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Oil and Cultural Genocide: From the Amazon to the Gulf

For the past few months, the mainstream media has focused on the environmental and technical dimensions of the Gulf mess. While that's certainly important, reporters have ignored a crucial aspect of the BP spill: cultural extermination and the plight of indigenous peoples. Recently, the issue was highlighted when Louisiana Gulf residents in the town of Dulac received some unfamiliar visitors: Cofán Indians and others from the Amazon jungle.

What could have prompted these indigenous peoples to travel so far from their native South America? Victims of the criminal oil industry, the Cofán are cultural survivors. Intent on helping others avoid their own unfortunate fate, the Indians shared their experiences and insights with members of the United Houma Nation who have been wondering how they will ever preserve their way of life in the face of BP's oil spill.

A culturally rich state, Louisiana has been home to people of mixed racial descent for hundreds of years. In the 18th and 19th centuries, French settlers intermarried with Indian women. The Houma is a Louisiana state-recognized tribe of about 17,000 people which lives along coastal marshes. Traditionally the Indians have survived off the land, working as trappers or fishermen.
According to the Minnesota-based non-profit Native Languages of the Americas, the Houmas are an offshoot of the Choctaw nation. The tribe originally lived in eastern Mississippi but was driven across the state border and later merged with Cajun communities. The Houma dialect of Choctaw has not been actively spoken since the 19th century and currently most tribe members speak English or Cajun French though some elderly converse in a unique Houma variant of Creole French. Before the spill, some Houma Indians were even working to revive their original language.

The BP spill, however, may throw such plans for cultural revival off kilter. Though the Indians have endured the environmental ravages of the oil and gas industry for almost a century, the current environmental disaster could destroy humble fishing villages. "The Gulf spill is an absolute threat on who we are as Houma people and our way of life," commented Thomas Dardar Jr., Principal Chief of the United Houma Nation. "Our homeland and the health of our people are at risk and we must plan for the long-term effects of this catastrophe," he added.
Bayou Pointe-Aux-Chenes and nearby Isle de Jean Charles are home to Houma as well as native Chitimacha tribe members. According to the tribe's official web site, the Chitimacha settled the bayous of southern Louisiana as far back as 500 A.D. The Indians lived in peace until marauding French began slaving raids into indigenous territory in the 18th century. A twelve year war ensued which the tribe barely manage to survive.

As if that were not challenging enough, the Chitimacha later faced encroachment by French, Spanish and U.S. settlers. According to Native Languages of the Americas, Chitimacha is now an extinct language though some of the younger generation is working to revive it. In the 18th century, most Chitimacha adopted Cajun French and the last native speaker died in 1940. Currently, 350 Chitimacha remain on the tribe's Louisiana reservation.

Along local bays and lakes, the Houma and Chitimacha search for shrimp, fish, crabs, oysters and crawfish. Already, however, BP's oil spill has ruined oyster plots, soiled crab traps and cut off shrimp trawlers from prime fishing grounds around Bayou Pointe-Aux-Chenes. On Isle de Jean Charles the culture of the "French Indians," as they call themselves, has been vanishing for some time. Even before the oil spill, many younger Indians weren't getting into fishing or shrimping as the business had become less lucrative. If the shrimping business goes belly up, much of the local culture along the bayous could vanish as well. That is because French is passed along on the shrimping boats as young boys learn to fish using the native French vocabulary.

From Cajuns to Atakapans

Losing the Bayou to an environmental disaster is bad enough, though the prospect of cultural extermination of Francophone Louisiana is arguably just as serious. In the 1700s, French-speaking people in Acadia — now part of Eastern Canada — refused to swear allegiance to the British. As a result, the French, or Cajuns as they came to be known, were exiled and took up life along remote Louisiana bayous.

Though life was physically challenging in their new home, the Cajuns enjoyed the incredible seafood bounty and striking natural beauty. Today, the Cajun population ranges from some 40,000 to half a million, depending on how strict a cultural definition is used. In some Louisiana towns, one can hear happy go lucky zydeco music on the radio, hosted by D.J.'s speaking the local patois. It's not uncommon to see people eating fried fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Head over to the town of Grand Bayou and you won't see any cars, just water and boats. The town is home to Atakapa-Ishak Indians, and their very survival is now jeopardized by the BP spill. The tribe, which is spread out over Texas and Louisiana, was originally a hunting and gathering society. In the late 19th century, the Smithsonian sent a linguist to the Gulf coast to write an Atakapan language dictionary but the expert gave up after he failed to uncover the language's origin.

The project stalled until the 1930s, when an anthropologist finally found a native speaker and finished a dictionary which now lies at the Smithsonian. Today, several hundred people claim to be descendants of the Atakapa, though the federal government has so far failed to extend official recognition to the tribe. Community members are a mixture of Native American, black and Cajun, some of whom still speak French at home.

Grand Bayou is a community which lives off fishing. For years the tribe witnessed the loss of native wetlands, encroachment by the oil and gas industry and even hurricanes. Now, as a result of the oil spill, fishing and shrimping has ground to a halt. Grand Bayou residents are also concerned that chemicals used to disperse leaking oil could hurt fisheries for decades.

