Ca­jun cul­ture threat­ened by Gulf oil spill

De­scen­dants of French set­tlers see tra­di­tional life in jeop­ardy

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Su­san Saulny

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.”

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