As Oil Drilling Looms in the Gulf, ‘Forgotten’ Native Americans Fear for Their Fragile Community

Three months after Hurricane Ida made landfall in the parish adjacent to Albert Naquin’s home in southern Louisiana, the 75-year-old chief of the Isle de Jean Charles Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw is thankful that the tribe is still holding its head above water, “at least from the nose up.” Ida wiped out all but one of the 25 homes of tribal members still living on the Isle de Jean Charles, he says, and their friends in the neighboring Pointe-au-Chien Tribe were hit just as hard. Theresa Dardar, a Pointe-au-Chien tribal member who helped establish a supply distribution center within days of the storm, says most of their displaced folks are elderly, and it’s hard for them to start over. “But they have to. Everything’s gone.” Both tribes have lived in the area since 1830, when they were forced by the U.S. government to move west of the Mississippi.

Now, they worry that their efforts to restore their communities will be threatened by new oil and gas drilling just offshore of Terrebonne Parish, after leasing was just reopened in the area by the Biden administration. During the auction on Nov. 17 conducted by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), energy giants such as BP, Chevron and ExxonMobil bid over $198 million for the right to drill on 1.72 million acres of seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico. In 2017, the U.S. Department of the Interior estimated that the lease sales could lead to the production of up to 1.12 billion barrels of oil and 4.42 trillion feet of gas. If burned, 516 million metric tons of greenhouse gases will be released, an amount equivalent to “112 million cars, 130 coal-fired power plants operating for a year, or the carbon sequestered by 632 million acres of forests,” according to Earthjustice.

Naquin’s deputy chief, Wenceslaus “Boyo” Billiot, says the sale is “a wave coming to destroy us some more.”