Amazonians Head to the Gulf
What could Amazonian leaders hope to add to the environmental discussion afflicting the Gulf? At first it might seem outlandish that South American Indians would tour areas of the Bayou affected by the BP spill and meet with the Houma. Yet Amazonian indigenous peoples have a lot of experience protecting their culture from oil disasters. At a town hall, the Ecuadorans spoke with the Houma and presented a report about severe oil contamination which was carried out in conjunction with the hard hitting environmental advocacy group Amazon Watch.

While the U.S. public is now focused on BP, few are aware of another devastating ecological disaster which hit Ecuador. For years Texaco (now Chevron) dumped millions of gallons of crude into the rainforest and left hundreds of unlined pits in the jungle. The Indians claim that the contamination caused outbreaks of illness, birth defects and cancer. To get a sense of the horrible after effects, be sure to catch the recent documentary film, Crude. Today, thousands of Amazonian Indians are pressing a historic lawsuit against Chevron that, if successful, could provide some environmental remediation.

From a cultural standpoint, oil development in the Ecuadoran Amazon had very disruptive effects. The Tetetes, a tribe which lived near the modern oil boom town of Lago Agrio, was displaced as a result of petroleum development. In the 1970s, missionaries could only find two native speakers of Tetete. Today, the tribe and its language are considered extinct. Other groups including the Siona, Secoya and Huaorani were decimated and lost much of their ancestral lands.

Before Texaco started to drill, the Cofán was a small but thriving tribe numbering some 15,000. Traditionally, the Cofán lived off fishing, hunting and subsistence agriculture. Oil exploration resulted in increased illness, road construction, crimes like murder and rape as well as cultural degradation. Lowland Quichua Indians, displaced by mestizo settlers, moved into Cofán territory. Thus began a process of "Quichuisation" of the Cofán, who in addition faced a growing wave of outsiders including missionaries, settlers and oil companies.

After thirty years of oil drilling, the Indians' numbers were reduced to less than a thousand and the native language placed in great jeopardy. Today the tribe is slowly trying to rebuild its culture by instituting bilingual education programs in Cofán and Spanish. School dress codes meanwhile require traditional clothing, and elder shamans are doing their utmost to transfer their medicinal knowledge to youth.

Perhaps, if there is any silver lining to the BP tragedy, it is that the oil disaster will bring indigenous peoples together. Like the tenacious Cofán, native peoples of the Bayou are determined to hang on in the face of adversity. The Cajuns, having already been expelled once from their homeland, are in no mood to give up or relinquish their independence. James Wilson, assistant director of the Center for Louisiana Studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, recently remarked "I would not expect to see any great migration away, regardless of what happens to these communities. It's a life-or-death decision for them: People can't see a life anywhere else. If they can't live the life that they're used to within their culture, then that is death."

Now that the BP story is fading from view, Bayou people hope that the rest of the country continues to pay attention to their plight. For far too long they, as well as other indigenous peoples from the Amazon rainforest, have paid a disproportionate cultural price owing to oil development.

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Promoting Iraqi Occupation For ‘a Million Years,’ McCain and The International Republican Institute

Though Arizona Senator John McCain seldom talks about it, he has gotten much of his foreign policy experience working with a cloak and dagger operation called the International Republican Institute (IRI). Since 1993, McCain has served as Chair of the outfit, which is funded by the U.S. government and private money. The group, which receives tens of millions of taxpayer dollars each year, claims to promote democracy world-wide. On the surface at least, IRI seems to have a rather innocuous agenda including party building, media training, the organization of leadership trainings, dissemination of newsletters, and strengthening of civil society.

The hottest country in which IRI currently operates is Iraq. According to the IRI’s own web site, since the summer of 2003 the organization “has conducted a multi-faceted program aimed at promoting the development of democracy in Iraq. Toward this end, IRI works with political parties, indigenous civil society groups, and elected and other government officials. In support of these efforts, IRI also conducts numerous public opinion research projects and assists its Iraqi partners in the production of radio and television ads and programs.”

By law, IRI must operate independently of the Republican Party. However, a former institute grant recipient, Ghassan Atiyyah, the Director of the Iraq Foundation for Development and Democracy, said he parted ways with the IRI over his criticism of the Bush administration’s handling of the war. In 2004 Atiyyah, who pressed for a secular, liberal government in Iraq, received $116,448 from IRI. "Instead of promoting impartial, better understanding of certain ideas and concepts, they [the IRI] are actually trying to further the cause of the Republican administration," Atiyyah said. Though Atiyyah said IRI never asked him to censor his views, it became clear to the Iraqi that the two parties disagreed politically. When his funding ran out, neither pursued the relationship. "It is a civilized divorce," he said. (Atiyyah eventually fled Iraq for Britain after his life was threatened).

Who is Running IRI?

Such criticisms aside however, IRI’s overall mission statement on its Web site fundamentally strains credibility. How can the IRI, which is caught up in an incestuous political web with the power elite in Washington and U.S. corporations, claim to be an agent of positive change in Iraq? Although officially non-partisan, IRI is closely aligned with the Republican Party. Dick Cheney received the organization’s Freedom Award in late 2001. Other winners have included Condoleezza Rice, Ronald Reagan, Lynne Cheney, Colin Powell, and Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai.

