Cajun culture threatened by Gulf oil spill
Descendants of French settlers see traditional life in jeopardy
CHAUVIN, La. — Stanley Sevin knew it was time to have the difficult conversation with his parents when he saw the oil sheen shimmering under his family’s dock on the bayou. He had been putting it off ever since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in April.
“Sell the house, and go start fresh somewhere else,” Sevin, 24, pleaded with his family, shrimpers of Cajun ancestry. “The business is dead, and this life is over.”
For the Cajuns of southern Louisiana — exiled in the 1700s from French settlements in Acadia, now part of eastern Canada, for refusing to swear allegiance to the British — life along the bayous has been bittersweet, with the constant threats of lightning-quick destruction from hurricanes and floods on top of the slow-motion agony of coastal erosion.
What they got in return for their tolerance of living in what early cartographers called No Man’s Land was a world-class bounty of seafood and freedom in an environment of striking natural beauty. Now that is in jeopardy.
The oil spill has delivered a dose of misery for all those who live intimately with the land here. But for the Cajuns, whose rustic French American culture is almost wholly dependent
Continued from A1 on the natural bayous that open to the Gulf of Mexico, it has forced the question of whether they can preserve their way of life — and if so, at what cost?
“This has been the lowest low for me,” said O’Neil Sevin, Stanley’s father, whose 45-foot skimmer, Heaven Bound, has been mostly bound to its dock on Bayou Petit Caillou because prime fishing areas are closed. “My wife cried and cried over this. Just the other night she told me, ‘Thank God there isn’t a loaded gun in this house.’”
Along Little Bayou Black in Houma, north of Chauvin, Wylma Dusenbery, the matriarch of a large Cajun family of folk singers, said: “When our people got here from Nova Scotia, they called it ‘la paradis de la Louisiane.’ It was paradise.” She paused, then said sternly, “Nobody’s moving.”
Interviews with Cajuns along the coast show that the spill has also renewed a generations-old resolve to persevere in an inhospitable environment for the sake of independence and family unity. They refuse to be expelled again, so they say, by a 21st-century menace spreading economic hardship in their beloved but grief-giving lowlands.
For O’Neil Sevin, a professional fisherman, however, the strain has been so bad as to require anti-anxiety medication.
“I really have a lot of pain inside of me not knowing what is truly going to happen,” he wrote in his journal.
Sevin is usually busy this time of year selling bait to deep-sea fishermen and seafood to retailers. On a good weekend last year, he said, it was not uncommon for the business to ring up $4,000 worth of sales in a day. He was ‘This has been the lowest low for me,’ said O’Neil Sevin, left, a professional fisherman of Cajun ancestry. His son Stanley, right, has urged his family to leave southern Louisiana. up at 4:30 a.m. and busy until nightfall, when he would fish for fun.
Now he tries to fill his days with odd jobs around the dock, about 25 miles inland from the Gulf, to keep busy. He might use his free time to learn the dying Cajun art of shrimp-net sewing from his 73-year-old father, who built a successful life around shrimp but spends most of his time these days with a plastic needle in hand, weaving the worry away.
So far, O’Neil Sevin has received $21,000 in compensation checks from BP to partly cover continuing lost wages and is negotiating for more.
Sevin, who said the business made $56,000 in May 2009 alone, also considered what he called the loathsome prospect of working for BP in the cleanup, but his boat was rejected.
Despite warnings not to do so, family members continue to eat fish out of the bayou that they catch together in the evenings. On the dock at dusk, Stanley Sevin dropped a line fishing for speckled trout and shrugged off health concerns. Deep frying makes it OK, he said.
Most of the Acadians who moved south settled around Lafayette in the south-central part of the state. Others went farther, settling along bayous and swamps of parishes such as Lafourche, Terrebonne and St. Charles. Estimates of the size of the Cajun population range from 40,000 to more than a half-million.
Cajuns on the coast might be able to hold on for now, but the question of what happens in the long run remains.
“I would not expect to see any great migration away, regardless of what happens to these communities,” said James Wilson, assistant director of the Center for Louisiana Studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. “It’s a life-or-death decision for them: People can’t see a life anywhere else. If they can’t live the life that they’re used to within their culture, then that is death.”