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Originally published Saturday, August 7, 2010 at 10:57 PM

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Native people fight to survive Gulf oil spill

The Atakapa-Ishak people live just above water. There are no roads, no sidewalks, no mailboxes, just a stand of houses sprouting from spits of land in a sea of marsh grass. The only path in or out of Grand Bayou is by boat.

Los Angeles Times

GRAND BAYOU, La. — The Atakapa-Ishak people live just above water. There are no roads, no sidewalks, no mailboxes, just a stand of houses sprouting from spits of land in a sea of marsh grass. The only path in or out of Grand Bayou is by boat.

Rosina Philippe, 54, will tell you that when her father was a child, the village of 50 families about an hour south of New Orleans in Plaquemines Parish was even more isolated, accessible by one narrow canal so densely canopied by live oaks that children could scramble across them to move from one house to another.

Grand Bayou abided that way for years — branches entwined, roots fingering deep into the fertile mud that nourished shrimp, crab, tadpoles, oysters, alligators, nutria rats and otter.

Families spoke English and Cajun French and earned a living fishing and trapping. They built schools out of cypress planks, sent a yellow school boat to gather the children and shopped in towns called Port Sulphur and Belle Chasse, lugging home 10-pound bags of coffee and 50-pound bags of rice.

All the while, Philippe watched the oil and gas companies march through, their dredges and barges hauling heavy equipment. They riddled the bayou with drainage canals that brought salty Gulf of Mexico currents inland, parching the oaks.

Abandoned well heads now lurk underwater, clawing boats at low tide. The road to the village boat landing is littered with what Philippe calls "the bones of trees": silvery, gnarled trunks of oak, cypress and tupelo rising from the water like ancestral ghosts.

Left exposed to the Gulf, this cluster of houses on 13-foot stilts was gutted by hurricanes Rita and Katrina. Most of the 125 residents moved away. Nine families rebuilt, including Philippe's. Then came the BP oil spill. The village now is fighting to survive again.

Philippe and her neighbors watch reports of the oil's spread on satellite television. She and her daughter pilot battered metal skiffs and fishing boats into nearby Bay Jimmy to "patrol" the oil, "thick as peanut butter." She monitors the water outside her doorstep, ready to report the first sign of Louisiana crude in the willows, cattails and bay bushes that long have provided remedies for tribal healers called traiteurs.

The first time she saw the oil — "rolling into the bay, huge masses of it" — was in early June, normally the height of shrimp season.

Riding out of the village recently on her skiff, she frowned as she recalled the sight. She cut the sputtering outboard so that her rich alto voice could be heard.

It was Day 47 of the spill, she recalled — the new way of telling time on the Gulf. Her older brother, Maurice Philippe, a fisherman, had called to tell her the oil was at the mouth of Bay Jimmy. He waited, but did not see any BP oil skimmers for hours. He brought an oil-drenched pelican to the village but couldn't save at least a dozen others.

"By the time they came," she said, "it was already in the bay."

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Philippe since has walked the bay shore and seen white egrets smeared with oil, porpoises surfacing through it.

She yanked the motor to life again, and sped past idled shrimp boats that bore names of fishermen's wives: Miss Sylvia, Miss Karen and The Screaming Woman (whose husband was served cold dinners for quite some time, Philippe said).

She traveled fast, carving a V-shaped wake in the muddy water. There was no sign of oil, but the industry's legacy was apparent. Patchy salt grass stretched for miles along the flat marshes, one of the few plants capable of surviving widespread erosion that she blames on the canals.

The bayou always has been a refuge — for wildlife, for her people. Early settlers wrote it off as "no man's land" on maps, figuring it was worthless. They left it to the Atakapa, who have lived there for more than 300 years.

The bayou now is dissolving.

Philippe wiped sweat and worry from her face. Both soon reappeared.

"Just a few years ago, all of these spaces were solid land. Now they're like fingers," she said, indicating a clump of grass. "Before long, that finger will be gone."

The previous night, she had arrived just before dark at the Knights of Columbus Our Lady of Good Voyage bingo hall in Dulac, about three hours westward down the coast. The sky was gray and threatening rain, the hall a refuge on the two-lane road called Shrimpers Row.

She greeted a few friends, then took a seat at a circle of folding tables and listened with the crowd of about 200 to an indigenous man from Ecuador's Amazon rain forest.

Luis Yanza, clean-cut in a black polo shirt and slacks, spoke quickly in Spanish. She did not understand at first, and like most in the room, had to wait for the translation from a young man beside him, an organizer with San Francisco-based Amazon Watch.

Yanza, an environmental activist, described how he helped indigenous people sue Texaco, a subsidiary of Chevron, seeking a cleanup of oil dumped in the forest. That was in 1993. A judge is considering the evidence and is expected to rule early next year. A court-appointed expert has estimated the damage at $27.3 billion. Chevron's lawyers have challenged the expert's objectivity and have argued that agreements with the Ecuadorean government exempt the company from liability.

"The same things that happened with Chevron in Ecuador are happening here with BP," Yanza said. "It is terrible to see destruction and to remain silent."

They went around the room, passing a microphone and introducing themselves. Most belonged to tribes living alongside the Atakapas — members of the 17,000-strong United Houma Nation. Some wore earrings woven from marsh reeds, decorative shawls, feather bustles and fur moccasins. Many more wore the traditional dress of native fishermen — feathered haircuts, short-sleeve plaid shirts, NASCAR hats and powwow T-shirts.

When it was Philippe's turn, she stood.

"My heart is full because of the struggle we continue today," she said, her voice breaking. "We are facing a common culprit from all of our different nations. The Earth demands that we stand now, now when she needs us most.

"The indigenous people need to stand up — we cannot allow this to continue, because all life depends on it."

The crowd applauded.

Near her, a Saik'uz woman from British Columbia with a round face spoke.

Geraldine Thomas-Flurer said her late grandmother, a medicine woman, warned her in a dream about the oil spill.

"She said, 'How do we ask the mountains for forgiveness?' " Thomas-Flurer said. "We don't have a ceremony for that because we've never had to do that."

Outside, darkness descended on the bayou. The moist air hummed with cicadas perched in the Spanish moss, their song punctuated by the staccato call of a lonely night bird.

The next day, after piloting her boat around Grand Bayou, Philippe turned back to shore, ready to slip off her broad straw hat and the rubber fishing boots she calls Cajun Reeboks. She was headed to a BP safety class.

Her daughter Anisor "Ani" Philippe-Cortez, 19, was taking the class so she could work on her uncle's cleanup boat, for BP. For Philippe, it was an opportunity to do some opposition research — to learn about BP's positions on the oil spill, the threat to the environment and the potential for recovery.

She has made one trip to Washington, D.C., to meet with members of the Louisiana congressional delegation since the spill, and expects to make more in coming weeks as the stockpile of shrimp in her freezer dwindles.

Her eyes scanned the shore, alighting on the skeleton of a hurricane-ravaged home built from weathered cypress. A sunken skiff floated beside it. Someone had spray-painted across the front of the house, "Do not destroy."

"We've been focusing all our energies on bringing people home," she said. "Now, with the Gulf disaster, we're trying to just keep up the families we have here."

But even if they stay, she is not sure how the village will fare, reliant as it is on the water for food.

Gray storm clouds gathered overhead. A vulture landed on the roof of the abandoned house. He watched her. Philippe stared back, unafraid.

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