Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Least Tern and Sabine Indians

Forty three years of law practice yielded up to this seeker of sensation and spice many weird and off the radar experiences.

I represented many of the Sabine Indian people who live in the marsh on the edge of the gulf south of Houma, Louisiana. They speak a dialect of Cajun French which is a dialect of Parisian French. They primarily fish, trawl and trap for a living, with a diet of fish, crab and oyster and occasional coon, possum, squirril or rabbit. Many times I sat at a table totally overflowing with great boiled crabs and shrimp, getting it on me all the way to my elbows. Delicious. South of Houma, head toward Montegut (monteegue) and then head south again to Pont Au Chein (meaning fork of the oak tree---that is what the locals say it means--not dog=chein.) Beyond that you drive south again down among the bayous. Soon you will come to what appears to be the end of everything, a marsh as far as the eye can see in every direction, with brown marsh grass waving in the wind like an endless wheat field shot through with saltwater canals. Then you reach a thread of high ground with oak trees on each side bordered closely by encroaching marsh with houses in varied condition, some on stilts, on each side of the road bordered by a canal on one side. When I first visited there in the early seventies, there was land around these home and cattle. The last time I went water and marsh came right up to the back of many houses, and after Katrina and Rita I have no idea if the whole area is washed away.

Proceed a mile or so down that road and you arrive at the end of the world, for you can go no farther---it is just marsh and gulf south of there. My clients and friends lived on that little peninsula of dry ground. The people are of the Chittamacha (spelling) tribe, who subsisted over the centuries just as they do today, building boats, living off the land, with an idea the land is theirs. They are looked down upon by the Cajuns, who consider them "Sabs," lesser breeds, and so they stay isolated and marry among their culture, which is unique asmuch as the Cajun life is unique just north of there.

I spent quite a few pages in my novel, Dawn's Revenge, telling about this area and the people for my protagonist, Jack Chandler, escaped the clutches of a vengeful sheriff by hiding out there among his friends. Once I was sitting on the dock by the canal in front of my friend's home, smoking, drinking beer with my friends after a fishing trip, when an old man, in his late eighties, came paddling up in a pirogue (a shallow, very narrow, flat bottomed boat about eight feet long) from the south. He had a home on a little high ground a couple of miles south which had become surrounded by water and now he would come to visit his family and friends by boat. He was wizened, toothless and gnarled as an old root. He didn't speak any english. I gave him a beer and a cigarette, and we squatted on that dock for an hour, smoking, with him smiling at me, his clear, sparkling eyes watching with humor everything around him.

They are very friendly if they take you in, otherwise they are aloof and suspicious. I was one of their own. They would open the door, grab me by the arm, sit me in the swing, bring me a cup of scalding sweet hot coffee and talk in their heavy accented patois, and I would feel so warm and welcomed. I handled lots of their cases almost exclusively as their lawyer until a lawyer in New Orleans married into a family in the community and then only a few of my oldest friends kept me on. It was a rich and enriching experience for they always had some claim for an offshore accident, hurt on a rig, shrimp boat, etc. Steady clients and good money, and good fun.

They felt they had free run of the whole of their territory on the islands around, the many strips of beaches reaching into the gulf and on the canals. Then environmentalists came in and began cutting off areas that one couldn't trespass where a threatened specie may be nesting, such as the Least Term. The Least Tern is a kind of small seagull that lays eggs in the sand and has been declared threatened. They posted signs and warnings not to cross in this area of the beach, which before had been part of a means of ingress and egress to the beaches beyond where my friends would go and picnic and fish.

My friend and her family continue their usual pattern of crossing that area, and evidently drove straight through the posted area where these little birds lay their eggs, and sure enough there was one of the few agents there who arrested the driver and charged with a hefty fine. My friends swore there was no sign or warning, and that if there were warnings they were posted after she crossed through. She was adamant and angry, being a bit hot under the collar naturally. Now Linda was not a Sabine,but a Cajun lady who married to the community and she and Dave had three kids and lived out there in the worst of conditions but seemed to be consummately happy. I took the case at her insistence, because you just have to do so when you have good friends needing help.

I went to New Orleans to the hearing, and all of these game wardens were there, and they said the passed through the warnings and posted signs all around, nearly hitting one. She said they were lying and were just trying to discriminate against Indians. Well, they broke out a little video and it seems the agent was really on the ball for there she was, blasting right through the area, nearly hitting a sign that said no trespassing, squashing many little eggs in the process. the video showed broken eggs in that tiny nest in the sand with her tire tracks all over it. She stayed angry at me as if I was in collusion with the law even though she could see herself sitting high in that pickup talking away to her kids as she ripped right through the area. Of course there was no fee and even with the visual proof, she stayed mad at me for a year or so as if I had done something wrong. Then we were dear friends again. I understood the phenomena.

I have many stories about these great people and unusual cases.

If you ain't livin', you are dyin."
(Shankshaw Redemption.)


  1. Really enjoyed reading about the people in southern Louisiana. I am from Many, which is about 10 miles from the Sabine River. Since we were from the Bible Belt of Baptists, our folks would not let us go down to New Orleans because it was "wicked." Of course, this made us want to go there.

  2. I also enjoyed reading about the people of South Louisiana. I am from Michigan, but worked in the Oil Industry in the 80's, I lived in Houma for 6 years, made many trips to Montegut, Point Au Chein, Chauvin, Dulac, and the list goes on. I would love to go back and visit, but I think after Katrina, alot of the places I drove to are gone. The local people I interacted with would give the impression that the Sabines were considered a lower class of people if they were considered at all, and to be called a"Sabine" was some sort of insult. I'm glad to read something positive, and likely more accurate. Se bon?