GOLDEN MEADOWS, LA—The twisted silhouettes of leafless trees dot the marsh around the homeland of southern Louisiana's Houma tribe. Telephone poles list sideways in the water that laps at the edges of many roads.
It wasn't always this way. These changes to the landscape serve as stark symbols of the myriad social and environmental problems facing the tribe. Coastal erosion is rapidly gnawing away solid ground, while saltwater intrusion has killed vast numbers of oaks over the last forty years. And those are just a few of the problems faced by the tribe.
But the Bayou Healers, a tribal youth group that was conceived in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, plans to fight those challenges.
"We realized that it was important to have an organization that can bring awareness of what is happening here to outsiders, as well as to preserve our culture," said Jason Pitre, 25, who founded the organization along with 21-year-old Dana Solet.
Pitre and Solet say the inspiration to form Bayou Healers came in early July, when a delegation of native activists from Ecuador visited to share advice from their experiences of living in the shadow of the oil industry. The Ecuadorians, who are under the umbrella of environmental groups Rainforest Action Network and Amazon Watch, demonstrated the influence that can be gained through organization.
And so Pitre and Solet decided to organize. They immediately formed an advisory board made up of older members of the tribe, built a website and started the daunting paperwork to become a registered non-profit organization. They are now in the process of selecting a youth council, composed of tribe members from age 14 up through college, which will be the group's decision makers.
Though the project began only a month ago, it has been met with enthusiastic support from the tribe.
"It's exciting to see and to be a part of," said Michael Dardar, a member of the group's advisory board. "I've committed myself to helping them in any way that I can, but it's nice to take a back seat and let the youth take the lead."
As word of the new project has spread among the 17,000 tribal members throughout the Houma's six-parish territory, young and old alike have been eager to get on board.
"People just haven't had the opportunity to participate in something like this over the years," said Kurt Charamie, who manages the tribe's radio station and also serves on the advisory board.
The group's first event, a candlelight vigil held at the end of July to commemorate the 100th day since the Deepwater Horizon explosion, was a well-attended success. Held on a sandy hill on the barrier island of Grand Isle, over 100 people from the local communities came to light candles, hear poems and speeches, and dance a shuffling friendship dance in the twilight.
Pitre led the dance wearing full ceremonial garb, including a feathered headdress and fluorescent green tassels made from flagging tape. Young and old, tribe members and non-tribe-members stood together to hope for the future, honor the eleven lost lives and mourn for the damage to the environment.
But the Bayou Healers have their work cut out for them.
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which gushed crude into the ocean for some 90 days, has only added to the existing problems of the tribe.
Many Houma depend on the water for their livelihoods, and now they worry about making a living, as well as about their homes, their health and their future. Even as many fishing areas are declared safe, many tribe members say they are doubtful.
"When shrimping season starts, all those trawlers are going to catch tarballs," said tribe member RJ Molinere. "And I'm not going to call any of my customers that come down to fish alligators with me, because I'm not sure what's going on with the meat yet. I don't want to kill any of my customers, or get them sick."
Another ongoing worry for the tribe is coastal erosion. As 25 square miles of wetlands are lost each year, low-lying communities are rapidly losing their buffer against incoming storms. The Houma's traditional homeland is increasingly exposed to flooding and other storm damage. As hurricane season begins this year, they fear that oil-ridden floods will taint their homes.
Past hurricanes have already done their own form of damage to the Houma. As houses are lost, tribe members have scattered – moving to other towns that are farther inland or on higher ground. As this happens they have lost touch with the tribe, and tribal identity has been weakened.
"Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike spread everybody all over Timbuktu," Charamie said. "So many people are hurting so much that the last thing on their mind is contacting the tribe, therefore they don't know what services we have to offer."
Bayou Healers hopes to help knit a far-flung tribe together. But having young people take a leadership role is also vitally important for the tribe's future, said Charamie. If the next generation doesn't work alongside older leaders, untold knowledge will be lost.
"If that institutional memory isn't carried on then we lose something vital." Charamie added. "Something like this is long overdue, and the oil spill really was the impetus."
Looking Toward the Future
Pitre and Solet say the scale of the challenges facing the tribe is both daunting and motivating. They plan to work on several fronts – through publicizing the issues, through preserving tribal knowledge and traditions and also through direct action.
Even as the organization is forming, the project's leaders are already digging in, literally.
One of Bayou Healers' first projects is transplanting the traditional medicinal herb garden of Pitre's grandfather, Whitney Dardar, to higher ground. Though some of the plants are common, Pitre said that there are others which he has never seen growing anywhere else. The tribe worries that if oily waters arrive with a storm, the medicine might be lost. And if not this year, then some time in the future – to a storm, to erosion or to some as-yet-unknown threat.
Pitre is learning the plants' traditional uses, while Bayou Healers has started shoveling the herbs out of Dardar's yard in Golden Meadows and moving them 35 miles north to another family member's yard.
In front of his low-slung house across the street from a swollen bayou, Dardar stoops beneath a rose bush to pluck a leaf off a small plant.
"It's a five-leaf vine," he explained. "You boil the leaf and make a strong tea; if you have a swollen arm or your leg is swollen, you wash yourself with this and it makes it go down."
When asked about the work that Pitre and Solet are doing, he pauses, a piece of another herb held in one weathered hand.
"I think it's a great thing," he said. "It's about time we get something like that for our tribe. I'm really proud of them."