Oil and Water: American Indian Sovereignty and Environmental Change in Coastal Louisiana

Saturday, January 5, 2013: 2:50 PM
Napoleon Ballroom D3 (Sheraton New Orleans)
Robert Andrew Gilmer, University of South Carolina
My paper examines the relationship between the environment of the Mississippi River Delta and the politics of federal recognition of Indian nations. Following colonization, coastal Louisiana was considered a wasteland by most Europeans and later Euroamericans, and served as a haven for Indian nations in the Gulf South who were being displaced by American settler colonialism. In the process that isolation enabled them to avoid policies like Removal, but it also meant that many of them never established a formal nation-to-nation relationship with the United States.

By the late 20th century, as these Indian communities sought to gain that recognition, their efforts have been continuously hampered by a series of environmental disasters, caused by both the regulation of the Mississippi River and the effects of oil and gas extraction, which have not only caused a modern displacement as they are literally pushed inland by land loss, but have also left them increasingly exposed to hurricanes and catastrophic oil spills, such as the one in 2010. While much has been written about the complexities involved in the acknowledgement process, this paper argues that in South Louisiana, the politics of tribal sovereignty and recognition are intimately connected to both the changing environment and changing ideas about the environment of the delta region itself.