Voices from the Water: Collecting Stories on How Offshore Oil and Gas Industry Affects People in Plaquemines Parish

Carolyn Ware, folklorist and associate professor in the LSU Department of English has received a $305,045 Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM, grant—a significant accomplishment for a humanities scholar—for a project titled Human Impacts of the Offshore Oil and Gas Industries in Plaquemines Parish, which she will work on together with Michael Pasquier, director of the Center for Collaborative Knowledge and associate professor of religious studies and history at LSU:

 

Carolyn Ware

Carolyn Ware

 

My research in Plaquemines Parish started accidentally in 1995, when I was working for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in the Folklife Village and they wanted new demonstrators, people who do all kinds of traditional crafts and traditional work. There are a lot of Croatian Americans living, especially, in Plaquemines Parish, and many of them are oyster farmers. I ended up doing some interviews with several people and just got fascinated. When Hurricane Katrina came along, I realized the people I’d come to like so much were very much affected, so I got back in touch, and this led to a couple of other projects on Croatian Americans in Plaquemines Parish and other ethnic groups there; how they’re tied to the place, and how those ties make them not want to leave. Then with the Deepwater Horizon, I was asked to be part of a BOEM grant that was specifically about the effects of the oil spill in different coastal parishes. It was because I had contacts in Plaquemines that I was invited to be part of that team, with people from different universities.
 
Terrebonne and Lafourche Parish have been well covered by other scholars, but very little research has been done in Plaquemines Parish. Partly because it’s seen as hard to break into; people are kind of tired of disaster reporters who pop in and pop out, and they never see them again. Also, it’s a parish with a population that’s not very large and somewhat scattered. BOEM approached me; would I apply? It was at this point that I enlisted Mike Pasquier.

 

What we’re going to do is collect oral histories from 80 different people in Plaquemines Parish over the next three years to look at the impact the oil and gas industry has had on them over time. We’re going to identify five community members to work closely with us who can do outreach in their own communities. It’s really important to show that local people will get something real out of this project, including money.

 
Why Mike? I have to give credit to Craig Colten [Carl O. Sauer Professor of Geography and Anthropology at LSU, and author of Perilous Place, Powerful Storms: Hurricane Protection in Coastal Louisiana and An Unnatural Metropolis: Wresting New Orleans from Nature]. He founded a brown bag lunch series, mostly for social sciences, but for all people in our college who were interested in coastal research. We had lunch and each of us gave a three-minute overview of our research so we could find out what everyone was doing and ways we could connect. Later, Craig organized a three-day rolling bus tour of the coast, going around to coastal communities in Plaquemines, Terrebonne, and Lafourche Parish—and in New Orleans East—so we could see some of the facilities and get acquainted with people who were doing research that’s connected to ours. Mike was on that tour with me. I knew him through his podcast, Coastal Voices, and I knew he’d had his students interview individuals on the coast who felt really strongly about being there. It made sense to work with Mike since he comes from history and religious studies, and you know we’re going to have some stuff about religious practices, or at least religious events, and the role of religion in the culture. We’ll work with Croatian Americans, but also African Americans and Creoles and people of French descent and people who identify as Native Americans—people from all kinds of different communities.
 
What we’re going to do is collect oral histories from 80 different people in Plaquemines Parish over the next three years to look at the impact the oil and gas industry has had on them over time. Our funding likely won’t be available until January, but I’m heading down there anyway to line people up. We’re going to identify five community members to work closely with us who can do outreach in their own communities. It’s really important to show that local people will get something real out of this project, including money. Also, it makes it more meaningful to have them participate in all stages of the project. So, we’re going to identify community liaisons and be going down there a lot and just meeting with people and explaining our project. We’ll then do oral histories pretty steadily over the next two years, and hopefully hire a graduate assistant to do most of the transcribing.

 

The thing about oral histories—people say things so much more beautifully and eloquently than you ever could. I especially think of this third-generation oyster farmer who was talking about his work. He said, ‘We’re farmers out there and the bottom of the ocean is our field,’ and then he talked about how he can ‘see’ the bottom of the lands—they use poles to feel what’s down there—and he gave such a wonderful description of why this place matters to him and to all of these people.


The thing about oral histories—people say things so much more beautifully and eloquently than you ever could. I especially think of this third-generation oyster farmer who was talking about his work. He said, ‘We’re farmers out there and the bottom of the ocean is our field,’ and then he talked about how he can ‘see’ the bottom of the lands—they use poles to feel what’s down there—and he gave such a wonderful description of why this place matters to him and to all of these people.
 
As a folklorist, I have a foot in the humanities and in social science. A folklorist is a lot like an anthropologist in how we work in the field, but we’re also different. While anthropology talks about groups, folklore is interested in creative individuals.
 
One thing I like about BOEM is that among your deliverables is a final, written report that includes—at least the ones I’ve been part of—a lot of direct quotes, and I like that. Lots of narrative and excerpts; it’s very descriptive. You’re not just using the scientific jargon. It’s kind of a book-like project where we talk about what we did and the findings and the responses we got from people.

 

 

Elsa Hahne
LSU Office of Research & Economic Development
225-578-4774
ehahne@lsu.edu