Gulf Oil Spill Devastates Native People
Thousand Year Way of Life May Not Survive
In early May, Devon Riter and Christi Kuhn were at a party of fellow students in Montana State University's graduate Science and Natural History Filmmaking program celebrating the end of their first year of graduate school. The mood was high before the conversation turned to the then-recent disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
"I felt like I had to go there," recalls Kuhn of the conversation. "I felt there was something I could do."
What Riter and Kuhn did was drive to the Gulf on their own dime, capturing a series of videos that are now being used by national conservation groups to illustrate the human cost of the Gulf disaster.
Riter and Kuhn's short clips about the Atakapa-Ishak Native people, who live in Louisiana's Grand Bayou, have been used as public service announcements for the Gulf Restoration Network. (See youtube.com) The Sierra Club and other conservation groups also plan to use the videos that put a face on the impact of the disaster on the people who live in the marshes and bayous off the Gulf. The clips can be viewed on Riter and Kuhn's Web site: deepwaterfilm.com.
"The people there have lived in the bayou, have had this way of life, for 1,000 years," Kuhn said. "Now, they’re waiting for it to be ruined forever. It breaks my heart."
Riter and Kuhn's immediate response, and their capturing of some of the first video to come out of the Gulf of the human impact of the spill, drew praise from their MSU professors.
"Christi and Devon have shown how the production skills taught at MSU can be applied quickly to rapidly changing events," said Dennis Aig, program head of MSU's MFA in Science and Natural History Filmmaking. "Their initiative and social commitment have put the filmmaking principles of our program into socially important and produc-tive action.”
Kuhn and Riter lived with the Atakapa-Ishak while making the films, forging deep bonds with the people who live in a water world where there are no cars, only boats, and houses are built on stilts above the water. The tribe lives off the water as its ancestors did for generations, making a life fishing, shrimping, trapping and digging oyster beds.
It was a world away from Riter and Kuhn's life in Bozeman, and even farther from their respective homes in Michigan and Sweden and their professions prior to enrolling in MSU's Master's in Fine Arts program.
Kuhn, who is a native of Boulder, Colo. and a graduate of Colorado State University, is a neuroscientist who came to MSU from Sweden. She and her husband, who both have Ph.D.s, established a center for stem cell and brain research at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. Her husband, a German national whom Kuhn met while in graduate school at the University of Regensburg in Germany, and her 9-year-old daughter live in Sweden, and traveled to Bozeman several times during the last year to visit Kuhn while she was studying for her MFA. Kuhn said she has always been interested in filmmaking and her family made sacrifices so she could attend MSU's one-of-a-kind program that combines science and film.
"I've always wanted to do this," she said of the science and documentary filmmaking course. "It was definitely the right thing for me."
Riter, a native of Waubay, S.D., graduated from Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D. He has been a scientist and a high school teacher. He was a Ph.D. student at Michigan State when he found the MSU Science and Natural History filmmaking on a random Google search.
"I thought that it would be an interesting way to combine my interests in science and education," Riter said.
Kuhn said the two didn't know each other well until their trip to the Gulf. They drove in Kuhn's car three days from Bozeman to New Orleans. Kuhn had her own camera and Riter had sound and lighting equipment. They didn't have any contacts in Louisiana, but they identified three dozen environmental groups who might be looking for videographers and began contacting them to let them know that they "would love to help out." That led to a contact with the Gulf Restoration Network headquartered in New Orleans and the Atchafalaya Basinkeepers. The group invited Riter and Kuhn to attend a meeting of conservation groups at the University of New Orleans.
"We were really the only filmmakers at the meeting," Kuhn said. "That was the basis for all our contacts."
Kuhn said the MSU filmmakers were fortunate to film Gina Solomon, senior scientist at the National Resource Development Council as she took air samples in the Grand Bayou.
Kuhn recalls that all on the boat were chilled when Solomon found that the air in the bayou already had many times more parts of dangerous benzene than normal long before the oil slick had come close to the area.
Through that experience Riter and Kuhn met Rosina Philippe, a community leader for the Atakapa-Ishak people in the Grand Bayou. The Philippes took in the MSU filmmakers, who spent one week filming the people as they lived, shrimped and waited in despair for the oil slick to destroy their way of life.
"They treated us like family," Kuhn said."Their main source of income is from fishing, which is also their food source. They live off the land. These people make their whole year's living during shrimping season, and the season was halted just a few days in because of the oil spill."
Kuhn said the short-term as well as long-term ramifications are grim for the people, who believe they had just gotten back to even keel after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
"Everything—their food, income, culture, religion—are linked to this area," Kuhn said, adding that she and Riter saw dead fish and tar balls on the beaches. "They do not want to leave. They said they would die before they leave. It's very sad."
The importance of family was magnified during the two-week trip when Kuhn learned that her own father had died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Kuhn and Riter debated whether to abandon the project, but eventually decided that Kuhn would catch a plane in New Orleans to Colorado for the funeral. She returned the day after the funeral to help finish filming.
Riter and Kuhn never saw other documentary filmmakers in their two weeks in the Gulf. However, other media outlets have recently interviewed the Philippes, who have since been featured on National Geographic's Web site and NPR pieces.
Soon after they returned to Bozeman, Kuhn flew to Sweden to bring her daughter to Bozeman for the summer. Riter left for the University of Michigan where he is making a scientific film. The two stay in touch with the Philippe and the people of the Grand Bayou, where the oil slick is now about 10 miles from their home. Riter and Kuhn hope to return to Grand Bayou in August to resume filming.
Kuhn said she and Riter and their Deepwater Productions are working to raise $50,000 to make a 10-minute short and then a full-length documentary about the Atakapa-Ishak and how the spill has affected their way of life.
Kuhn and Riter will host a viewing of a Sierra Club DVD that includes their footage Friday, July 2, at a time and location to be determined.
"This experience was life changing for Devon and me," Kuhn said. "The culture and way of life there was so different from what we both know.
"(The oil) is going to come. They know that. How do you prepare yourself for that? To see the pain on their faces is hard, knowing that there's nothing that they can do."