Diane Wilson: Champion for Mother Earth | Cherokee/Fisherman Ancestry Fuels Her Passion for Protecting the Environment

Environmental activist Diane Wilson came to Fairfield in October 2011 to speak at a JFAN meeting. (photo: Turtle Island Films)

Diane Wilson views her transformation from unknown Texas shrimp boat captain to legendary environmental activist as more the result of mystical design than the product of deliberate planning. Incidentally, if you don’t recognize her name, you might recall her image. TV news broadcasts and YouTube videos of Diane raising hell are commonplace. She’s a Mother Jones Hellraiser of the Month award winner and was featured in the award-winning documentary Texas Gold.

After the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Diane interrupted a U.S. Energy & Natural Resources Committee hearing on the disaster by dousing herself with simulated black oil while shouting, “I’m a fourth-generation commercial fisherman from the Gulf of Mexico, and we’re tired of being dumped on!” This past April, as the first anniversary of the Gulf oil disaster approached, she staged a similar protest in London during BP’s annual meeting. Both protests resulted in her arrest. At age 63, Diane has endured 50 civil disobedience arrests and undertaken many month-long hunger strikes, some in support of victims of the 1984 Bhopal, India, Union Carbide gas leak tragedy, which ultimately killed tens of thousands and injured hundreds of thousands more.

In a November 2009 blog post, Diane tried to explain why despite hospitalizations she continues to fast for causes, like Climate Justice. “Growing up on a Texas bay and having a Cherokee grandfather who liked talking with the dolphins and spotting moon signs in the sky before night turned to day made me into something of a mystic,” she wrote. Being “the daughter of a son of a son of a son of a fisherman” taught her many lessons, she added.

But the best lesson that came home to roost was that boundaries were lies. There was no separation or division. No brick wall that divided San Antonio Bay from Espiritu Santo Bay. Nothing to keep the sky from the water or the wind from the sea. Nothing to keep one person from a billion others. There was just flow and continuity of water and moon and dolphins and ratty ole captains in ratty ole shrimp boats hauling boogie across the bay to find those most elusive shrimp.

Twenty-two years ago, before the arrests and the hunger strikes, Diane led a secluded life in Seadrift, Texas. Married and the mother of five young children, she harvested shrimp alone in her boat, the SeaBee, from the waters of Lavaca Bay.  Dwindling harvests led her to take on additional jobs. Following family tradition, she painstakingly mended torn nets for other fisherman, and she also managed her brother’s fish house.

In the wake of the Bhopal tragedy, the federal government began publishing Toxic Release Inventories to provide people with information on releases of toxic chemicals in their communities. In 1989, the first year this information was published, Diane read a newspaper article that revealed a horrifying statistic: the Environmental Protection Agency had rated Calhoun County, where she and 15,000 other people lived, as the most toxic county in the nation. Did that account for the massive dolphin die-offs, the weird alligator behavior, and the premature deaths of commercial fishermen in her area? Diane wondered. 

Galvanized but unsure how to proceed, Diane innocently set up a meeting time for community members to discuss the local toxic waste issue. Instantly, even before the meeting took place, she was beset by livid critics. Community leaders, local and state government officials, banking and petrochemical industry representatives, family members, and even fellow fisherman demanded that she cancel the meeting and stop talking about toxic waste.

She couldn’t. During a recent visit to Fairfield as keynote speaker at the Jefferson County Farmers & Neighbors annual meeting, Diane explained why. When she speaks of the bay as her grandmother, she said, she’s not using a metaphor. As a child she had a vision that the bay was a grandmother, and she retains a granddaughterly reverence towards it to this day. “If I give up on the bay,” she said, “I would be giving up on the best part of myself.”

After years of unrelenting struggle and hardship, Diane managed to wring a zero emissions agreement from the Union Carbide and Formosa Plastics plants near her home. She recounts the arduous journey that led to these accomplishments in her book, An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters, and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas. Other books, other causes, and other accomplishments followed, but the title of this first book comes from one of Diane’s fav-orite quotes, from George Bernard Shaw: “A reasonable woman adapts to the world. An unreasonable woman makes the world adapt to her.” An Unreasonable Woman opens and closes with dream sequences—or maybe they were visions.               

© 2011 Cheryl Fusco Johnson