Smithsonian Channel

The Indigenous Activist Fighting To Save The Bayou From The Oil Industry

Sociologist Kasha Clay on the importance of 'saving our land by saving our livelihoods'

This is how the models are typically framed: Some amount of time in the future, New York City, Shanghai, and Mumbai will be underwater. As humans continue to emit greenhouse gases, the heat trapped in our atmosphere raises the earth’s average temperature, melts the ice caps on the tips of the planet, and thus, results in rising sea levels.

While the majority of people typically focus on how major cities will be impacted, the fact is that many people’s homes are being washed away right now. Smithsonian Channel’s Last Call for the Bayou highlights the impact rapidly changing coastlines along the Mississippi River Delta has on the environment and the humans who inhabit it.

The second episode of the web series introduces Kasha Clay, a 30-year-old sociology student at Nicholls State University and member of the United Houma Nation, a state-recognized Native tribe of 17,000 people in Southeastern Louisiana. In 2016, Clay worked alongside researchers from University of New Orleans Center for Hazards Assessment, Response & Technology (UNO Chart) and Louisiana Sea Grant to collect oral histories from local experts and study the effects changing coastlines have had on the tribe’s culture. Together, they turned that qualitative input into quantitative data, producing maps that reveal how the area — and its residents’ way of life — has changed over time.

The project was perfect for Clay, who practically grew up on her father’s shrimp boat and never understood why the people around her would seemingly rather adapt to new conditions than go up against the oil industry, which seems to have a hand in every piece of the local economy. “It's a really sore subject to talk about, because a lot of families live off of the oil industry and just big industries in general,” she tells MTV News. The industry is also, Clay believes, part of the reason the Houma tribe has struggled to gain federal recognition for decades.

“I think if we were to be federally recognized, our tribe could be able to bring in federal money that would help restore the land here,” she says. But while she is also worried about “playing tug-of-war” with big industry, she also knows about the change she and her tribe can affect in the interim. “There's so much we can do without that title,” she says. “And I think that's what I've been doing.”

During a recent phone conversation, Clay talked to MTV News about her research, the cultural implications of a changing environment, and her hopefulness for the future.

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MTV News: Did anything surprise you as you were going through and collecting the oral histories that mapped out your land’s degradation over time?

Clay: There was a connection I noticed between our tribal healers — we call them traiteur, because our tribe is really connected to French culture because we did a lot of trading with the French here in the south. Through land loss, our healers in particular have not been able to use the same herbal medicines that they have in the past. And places that used to be fields of orange trees, mangroves, cattle, and things like that, they’re completely gone. There's actual cemeteries that are just completely washed away, but the tombstones are not even all the way gone right now. Old tombstones, half in the water, half not. They apparently moved the remains, but still you could see that there was a cemetery there that's washing away. As we speak, it’s still there. It's so weird. It's very scary, but it's reality right there, you can't deny it.

MTV News: Something else that I was thinking particularly about this documentary is the connection between the culture of a people and the land that they live on. I was going to ask if there were any aspects of your culture that had been lost in the water — the cemetery is a clear one.

Clay: I would say, definitely that — the memorials as well as the healers, as well as a place that we used to have our powwows. We can't even use that place anymore and it's now declared a Superfund site that’s so toxic. It’s in Grand Bois.

MTV News: That was within your lifetime?

Clay: Oh yes, definitely. Now, the area where the cemetery was, they built a very high overpass — the LA-1 continuation road. … They built it as high as they possibly could for people to pass over it if there was a [tidal surge]. They just recently built it within the past 5 to 10 years. They built it over the original road, and that original road is where that cemetery is. It's basically washing away now. That whole little town of Leeville, basically everybody moved out of it. … Which is so sad but at the same time it is so wild to see. We rode up in the boat right next to the original road, and literally the water is lapping over the original road.

MTV News: You hear a lot about how, in the next 30 years, water levels are going to be high enough that New York City will be underwater, but this isn't a problem for 30 years from now; this is a problem right now.

Clay: Yeah. Our tribal community, Isle de Jean Charles, had the first community move. They moved those citizens off of that island to a community somewhere closer inland. I think it's the first one in the nation that they actually moved because of rising sea levels.

MTV News: Coming from the side of sociology, what is the value of collecting human stories in forwarding the environmental movement?

Clay: I think that a big thing is being able to communicate what I've learned to people that are on my level when it comes to local Indigenous people. They can hear it so much, but until someone that relates to them can actually explain things to them on their level, it doesn't make that much difference. It's been a great thing for me, being able to take this work and communicate it to people that really live these lives and are in these situations and to have them understand it. They don't have to go to a conference and sit through crazy terminology and jargon to be able to pick up on what's going on.

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MTV News: It seems like it's not a lost cause for the older generations to recognize that things don't have to be this way.

Clay: Oh yeah. I think if anybody, at any age, would go to that area where the water meets the road, that would make such a huge difference in realizing what's going on and how dire the situation is.

MTV News: The image that I have in my mind is haunting.

Clay: It's really crazy, but the sun does shine there. It can be very bright. There's porpoises all around. It can be beautiful, but it's just eye-opening. I'm such an optimist, I'll always see the beautiful things that are around us moving forward, but at the same time, it’s right in front of us.

MTV News: How do you take these stories that you've collected and these maps that you've drawn and communicate them to the industries that are damaging your land?

Clay: There's only so much we can do about that. It's just so over our heads. And the big thing is at a local level, they still argue for the same old, same old. … Nobody's really pushing for [clean energy] or really understanding that. So it really starts at a local level. If we had a bigger following of people that understood that, maybe we could make a change. But everybody's fussing because the oil industry's moving to Texas. The entire government in this area is all funded by big industries, so people are more scared than anything to speak out on it because everybody, everything, everyone feeds off of it.

And I'm not trying to be that aggressive person that pushes people away, but how do you fight that mentality that we need to save this oil industry? Let’s use what we have to be able to change our direction and save our land by saving our livelihoods.

MTV News: You said that you are an optimist. Having completed your project and working with your community, do you feel hopeful moving forward?

Clay: Yes. I definitely do. There are quite a few groups and organizations coming through to teach the locals, like grassroots efforts of what's important and how to move forward in a better way. So I do feel hopeful for the future. A lot of restoration projects are still trying to come out of the woodwork. There are a lot of things being done, but I think it still needs to be connected with more locals, as well, communities. I'm hopeful for that.

This interview has been edited and condensed.