Bayou people struggle

For three hundred years the people of Grand Bayou, La., have subsisted in the marshlands to the southeast of New Orleans.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | GRAND BAYOU, La. | September 13, 2003

"This is one of the most unique communities in North America at this point."

—Rev. Kristina Peterson

For three hundred years the people of Grand Bayou, La., have subsisted in the marshlands to the southeast of New Orleans. The people there claim descent from the Atakapa Indians, and also acknowledge the genetic contributions of African Americans as well as French settlers. They speak creole French, and they make a simple living by fishing and shrimping.

This unique group, today no more numerous than 125 people, managed to survive through the 20th century in almost total isolation from the outside world more isolated, in some ways, than the Amish of southern Pennsylvania, the inhabitants of Smith Island on Maryland's Eastern Shore, or the Gullah of South Carolina. (There are no roads to Grand Bayou, even today. Phones were first installed in 1992, and running water lines in 1992. Small wonder that there is no tourism to speak of.)

But development of the nearby bayou, the construction of nearby canals and levees, and the gradual constriction of the lands they once used to wander as nomadic farmers and fisherman-all of these factors have slowly made their existence in Grand Bayou less and less tenable. And by their reckoning, the townspeople have lived here at least 300 years. (Archaeologists have dated burial mounds in the area to about 1000 AD.)

These people, however, managed to survive, despite these encroachments on their unusual way of life, until the catastrophic events of the last year the triple burden laid down by Hurricane Lili and tropical storms Isidore and Bill.

The Rev. Kristina Peterson, a consultant for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, from Mannington, W. Va., has been working closely with these people since December 2002, and she has her doubts whether Grand Bayou will make it without a substantial infusion of outside assistance.

Lili and Isidore last fall were bad enough, Peterson said. Some homes in Grand Bayou were filled with about three feet of water. But Bill was even more devastating, leaving about four feet of water, and coming at a time when the town has just finished recovering from the storms of last fall.

Peterson said she originally went to Grand Bayou with social worker Celeste Delafosse because problems "were not being addressed properly" and in order "to see what was happening where and what was falling through the cracks." What they found was that people hit by the storm were receiving little to no assistance.

Louisiana may often fall prey to storms of similar magnitude, but the people of Grand Bayou miraculously managed to escape every single one of them according to the oral history of Grand Bayou (most of the inhabitants are functionally illiterate), which does not mention the town taking a major hit from any storms during the 20th century.

"This is one of the most unique communities in North America at this point," she said.

Peterson found out personally just how unique this community is. She discovered a town that is more of a family - an intensely Christian family, resembling in some ways the very first Christians who lived in communal arrangements.

"The resources of the community are shared corporately," Peterson said. "It's really a village where they all care for each other."

Their Christianity is so basic, she said, that natives didn't even understand a question from a visiting pastor regarding the ownership of the Grand Bayou church (he meant to inquire after the denominational affiliation).

"To whom does the church belong?" was the question he asked. "To Jesus, of course" was the answer he got.

'Big bucks' vs. bayou basics

Not everyone is thrilled about the efforts of people like Peterson to save Grand Bayou.

Development has recently become a hot thing in the surrounding area. Fishing and recreation have become big business in the area, and land is being snatched up by developers who then build expensive homes for the wealthy. Oil and gas companies have been penetrating into the area for decades. Lots near Grand Bayou have sold for more than $130,000.

"There are some very wealthy people in Plaquemines Parish who would rather see the people of Grand Bayou disappear," she said.

This is the very land that the people of Grand Bayou once roamed at will, where they once hunted game and harvested rice. Canals and levees, while useful to the outlanders, chopped up the lands once used as rice paddies, and made Grand Bayou more vulnerable to wind damage and more susceptible to storm surges.

"Then companies starting claiming lands that were theirs historically," Peterson said. "Now they're being asked to lease lands that were once theirs. The injustice of it is just incredible."

Needless to say, the backward inhabitants of Grand Bayou are not exactly compatible with the financial ambitions of developers and petroleum companies, Peterson said.

It's not that the people of Grand Bayou are neo-Luddites many of them own television sets and refrigerators.

"They have all the modern entrapments," Peterson said. "But it's all the old stuff that nobody else wants."

But they do try to stay separated from the modern world, mainly in order to avoid the social problems that come with it particularly drugs and crime.

There is none of that in Grand Bayou, Peterson said. No smoking, no drinking, no drugs.

The elders of the town make sure to impress that fact upon teenagers, by taking them on a tour of the jails, courthouses and drug treatment centers of Plaquemines Parish as a particularly graphic say-no-to-drugs coming-of-age ritual.

Grand Bayou doesn't have a jail. Nor a police station. Nor any cops.

If that sounds unbelievable, another Grand Bayou legend may seem impossible: the locals claims that a child has never died on the bayou, a fact that the people attribute to God's mercy for their years of faithfulness.

"That just give you the goosebumps," Peterson said. "They are real believers that there are miracles happening all the time."

People like Peterson would like Grand Bayou to remain a place where miracles are possible. And she has a plan, which calls for funding from faith-based groups, that she thinks would keep the community from disintegrating.

One step being taken to preserve Grand Bayou, she said, has been to incorporate the entire town as a nonprofit organization. Another step is an attempt to get government recognition of the Atakapa Indian tribe, which could accord the residents of Grand Bayou a legal stature they currently lack.

Delafosse and Peterson have also acted as advocates for community members. In one case they were particularly successful: a woman who had originally received less than a thousand dollars from the Federal Emergency Management Agency wound up getting more than $8,000 after their intervention.

They have also facilitated scientific and anthropological research in the community, and some of these studies have recently got funding from the National Science Foundation and the National Academy of Sciences.

Plus they have also worked to help the locals help themselves. Two community elders, Myrtle Phillips and Kim Fylve serve on the board of a committee designed for that purpose. But since they won't be able to pull off the restoration without any outside help, Peterson has put together a proposal that calls for more than $300,000 in funding, and part of that sum would pay for a full time program manager.

But beyond the basic issues of survival, the committee will also work to make Grand Bayou a cleaner place. The first place to start, Peterson said, is with the community's sewage system, which consists of pipes that go straight from toilet and sink - straight into the swamp.

"They really see the environmental degradation as being one of the biggest issues," she said. "They see the land as a gift from God. That means caring the best they can for their natural resources."

If all these efforts are successful, Grand Bayou may become the kind of place that was revealed to the local pastor in a fit of prophecy.

"He literally had a vision that he shared with the congregation," Peterson said. The pastor said that God showed him the bayou of the near-future an Edenic, transformed community, a Grand Bayou that was better than it had even been before.

"They this all as a sign that this is going to happen," she said.

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