Indigenous People of Louisiana and the Oil Industry: An Ishak Reflection

October 30, 2019 | 8:47 am
Jeffery U. Darensbourg
Tribal councilperson of the Atakapa-Ishak Nation of Indians

While doing field research in 2018 for a book, I took a boat to a shell midden in Vermilion Parish, Louisiana, near where the Vermilion River – long home to my ancestors of various sorts – meets up with the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway before spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. My people, the Ishak, also known as the Atakapa (or even the Atakapa-Ishak) once inhabited the nearby Onion Bayou. Our ancient midden is bisected by a ship channel known as Four Mile Cutoff.

Standing there, I watched ships ferrying workers and equipment for oil exploration, going straight through the middle of this remnant of our cultural legacy. In our tribal creation myth, the first Ishak walked out of that very gulf onto our lands. Now something else coming from there is a dominant cultural, environmental, and economic force.

The health of the waters of Louisiana and environs have been dramatically affected by the various industries involved in oil extraction and the products made from it. The first time I ever heard my tribe mentioned in national news was in the aftermath of the BP Oil Spill of 20 April 2010, when an explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig killed 11 workers and caused almost 5 million barrels of oil to spill into the Gulf. The spill affected the livelihoods of Ishak working in the seafood industry, who carry on a long tradition. Getting justice in the spill’s aftermath for Ishak, Houma, and other tribal groups whose members work in fishing has been arduous, and complicated by a lack of federal recognition for most of Louisiana’s Indigenous nations. The impact of the BP oil spill on Louisiana’s Indigenous nations was substantial, and it is deeply concerning that the federal government is now trying to roll back the worker safety measures that were put in place to protect offshore oil workers and prevent a second BP oil spill.

In additional to spills, coastal erosion and rising seas related at least in part to oil extraction have also affected coastal tribes, transforming at least one group, the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians, into climate refugees, unable to inhabit their sinking homeland. Detached from our lands, Native cultures suffer. Our unique relationships to the natural world have been expressed in our traditional expertise in sustainability, agriculture, and forestry, producing significant advancements in those areas before colonization. In addition to the environmental toll from oil exploration, pollution from oil refineries and petrochemical plants have earned the Mississippi Valley in South Louisiana the moniker of “Cancer Alley.”

The State of Louisiana recently attempted to weaken regulations on the cleanup of hazardous waste, backing down after a public outcry. The attempt itself shows the influence of Big Oil in our state government. At the same time, many Indigenous people of Louisiana, especially near the coast, work in the oil industry. My late father was a retired refinery worker. The current Principal Chief of the Atakapa-Ishak Nation, Edward Chretien, Jr. is a retired oil worker. Members of regional tribes who have participated in environmental activism, whether locally or in other places, such as groups who went to North Dakota to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline, have occasionally encountered scorn, even from close relatives. “What are we going to do for jobs?” is a common refrain. We can’t live our ancient ways today, they say, and the oil industry has jobs, and well-paying ones at that, even if these jobs can jeopardize not only our lands and waters, but also the safety of workers. And with the state and federal government failing to provide us with safe working conditions, those Indigenous people who work those jobs in the oil industry are put further into harm’s way.

My own research in recent years has focused on Indigenous populations of the Gulf Coast, but my Ph.D. in is cognitive science, which means that I try to understand the thinking processes leading people to disregard the importance of environmental science related to industry in Louisiana. Vlad Petre Glăveanu notes that for researchers on cognition in our time that “it is imperative…to devise practical tools for cultivating critical thinking and reflexivity in relation to a number of areas of social life –e.g., history, politics, economics – and in relation to the distinction between personal beliefs and objective facts.”

There is a need for scientists in this discussion who study the acceptance of scientific information itself. Research deserving of more attention here might come from studies of decision making in situations of economic scarcity, as limited economic options might mean that people choose to work in problematic industries, part of a larger, classic, cognitive science area of research into bounded rationality and heuristics of imperfect decision making. Indigenous people who work in the oil industry have repeatedly told me that they just want to eat and have homes and provide for children, and don’t know how to do so otherwise. Quality information about alternatives, especially about the prospects of working in greener energy industries needs wider dissemination.

A coupling of quality scientific information with an understanding of the economic and social issues involved in the relationship between Indigenous populations of Louisiana and the oilfield can aid in helping our communities make informed decisions about work, politics, and the lands and waters we love, thereby ensuring our long legacy for the future.