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Survivor: southern Louisiana edition

Atakapa-Ishak villagers are determined to preserve indigenous way of life

June 3, 2009

Rosina Philippe

Rosina Philippe guided a group of Presbyterians around her village, Grand Bayou in Louisiana, May 14. —Bethany Furkin

GRAND BAYOU, LA

Rosina Philippe has lived in this area of southern Louisiana her entire life.

And so she’s been around to see firsthand the effects of hurricanes, land erosion and oil pipelines.

For Philippe, a member of the indigenous people Atakapa-Ishak, those changes are personal.

“It’s more than geography,” she said. “It’s a sense of being. It’s who we are.”

The Atakapa-Ishak trace their ties to the area back about 300 years. The surrounding parish has been developed for only about 200 years. The people were originally mound builders, constructing the sacred areas in the forests that used to fill the land. Now the area is mostly wetlands, thanks largely to oil drilling and the government’s decision to dam the river to prevent much-needed sediment from circulating, Philippe said.

“This is the worst we’ve ever been,” she said, motioning to the marshy area the six or so families in the village call home. The water is inescapable here. Instead of streets, there is water. Instead of hopping in a car to go visit a neighbor, the villagers travel by boat.

Shrimping is a big industry for the village, and Philippe and her brother showed several Presbyterians around the village on a shrimp boat. The visitors included representatives from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance; the Presbytery of South Louisiana and its outreach program, Project Homecoming; and the Presbyterian News Service.

When Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005, the villagers did not evacuate. Instead, they stuck to their traditions — and survived.

The Atakapa-Ishak are deeply tied to the land and use this intimate knowledge to their advantage. When alerts about the hurricane began coming through, the villagers packed up what belongings they could and loaded them onto their boats. They then headed to a dead-end canal where they’d be shielded by land and trees.

The villagers tied their boats together and waited out the storm, eating community meals, doing laundry as a group and watching each other’s children. When the hurricane passed, they went back to their houses to survey the damage. The village had no deaths or injuries from the storm.   

“We did what we knew to do, and we survived,” Philippe said. “It was always our way to live in harmony with the land.”

This way of life can be hard for outsiders to understand. The village got some complaints for not evacuating during Katrina, but the Atakapa-Ishak did what they thought was best for their community. They’re a water people, Philippe said, and spending hours in a car on a highway out of town would not have been normal for them. They make their life on the water, and despite the problems of land erosion, this area is home and they find refuge on the water.

“It’s more than geography. It’s a sense of being. It’s who we are. We can’t relocate and still be who we are,” Philippe said. “God gave us to this place. God made the trees and the land and the animals and the people and he put us here.”

The Atakapa-Ishak want to share their knowledge of the land with the outside world. Although the present damage can’t be undone, the land that does remain can be protected.

To do this, plans that address all levels of the problem must be activated.

For example, there are more than 64,000 miles of oil pipeline along the coast. Installing these lines leads to land erosion. Canals that have been cut by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for navigational purposes have also caused land loss.

Before levees were built, the yearly flooding cycle here didn’t affect the land because it was high enough to be protected. But because of man-made interference, water that was once fresh is now saltwater, which has killed trees and other species. The village now has to have fresh drinking water piped in. Dams that have been installed can rip out the bottoms of boats when high water submerges them.

Post-Katrina recovery has been much slower in the village is much slower than in other areas. Only five houses have been rebuilt in the four years since the hurricane. The villagers have faced much pressure from developers wanting to push them out and buy the land.

Sailing throughout the village, it’s easy to see signs of economic indifference. Abandoned pumping stations set up by oil companies are left rusting in the water.  

The local shrimping industry is suffering as well. Factory boats go farther and farther out in the gulf, where they harvest shrimp 24 hours a day. This prevents local shrimpers, who live closer to the land, from catching as much as they used to because all the shrimp are scooped up by the bigger companies.

These issues are all connected, and addressing just one will not solve the problem, experts say.

And although it’s good to have studies about how to address problems, it is also essential to talk with the people who live on and know the land. “You’ve got to work with the community in place to understand what the real needs are,” said PDA Coordinator Randy Ackley.

To that end, academicians at the University of New Orleans have been working with the Atakapa-Ishak to help them learn about how they’re perceived by others and how they can better interpret their way of life. By working together as partners and sharing different perspectives, problems can be better addressed.

“Have your science, have your studies, but until you incorporate the knowledge of people who have lived here for centuries, you’re losing this battle,” Philippe said. “We have something to share with the outside world, but we have something to learn, also.”

In spite of the problems the village faces, Philippe showed no signs of giving up, and recalled a story of hope from Katrina: before the hurricane, a neighbor had planted a gladiola, but the bulb was buried in rubble from the storm. No one thought it would survive, but the flower eventually emerged, bloomed and grew two or three feet tall.

“It struggled under all of that debris to find light and to live,” Philippe said.

And that’s what the Atakapa-Ishak intend to do too.

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