The True Story Behind the Set of “Beasts of the Southern Wild”

‘The Bathtub’ really is slipping into the Gulf of Mexico — and the remaining inhabitants may soon be environmental refugees

A year after the indie movie Beasts of the Southern Wild took the Sundance Film Festival by storm, it is now one of the surprise hit nominees of the 2013 Academy Awards. The film got four Oscar nominations, including Best Movie, Best Director (Benh Zeitlin), Best Adapted Screen Play, and Best Actress for 6-year-old Houma native Quvenhane Wallis.

photoname All photos by Julie DermanskyChildren in the Biloxi-Chimacha-Choctaw tribe run over a bridge that crosses a bayou to get to
their home on Isle de Jean Charles.

If you’ve seen the movie, you know something about the raw, haunting beauty of southern Louisiana’s coastal landscape. And you might remember that film depicts a place and a people that are imperiled. What you might not know is how true-to-life the story is.

Today Isle de Jean Charles and Pointe au Chien, a part of Terrebonne Parish locals call “The Bathtub,” are threatened by costal erosion and political red tape. Coastal erosion is a major threat along much of the Louisiana shoreline. The levees that girdle the Lower Mississippi River have robbed the delta of the silt deposits necessary to keep the low-lying land from disappearing under the constant pressure of the tides. Louisiana’s large the oil and gas industry have cut channels and canals throughout the marshland, fueling saltwater intrusion and further contributing to shoreline erosion. Since 1930 the Louisiana coast has lost about 190,000 square miles of land, an area the size of Rhode Island.

State and federal agencies, along with a range of private groups, are working to halt the steady erosion of the Louisiana coastline. Odd though it may seem to some, a portion of the settlement money from the BP oil spill has been set aside for coastal protection. But the Bathtub has for the most part been left off Louisiana’s Master Plan for coastal restoration. Two Indian tribes, the Pointe-au-Chien and the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaws, are making what could be their last stand as they fight to have their communities recognized and protected.

horseHorse in the marsh in Pointe-aux-Chien Louisiana next to an oil and gas substation.

During a meeting at which the public was invited to voice its concerns, Patty Ferguson, one of the Pointe au-Chien’s lawyers (and a tribe member herself) asked why the tribal land isn’t protected. “State agencies claim the science doesn’t support restoration of these areas,” she told me. Until the tribe can hire experts on their own, tribal members are unwilling to accept the state’s conclusion that their threatened lands can’t be saved. (Ferguson claims that many coastal restoration studies are funded by the same interests — oil and gas and big agriculture upriver — that have caused the damage in the first place.

The tribes’ efforts to protect the land have been stymied by the fact that neither of them are federally recognized tribes. Although both groups have been recognized by the state of Louisiana, they fall outside federal definition of a Native American nation, which requires more historic documentation than they have provided. According to Ferguson, tribes with far less documentation have gotten federal recognition, so she will not abandon the fight. Without federal recognition, the tribes do not have direct representation in Natural Environmental Resource Damage Assessment, a group made up of Gulf state government officials, the Department of the Interior, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and BP representatives to oversee coastal restoration projects and funding.

The oil spill dealt an economic blow to the people of Pointe au Chien and Isle de Jean Charles. Both tribes are fighting for financial settlements equal to the value of seafood they could not catch when the fisheries were closed. "Loss of subsistence" claims were denied at first, but oil spill claims czar Kenneth Feinberg agreed to consider them as the claims process unfolded.     

hut Pointe-Aux-Chien Jake Billiot works on a Palmetto hut that he and other elders built during a
summer camp session for the tribes' children to expose them to their disappearing culture.

Albert P. Naquin, chief of the Isle de Jean Charles Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, told me that so far BP has given them only $1,000 for turkeys, a gesture that was meant to provide one turkey for each family. The funds fell short, so L.C. Dupree, owner of the Pointe au Chien market, chipped in $100 to cover the shortfall. Chief Naquin’s requests for the additional funds were denied despite his having turned over receipts to BP.

I asked Ray Melick, BP Director of Media and Communications, what the company has done for these tribes. He couldn’t point to anything specific, but said that BP provided them the opportunity to work in the “vessel of opportunity program,” the system that BP set up during the height of the 2010 spill to hire locals boats to help with the cleanup. Melick also said that BP has given funds to a nearby community center in Dulac utilized by the Houma tribe. Melick says efforts to help the tribes directly are stymied by their not having federal recognition, so it is up to local government to fund initiatives in the area, not BP.

Garret Graves, head of the Coastal Protection Restoration Authority says he would have liked to do more to save the tribal lands in Terrebonne Parish, but that it isn't feasible. Some homes might be able to survive by lifting them onto stilts, and out of the way of the incoming water. Other tribal members will have to be relocated. This would be funded by the state, through agencies including FEMA, who will take care of hazard mitigation for the tribes. It would take at least $200 billion to restore and protect all of coastal Louisiana and the funds are not there, Graves said. He stressed that of all the factors affecting the coast, a federal agency — the Army Corps of Engineers, which built and manages the levees on the Mississippi — has caused the greatest damage, and yet the Corps of Engineers continues to be involved in the decision-making process on coastal restoration.

While the Pointe-au-Chien and the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaws fight for federal recognition and their share of the BP restoration funds, the water continues to rise. It is likely that the members of these tribes will become some of America’s first environmental refugees, a people left behind and neglected — a story very much like the fictional one in Beasts of the Southern Wild.

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