Bayou Stories: Preserving a Way of Life in a Place Losing Ground

by Bill Chameides | November 8th, 2010
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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I met some fascinating people on my most recent Gulf Coast trip. One of them was Rosina Philippe, an Atakapa-Ishak who is struggling to keep afloat in her ancestral home. (Photo: Scottee Cantrell)

Two extraordinary people of the Louisiana bayous struggle to hold on.

A couple weeks ago, I led a Duke University delegation to Louisiana to learn more about what’s going on in the bayous. I returned with lots of pictures and new information, but my mind keeps returning to the people I met. Here are the stories of two.

David Chauvin – Shrimper

On our first night in Louisiana, Rebecca Templeton of Bayou Grace invited us into her ancestral home in Chauvin in Terrebonne Parish for dinner with some colleagues and neighbors. The main course — jambalaya of course.

Among the guests were David Chauvin and his wife Kimberly. Turns out lots of folks are named Chauvin in Chauvin. They all claim branches from the family tree of the French-Canadian Chauvins, who first settled the state around 1700. (More on the Chauvins here and here.)

Kimberly and David Chauvin, owners of the Mariah Jade Shrimp Company.

David runs a shrimping business, as his father did before him and his grandfather before that and so on down the line for four generations — their sons now make it five. The family’s Mariah Jade Shrimp Company owns its own shrimp boats and a dock, and they contract out to another 30 or so shrimpers.

A Challenge: How to Deal With What Was Once a Selling Point but Is Now a Liability

Over the past decade, American shrimpers have been challenged by an influx of cheap, mostly farmed shrimp from abroad, primarily Southeast Asia. To respond, David has created a niche market for premium “wild” shrimp caught using sustainable practices (such as their own Chauvin “TED” or turtle excluder device) and free of the chemicals and antibiotics typically found in farmed shrimp from countries with few and/or loosely enforced regulations.

The Mariah Jade’s tag line — “Delicious and healthy Gulf of Mexico wild shrimp” — has been a great brand and a successful marketing strategy, with has been being the operative phrase. Since the oil spill, no one wants or trusts gulf shrimp, even if the government deems it safe. So the “Gulf of Mexico” selling point that was is now worse than worthless.

Right now it’s shrimping season in the gulf but David is running at only five percent capacity. “That’s all the market will bear right now,” says Kimberly. And what of the future? She and David are worried. They don’t know what all that oil and dispersant at the bottom of the gulf will mean down the road. But the Chauvins are shrimpers, their lives are in Chauvin. The idea of doing something else or living somewhere else is not in their plans.

Rosina Philippe — A Force of Nature

Rosina Philippe and Ruby
Rosina Philippe and her neighbor Ruby Ancar. (Photo: Scottee Cantrell)

The afternoon of our second day found us standing at the edge of a canal, waiting to tour a small community living on Grand Bayou, a community accessible only by boat. Eventually a flatbottom one came along, piloted by a women with a smile as broad as her sun hat. It was our guide, Rosina Philippe, a member of the Atakapa-Ishak tribe. Warning us that she was “political,” she pointed to the Native American pictured on her T-shirt sandwiched between the words “Got Land?” and “Thank a Native American.” (Later we met her 19-year-old daughter, Ani, sporting a shirt urging you to “Party like it was 1491.”)

After the tour, Rosina brought us into her home for tea and cake and conversation with her family and neighbors. The picture they painted was of a rapidly disappearing land her people have called home for a thousand years. The large, lush forested tracts of her father’s time have been replaced by a saltwater ecosystem whose marshes and grasses are dying and leaving open water in their place.

Channel Opened by Oil and Gas Industry
Channel opened up by oil and gas industry. (Photo: Scottee Cantrell)

When she was a girl, Rosina said, the 100-foot wide bayou we traversed was a narrow, tree-lined waterway whose overhanging branches necessitated collapsible masts that allowed boats to pass through. Today, there was hardly a tree in sight.

One of the key culprits, she said: the multitude of canals crisscrossing the bayou. Those canals were put in by the oil and gas industry to lay pipe and/or to establish a direct route from one place to another. Most of them look like they’re no longer used, but no effort has been made to repair the damage. They’re like festering wounds, said Rosina, that lay open the wetlands and allow salt water to penetrate and eventually kill the grasses that hold the wetlands together. She took us to large expanses of open water, which once supported grazing cattle and forestland.

Ruby and Rosina
Rosina and neighbor Ruby next to the “Concertainers.” (Photo: Scottee Cantrell)

The very land upon which they live is also slipping away. Our visit coincided with high tide, which had flooded the ground beneath the community’s stilted homes.

With the possibility of growing crops there long gone, they’ve embarked on an experiment using elevated containers, called Concertainers, filled with soil to grow food and traditional he

The long-term challenge for the Atakapa-Ishak is their vanishing land, but they face more immediate problems too: more than five years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck, many of her people remain displaced. Rosina, her father, and seven other families were able to return to Grand Bayou this year, thanks to Mennonite volunteers who constructed homes for them. But 14 more families have yet to return.

Make no mistake about these people. Despite their remote homes and lack of advanced education, these are very smart, aware, and articulate people. Rosina herself is a “force of nature,” a powerful, charismatic speaker and storyteller with a mission — to make her Atakapa-Ishak community whole and keep them together on their ancestral home.

Rosina says she is most proud of the fact her people still live on the land they’ve inhabited for 1,000 years. “We have persevered, and we will continue to persevere.”

It’s been two weeks since my visit, but I still find my thoughts wending their way back to these people, with little in common but an abiding love of and commitment to the bayous they call home, even as it slips away.

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