Native Village
Youth and Education news
Volume 3    April 2011

BP payments may not save Indians' livelihoods
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Louisiana: Even before last year's BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, American Indian fishing villages were failing due, in part, to the dramatic loss of coastal wetlands.

Now, Indian fishermen find their futures tied to the man handing out checks for damages.  Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer in charge of BP's $20,000,000,000 compensation fund, met with them for the first time in February.

Dozens of fishermen showed up in shrimp boots and work clothes, speaking a mixture of French and English. They want BP to pay them for lost wages and jeopardizing a way of life that relied on the bounty of the marshes.

"The people have been independent for so long, a lot of them will go trawling, they'll bring an ice chest (of seafood) to Maman, Grandpa, Auntie, the uncles and all that," said Thomas Dardar, principal chief of the United Houma Nation. "With the oil, how long will [this] last? Oil isn't like a hurricane. You can't just pick up after it's over. The Indians in Alaska after Exxon-Valdez tell us they've been dealing with the oil for 20 years."

Many tribes moved into the swamps to escape slavery or forced banishment after Congress passed the 1830 Indian Removal Act. About 20,000 American Indians in coastal Louisiana trace their roots to Houma, Chitimacha, Choctaw and Biloxi tribes.

Most of BP's senior directors received bonus payments for their work in 2010's disastrous Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Their approximate payments:

Byron Grote, finance director:
yearly salary

Iain Conn, head of downstream:
 $496,000 bonus
Tony Hayward, former chief executive:

in salary and severance pay
$960,000-a-year pension
$160,000 a year for his work in the Gulf Coast:

Until the 1950s, most tribes lived in isolation. Old-timers recall barefoot children hiding in the woods when cars rattled into their villages in the 1950s. Indian children were barred from schools until the 1960s and were called "sabines," a derogatory term.

Today's Louisiana tribal leaders have called upon a New York City law firm to help them navigate BP's difficult claims process. All the paperwork and documentation isn't easy in a place where some people can't read or write.

Price Billiot, 63, runs a seafood dock in Pointe-Aux-Chenes, a run-down and water-bound town in the tall marshes near Montegut. He quit 4th grade to work on a boat with his father. His wife helps him wih the BP claims paperwork. Price can't read or spell well enough to handle it on his own.

"The white people didn't want me to go to school," Billiot said. "We couldn't go to the school, we couldn't go to the bar up the bayou.  Every year it gets worse. You can't make a living. When I was young, you could make a good living."

He's surviving thanks to an emergency payment BP gave him in June.  But Billiot's company is worth far more, and he needs much more from BP to keep it going.

Feinberg is calculating long-term damage claims for Billiot and others. Billiot wants BP to pay "subsistence claims" for the value seafood and hunting plays in their everyday lives.

"It's a claim that my lifestyle has been adversely impacted by my inability to any longer live off the resources that I hunt or catch," he said. "What I could go hunt or fish I now have to go buy. Those claims should be paid."

Even with compensations, the spill has created even more uncertainty for people on the bayous. Life is a struggle.  Families have moved away from their ancestral villages because of hurricanes and low seafood prices.

And their coastal land is disappearing. Since the 1930s, about 2,300 square miles of marsh have been converted to open water. Most was lost due to the Army Corps of Engineers' construction of levees in the Mississippi River delta. Oil companies have also dug thousands of miles of canals. 

Now it's almost impossible to make a living. It may only get worse.The great majority of the 130,000 unsettled claims against BP do not have adequate documentation.  100,000 or more may never be paid.

Under fire from the Obama administration, Feinstein became defensive.  "Here is the problem that I continually have to address ..." the BP attorney said.  "Roughly 80% of the claims that we now have in the queue lack proof. That is a huge number."

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