Climate Change In Louisiana Changes Diets Of Native Americans

Apr 16, 2017
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RAY SUAREZ, HOST:

Now let's head to Louisiana where Native Americans are experiencing the rising tide of climate change, not just in their homes, many of which are now on stilts to stay above water, but at their dinner tables. Barry Yeoman is a freelance journalist based in North Carolina. He's been investigating rising water levels in the area surrounding the Terrebonne Bay in southern Louisiana. And he's found the changing ecosystem is forcing Native people away from centuries-old food gathering traditions toward supermarket shopping and processed food.

Barry Yeoman joins us from WNCU in Durham, N.C., to talk more about this. Thanks for joining us.

BARRY YEOMAN: How are you?

SUAREZ: I'm well thank you. Your investigation focused on Terrebonne Parish, La. It would probably be handy to have a truck and a boat to get around. Tell us about the land and the people who live on it.

YEOMAN: Well, this is one of these parts of Louisiana that's not really fully land, nor fully water. It used to be much more land heavy, but a whole bunch of environmental catastrophes have been conspiring to all eat away at the land. It's becoming more and more an issue of climate change, but it's not only climate change. There are 10,000 miles of canals that have been dug by the oil and gas industry, and they suck in saltwater which eats away at the tree roots.

And it's the tree roots which hold the land together. So for a whole bunch of manmade reasons, the land is sinking, and it's being replaced by water and just making harder and harder for Native Americans there to grow food.

SUAREZ: Many of the people you spoke with for your story describe dramatic changes in the landscape just in their lifetime. Let's listen to Theresa Dardar. Here she's telling you about her grandfather's land, how it looked when she was small and how it looks now.

THERESA DARDAR: I mean, it doesn't look like the same place at all. There's no more trees. There's hardly any more land. It's so small now that I don't think anyone would be able to live there.

SUAREZ: Are the people who had lived here all along clinging to dwindling pieces of land that still stick out of the water?

YEOMAN: Many of them are. Some have left because they just can't survive anymore, but there are people for whom this is really sacred land. Native American tribes in Louisiana have a deep attachment to place and that means trying to stay on the land, even as it becomes harder to grow gardens, even as shrimping is dwindling and crabbing is dwindling. There are people who are just trying to stick it out and to brainstorm about more innovative ways of staying self-sufficient.

SUAREZ: Well, Barry, a group of Native people all facing pretty much versions of the same challenges have gotten together. Tell us about that.

YEOMAN: This is a group that's called the First People's Conservation Council, and they meet every three weeks. And they brainstorm. And I went to a meeting right before Christmas, and it was everything from creating an Excel spreadsheet to track how the seasons are changing to trying to create co-ops that can market value added products.

SUAREZ: Now that you've done this reporting, can you see a day when the Native presence in this part of Louisiana pretty much ends?

YEOMAN: This is an ongoing worry. The folks in Pointe-au-Chien worry that they're one big hurricane away from having their fates sealed, and maybe that comes in 20 years or 25 years or 50 years, but there is definitely talk that they may not survive in that place. They may have to go further inland, further away from the water that has been such a source of food for them.

SUAREZ: That's Barry Yeoman. He's a freelance journalist, and he covered the story for the Food and Environment Reporting Network, an independent news website, The Lens and the Southern Foodways Alliance. He joined us from WNCU in Durham, N.C. Barry, thanks for talking to us.

YEOMAN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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