Despite land loss, Native American community clings to life along the Mississippi River

Published: Sep. 18, 2014 at 2:13 PM CDT|Updated: Mar. 4, 2015 at 7:06 PM CST
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A boat makes its way down the bayou in the Grand Bayou community in Plaquemines Parish (FOX 8...
A boat makes its way down the bayou in the Grand Bayou community in Plaquemines Parish (FOX 8 photo)

GRAND BAYOU, LA (WVUE) - Along a sliver of land, a funeral procession brings Ronald Phillips home. First by land, then down the bayou, the 65-year-old man friends called "Killa" takes his last ride.

Last Friday, friends and family crowded onto an oyster boat for the half-mile trip to a small cemetery, which, like the homes here, is accessible only by boat.

"My brother was one of a kind," said his older brother, Raymond Reyes. "It'll take forever for me to let him go, if I let him go."

Killa and his twin, Roland, had turned 65 just three days before Killa died suddenly of a heart attack.

"I never went a place with him that somebody didn't know him," Roland Phillips said.

The Native American people have been living in this area that straddles the Mississippi River for centuries, long before there was a New Orleans.

In Grand Bayou, members of the Atakapa-Ishak tribe still live off the land.

"Very seldom do we go to the store," said Maurice Phillips, a cousin who lives just down the bayou from the small cemetery.

Like their neighbors, Maurice and his wife, Karen, have been hit hard by a series of natural and man-made disasters, from Hurricanes Katrina and Isaac to the 2010 Gulf oil spill.

"You have to adapt to the environment on a daily basis," Karen Phillips said.

The Macondo well blowout sidelined fishermen in Grand Bayou just as the community was beginning to recover from Katrina. Isaac followed a year later.

"It contaminates our water, it affects our livelihoods because we live off of shrimp and crabs and nutria and otters, and we live off of those things," Karen Phillips said.

Dave Cvitanovich, 58, who has been visiting Grand Bayou since he was 10, recalls that the community's struggles began with Hurricane Betsy in 1965.

"You see that tree line out there? That was part of the old Grand Cheniere ridge," said Cvitanovich, pointing to a stand of now-dead oak trees about a mile to the west. "That's like an old natural buffer."

Much of the land that once protected this place is gone, dissected by oil and gas canals, chewed away by salt water, and cut off from the Mississippi River.

"This is part of a Louisiana that used to be," Cvitanovich said.

As recently as 1980, roughly 200 people lived in Grand Bayou. Locals estimate the population today numbers 13 families who make their home there permanently. However, residents are determined to see to it that their community recovers.

"We're still in recovery mode," said Rosina Phillipe, a resident who has served as a frequent spokesperson for the community in its recent struggles. "People are trying to come back, but the resources are limited."

Phillipe cites one symbol of recovery - the community church now under construction and nearing completion.

"Faith is a very strong component in anybody's struggle to survive and to live," Phillipe said.

Elevated on pilings, the church is expected to open in coming weeks, thanks to donations and volunteer efforts.

"We have faith, not only in this place, but faith in God that we are where the creator intended us to be."

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