au-Chien, tribes in south Louisiana include the Bayou Lafourche, Grand Caillou/Dulac and Isle de Jean Charles bands of the Biloxi-Chitimacha Confederation of Muskogees or the BCCM.

The Pointe-au-Chien tribe adapted to its watery circumstances long ago. "Everyone comes back after a big storm here," Dardar said. "No one has left except for some young people who got married. Our elders don't want to move. No one I talk with wants to leave."

But Isle de Jean Charles has considered moving somewhere else, Dardar said. "Communities in Alaska are trying to do that," she noted. A number of Eskimo villages, threatened by melting ice as the climate warms, are considering new sites. Waves of climate refugees, moving to safer locales, are expected in the United States in the first half of this century. end