It seems so long ago, those days on the water with my dad trawling for shrimp in the lakes, bays and bayous of our beloved homeland. The two seasons; one in May and the other in August, were the most important and productive times in the seasonal cycle of the Houma People during my adolescent years in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Second to these was the winter trapping season when we roamed the marshlands in search of nutria, muskrat, and otter.
Through the teachings and example of my father I learned how the land and water provided for untold generations of our people. Though we lived in a modern world I would still be taught the traditional medicine plants, how to construct a blowgun from the elderberry stalk, and how to build a home from the leaves of the palmetto. These skills continue to keep me grounded years after my father has walked on to the other side.
All this served to make real to me the basis of the Houmas relationship to land and water, the very basis of my identity as Houma. It is the connection we have as a people to one another and to this homeland that feds us, cares for us, and has given birth to us that make us the people we are.
As children of the land and water we have known hurricanes and their effects better than most. They are a part of our life-cycle, ingrained in our storied past and alive in our dynamic present.
In my own life story Katrina was the third hurricane in which I would lose my home and most of my belongings. The first two, Betsy in 1965 and Camille in 1969, I would experience as a youth but the lessons were well learned. My dad would admonish me, “you can’t take it with you when you die,” emphasizing that material possessions could easily come and go with the storms and that I needed to be grounded in family and love ones. I saw firsthand, as a young man, how to start over and rebuild; for my people the land and water was always there to provide a foundation to rebuild on.
I would learn a much different lesson as an adult, a lesson made real by my experience with Katrina. My eyes were open and I saw clearly how a century of unchecked economic development had devastated my homeland long before Katrina made landfall a few miles from my home. Levees, jetties, oil fields, and pipeline canals had left deep scars and substantially reduced the capacity of the land and water to protect, provide, and heal. By 2005 the foundation upon which we had rebuilt ourselves time and time again was almost completely gone. Now every storm that comes takes away more than can be restored, the ground beneath our feet is literally washing away.
So with the memory of Katrina still fresh in my mind, I sit in the eye of hurricane Isaac and I tremble. I don’t fear the power of the wind and rain; I’ve known them my whole life, rather I fear the insatiable appetite of colonial capitalism that continues to devour the homeland that I love. When the skies clear tomorrow Isaac will be a memory but the realities of industrial avarice and the coastal land loss it brings will still be here with us.
They call Louisiana the “Sportsman’s Paradise” which, for me, always brings to mind the lyrics of one of my favorite Eagles songs, “You call some place paradise, kiss it goodbye.”