Cherri Foytlin has a long black braid, a dead front tooth, a pierced lip and a level gaze. She is Din’e, Cherokee, and Latina, the mother of six children ages 10 to 21, and lives in Rayne, Louisiana, a small struggling town just off the interstate. She is one of a council of four indigenous women who lead an activist camp here called L’Eau Est La Vie (Water is Life). Other core members call her “a badass.”
For the last year and a half, Foytlin and the other activists have planned and executed dozens of direct actions from the camp’s several buggy acres, which belong by heritage to the Atakapa-Ishak, a Gulf Coast Native American tribe. At first glance, there isn’t much to see. A row of tents. A kitchen inside a garage. A carport that shelters an above-ground pool, half filled, and a truck currently under repair.
Yet from this scrappy home base, Foytlin and a handful of people have put their bodies in the way of the construction of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline again and again and again. This pipeline is a project of Energy Transfer Partners, a Fortune 500 company that is also the parent company of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Much like that higher-profile project, this one runs through a vital watery ecosystem, the Atchafalaya Basin, and threatens not only the water people drink but also the ways of life of indigenous and other local people. To prevent its potential havoc, Foytlin and the other L’Eau Est La Vie activists have battled the project from trees, on land, and by kayak. They have been cuffed, tasered, and arrested.
This Labor Day weekend, L’Eau Est La Vie put out a national call for reinforcements for a new wave of actions. It offered newcomers training in using ropes and climbing gear to scale a cypress tree and then establish and defend a tree sit, and led lessons in boat-based resistance, in which “kayaktivists” row up to remote swamp construction zones. Hands were also needed for ongoing construction projects: compost toilets, showers, and a library. I came down to learn why they are so determined. I also wondered why their fight has been almost completely ignored.
Saturday morning, hot and humid, started with a circle. A smudge stick of sage went around. About 50 people had gathered, more than had ever been here before. They introduced themselves as Choctaw-Houma, Chumash, Apache-Cheyenne, Lakota, mixed and white. They were elders and babies, many different genders and pronouns. Mark Tilsen, a core camp member who is Oglala Lakota, offered a song. Then Foytlin spoke.
“I am glad you’re here now, but I sure could have used you a month ago,” she said, choking up. “You come here to fight, be ready. Anything else, you can leave right now. We’re going to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline in the bayous of Louisiana.” A helicopter ripped the air overhead as if on cue.
The members of L’Eau Est La Vie see this fight as the continuation of the struggle that began at Standing Rock—quite literally. That’s because the Bayou Bridge Pipeline is part of the same network of pipes as those that make up the Dakota Access Pipeline. It is meant to ferry crude oil that comes all the way from the fracking sites in North Dakota. The destination: refineries in the predominantly African-American town of St. James, known for decades as Cancer Alley for the toxic impact of that process. Part of this fight is to get a safe evacuation route secured for that town in the event of a spill or other accident.