IRI’s leadership spans the spectrum of center right, far right, and neoconservative factions of the GOP. Most of the organization’s staff and board have links to right-wing think tanks, foundations, and policy institutes. Former Iraq proconsul Paul Bremer, the disastrous colonial administrator who used to wear a blue blazer and hiking boots, sits on IRI’s Board of Directors.

Also sitting on the board is Randy Scheuneman, a former member of the neo-conservative outfit Project for the New American Century. Scheuneman had long-standing ties to the Iraqi National Congress or INC, a loose coalition of Iraqi dissidents and opposition groups headed by the Iraqi flim-flammer , Ahmed Chalabi.

Shady Scheuneman’s ties to McCain go way back even before IRI. In 2000, he served on the Arizona Senator’s foreign policy team during McCain’s unsuccessful presidential bid. Like McCain, Scheuneman was also active in the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, which helped push for official government as well as public support for the invasion of Iraq after the 9/11 terror attacks.

Meanwhile, a who’s who of corporate America chips in to IRI including Blackwater Training Center, part of Blackwater USA. In 2005-6 the company donated $30,000 to IRI. Though Blackwater has fallen under scrutiny as a result of the company’s shooting of 17 people including women and children, the State Department recently decided to renew the firm’s contract.

For Blackwater, the benefits of supporting McCain and IRI are clear: already the Arizona Senator has declared his intention to stay in Iraq “for a thousand years or a million years” if necessary. Behind the scenes, Blackwater is surely praying for a McCain victory in November: Charlie Black, McCain’s chief adviser and a successful Washington lobbyist, has represented the mercenary outfit as well as Chalabi. Black’s connection to Chalabi began in 1999 and continued up until the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

McCain, IRI and Chevron

Though George Bush has scoffed at suggestions that the invasion of Iraq had anything to do with oil, recent press reports give some credence to such claims. In April, Chevron announced that it was involved in discussions with the Iraqi Oil Ministry to increase production in an important oil field in southern Iraq. The discussions were aimed at finalizing a two-year deal, or technical support agreement, to boost production at the West Qurna Stage 1 oil field near Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city.

It turns out that Chevron, like Blackwater, has donated to McCain’s IRI. What’s more, since McCain solidified his position as the GOP’s nominee, Chevron Chairman David O’Reilly gave $28,500 to the GOP. Meanwhile lobbyist Wayne Berman, McCain’s National Finance Co-Chairman, counts Chevron as one of his principal clients.

According to Progressive Media USA, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit, the Arizona Senator has benefited handily from Big Oil. McCain has taken in at least $700,000 from the oil and gas industry since 1989. In Congress, the Arizona senator has worked tirelessly to advance the interests of the oil industry. For example, McCain’s tax plan gives the top five oil companies $3.8 billion a year in tax breaks. McCain meanwhile has voted against reducing dependence on foreign oil, has twice rejected windfall profits tax for Big Oil, and has voted against taxing oil companies to provide a $100 rebate to consumers.

McCain, IRI and Lockheed Martin

As if these corporate ties were not enough, IRI has also accepted money from Lockheed Martin, the world’s #1 military contractor. The firm has been a McCain donor, giving more than $13,000 through its PAC to the Arizona Senator in 2006. According to the Center for Public Integrity, lobbyist Vin Weber, one of McCain’s top political advisers, counted Lockheed Martin as one of his most important clients.

Early on, Lockheed saw that it could benefit from the war in Iraq. The company’s former vice president, Bruce Jackson, even chaired the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. There, he found common cause with Scheuneman, the group’s President, and McCain, the “honorary co-chair.” Jackson also worked with Scheuneman through The Project for the New American Century, a group that the Lockheed man directed personally.

Jackson goes way back in GOP circles. Between 1986 and 1990, when he was working in the Office of the Secretary of Defense in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, he served under Dick Cheney. He also worked under prominent neo-conservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle. In 2000, he chaired the Republican Party Platform’s subcommittee for National Security and Foreign Policy when George W. Bush ran for president.

Jackson was also involved in corralling support for the Iraq war from Eastern European countries, and even went so far as to help to write their letter of endorsement for military intervention. Not surprisingly, Lockheed also had business relations with these countries. In 2003 Poland shelled out $3.5 billion for 48 F-16 fighter planes which it was able to purchase with a $3.8 billion loan from the U.S.

During the start of the Iraq invasion, Lockheed Martin’s F-117 stealth attack fighters were used to “shock and awe” the population. Jackson is now working on McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, serving on the Senator’s foreign policy advisory team.

The mainstream press has completely failed to analyze McCain’s long term involvement in the Iraq imbroglio. If they were to delve too deeply, the corporate pundits would have to confront the uncomfortable truth that the military-industrial complex and the oil industry have played an integral role in the invasion and occupation. Surrounding the whole affair are shady figures such as Black, Scheuneman and Jackson and unscrupulous companies like Chevron, Blackwater and Lockheed Martin. At the center of the vortex are none other than IRI and John McCain.

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