Place of the oak trees
On an October morning before the sun came up, Jake Billiot and Carl Couvillier were at the Pointe-aux-Chenes Marina on the tip of the bayou pulling in nets from Jake’s shrimping boat and conversing in French about that morning’s catch. In recent years, though the amount of water surrounding the bayou has increased, that catch has gotten smaller and smaller. Jake and Carl move and speak seamlessly, like men who’ve known each other their whole lives. Indeed they have. Carl walked down the dock—his white shrimping boots squelched against the wood as the seagulls squalled overhead. He looked out into the water past Jake’s boat and saw the tip of a tree trunk peeking out through the water. He said to me, “That used to be on land. Now it’s submerged. Seems like it happened overnight.” And though there is now more water than land here, I remembered that this place was named in French for the oak trees.
Driving south down Highway 665 almost two hours from New Orleans—straddling Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes—one has decidedly entered Bayou Country. The road narrows and those namesake trees and the iconic cypress thicken.
A sticky late autumn heat hovered above the algae-green passageways of water on bayou Pointe-aux-Chenes, Louisiana. Lining the sides of this almost mystical bayou, houses rise taller and taller on stilts, a reminder of the hurricanes and flooding that the people in this part of the country have endured. Further down this bayou those thick, green trees become intertwined with ghostly rows of skinny, grey trunks—skeletons that were once also lush before the saltwater moved in. At the end of the road lies this community where a tribe is confronting monumental land loss and with that, the threat of losing their community, their culture and their way of life.
This short film explores the perspectives of several long-time residents of the bayou. It tells the story of people struggling to maintain their way of life and their identity despite land loss due to rising sea levels, climate change and impacts from oil drilling. It also explores how American Indians are threatened by loss of identity and loss of their Peoples’ land.
It features Price Billiot and his grandson Ethan, Jake Billiot, Theresa Dardar and Jane Verdin.
Matt Bethel, a research director for NOAA's Louisiana Sea Grant program, has been working on Louisiana coastal issues since 2006 and began visiting the bayous of Terrebonne, Lafourche and Plaquemines parishes in 2007—not only Pointe-aux-Chenes, but places like Grand Bayou Village further east on the coast. As an environmental and geo-scientist, Bethel makes it his priority to understand the changes to the land through scientific modeling and sampling, but he and his team practice and advocate another type of methodology too: TEK, or traditional ecological knowledge of the residents.
“They [the residents] are some of the first to see and notice these subtle changes to the environment. They have to be honed into those cues because their livelihood depends on that ecosystem. Some of the animals they hunt or trap, the fish they catch change depending on those environmental cues. [They are] adept at adapting to those changes. To us scientists, that’s invaluable. I may be studying salt-water intrusion and how’s that’s impacting, and I’ll get out my maps and try to figure out where to focus my sampling. If I can go out with locals as guides they can take me there and we can compare knowledge. They are very keyed in on those environmental cues. They can open the door for you. As a scientist, you need to show you value that knowledge.”
In October, Bethel went out on one of these TEK trips with Donald and Theresa Dardar, two tribal leaders from Pointe-aux-Chenes, and took me along. We met outside of the Dardar's home down the bayou and Donald got the engine of the boat ready, while Theresa loaded it up with bread and meat for sandwiches and packed the cooler with drinks. They spent the afternoon taking us further down the bayou and into what remains of the marsh surrounding Pointe-aux-Chenes.
The first weekend I arrived in Pointe-aux-Chenes, I met another family — the Verdins, who live just down the road from Price’s Factory and the Dardars. They invited me to a party for the patriarch of the family, Nacie. Nacie and his wife Jane have four kids and many grandkids and so many extended relatives that I lost track of who was family and who were just lifelong friends. The Verdins are known for their parties. Nacie has a house on the bayou side and a purple and yellow boat called Verdin’s Pride. Every weekend, his daughters and sons come out and fill the dock and street with smells of boiling shrimp, fried shrimp roulettes, crab and gumbo — they drink beer and laugh with one another. Though they do this almost every weekend, this particular weekend was special. Nacie would be going three hours north into Baton Rouge on Monday for a surgery, one of several in his fight against oral cancer. His whole family sported red t-shirts reading “Team Nacie,” and not once did anyone appear outwardly anxious or talk about the risky surgery.
Instead, they partied.
As Nacie sat down on top of a cooler to rest for a moment, he looked out past me and said, “I was born here and I’m gonna die here.” When the party outgrew the dock and started to spill into the street, they painted a sign on a piece of wood. In big pink letters, it read “Party at the End.” They loaded up pickup trucks and carted mounds of food to a camp house at the very end of the bayou. As the sun was setting, the shrimp boats headed out into the water and the Verdin grandchildren played on the dock below that modern camp house, which looks so unlike the homes of the longtime residents of the bayou.
One of Nacie’s granddaughters, five-year old Taylor Naquin, played around in the pile of jellyfish and shrimp resting on a wooden platform. Taylor glanced down at the clear jellyfish cradled in her palm and asked me, “Do you know where we are?” She paused for a moment and said, “we’re down on the bayou,” and ran off.
The smell of pork fat crackling in the hot oil and the sounds of laughter and camaraderie clanged above us on the deck of the house as the sun began to set. The large shrimping boats made their way into the water. I was reminded of this moment again and again in the bayou, that gut feeling that these people have something special. I thought about how scared they must be to think of losing this place. Why would they ever want to leave? They belong here. Later, when I sat with Father Roch on his porch on the Isle de Jean Charles, and he recounted story after story, he said,
*The Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe is currently involved in many projects to increase the self-sufficiency, such as a book project, research and planning for federal recognition, and emergency planning for future natural disasters. The Tribe would like to open a community center that can be used for tribal meetings, wakes, emergency relief planning, and community events.
This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean
Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest.
Evangeline, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Produced in partial fulfillment of Master of Arts degree, Ohio University School of Visual Communication
All photographs, video and audio by Brooke Herbert.
Masters Chair and Committee: Stan Alost, Josh Birnbaum and Julie M. Elman
Special thanks to Colin Hayes, The Dardars, The Billiots, The Verdins, The Heberts, all the people of Pointe-aux-Chenes, the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe, the First People's Conservation Council, Amy Wold and Matt Bethel. And to CK Vijayakumar and my classmates in Athens for endless help with editing.
Copyright © 2015 Brooke Herbert and Ohio University
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