Queen Quet and the Gullah/Geechee Nation Say No to Offshore Drilling

The elected chieftess is mobilizing constituents against this environmental threat

By Andrea Cooper

February 28, 2018


Queen Quet at the #StoptheDrill Rally outside the State House in South Carolina | Photo courtesy of Queen Quet

Hunnuh need fa stand wid de #GullahGeechee and #StoptheDrill!

Rough translation: “Everyone needs to stand with the Gullah/Geechee Nation to stop offshore drilling!”

This is the rallying cry of Marquetta Goodwine, also known as Queen Quet. She is the elected chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, which spans from Jacksonville, North Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida, and is bracketed by the St. Johns River and the Sea Islands. In response to the Trump administration’s proposal to open up the Atlantic coast to oil and gas drilling, she is mobilizing her constituents to fight against the threat that drilling, and the seismic testing that would accompany it, poses to their families, heritage, and way of life. “We must remain a united, formidable force,” she says.              

Goodwine actively opposed seismic blasting and offshore drilling as far back as 2010, when President Obama sought to include the Atlantic coast in his administration’s draft plan. She wrote to federal agencies and championed a 2015 resolution from the Gullah/Geechee Nation against offshore drilling. She was so effective that the international nonprofit Oceana honored her with its Oceans Hero award at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., a few years ago.

“She is the voice of a community that rarely has their voice heard in a time when their voices need to be heard more than ever,” Samantha Siegel, an organizer with Oceana who has known Goodwine for years, says. She describes Goodwine as a powerful public speaker, a leader who inspires others to act, and a representative of a unique culture found nowhere else.

A native of St. Helena Island, South Carolina, Goodwine lives on the land where her great-great-grandfather was once enslaved. He purchased the property at a confiscated land auction during the Civil War (the Gullah/Geechee were the first people of African descent to own land in North America). In this setting, Goodwine and her family still grow okra, tomatoes, watermelons, peanuts, sweet potatoes, and greens.

As a child, Goodwine loved exploring the island with her cousins, building things outdoors, and numbers. Eventually, she studied both math and computer science at Fordham University in New York City. She used her computer skills to build a listserv and teach an online class about Gullah/Geechee history and their life today.

Goodwine began her career as an activist by working to secure land rights for Gullah/Geechee people, who often passed land down through the generations without any legal documentation to prove ownership. In 1996, she founded the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition to support the continuation of Gullah/Geechee culture. Three years later, she was the first representative of the Gullah/Geechee to speak at the United Nations in Geneva about Gullah/Geechee land protection issues and human rights.

In July 2000, Goodwine was elected the first head pun de boddee or head of state. At the same time the Gullah/Geechee declared themselves an independent nation, with UN observers present. Goodwine has held the position since then, charged with preserving, protecting, and promoting the nation’s history, culture, language, and homeland. Elections for her post are held every seven years, but the nation’s Wisdom Circle Council of Elders and Assembly of Representatives formally review her work every three years.

She has become the face and voice of her people in far-flung corners of the world with television, radio, and print interviews from Australia to Africa. In 2008, she recorded the story of the Gullah/Geechee at UNESCO headquarters in Paris for the UN archives.

Goodwine maintains that offshore oil drilling would be a fundamental threat to the unique identity of her people. The Gullah/Geechee first came to the southeastern coast and islands four centuries ago from central and West Africa as part of the slavery trade. They have a distinct language and dialect that evolved in part because the group was geographically insulated. Without easy transportation to and from the mainland, outsiders seldom came to the Sea Islands after the Civil War. Even those Gullah/Geechee who worked on plantations along the coast kept a separate sense of identity, which became a source of strength in building a sense of community and preserving unique traditions in art, music, and food.

Today, plenty of Gullah/Geechee live in urban centers in the Southeast and around the world. But some on the Sea Islands are still subsistence fishermen and crabbers, selling part of their catch and bringing the rest home for their families. An oil spill could be devastating for them. Even seismic testing alone poses perils if it scares away the fish, Goodwine points out. A healthy environment is just as necessary for the livelihoods of Gullah/Geechee farmers and tourist guides on the islands.

Beyond their economic dependence on the land and sea, a clean ocean is central to spirituality for the Gullah/Geechee people. The beach isn’t a vacation spot but a place for seeking physical and spiritual nourishment, a sacred locale that must stay pristine and ecologically in balance to give and sustain life. “The integrity of this culture and the integrity of the land are tied together in very intimate ways,” says Heather Hodges, executive director of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission.

Goodwine is now working to issue a new resolution from her community against the Trump administration’s offshore drilling plan. She spoke in mid-February at the State House in Columbia, South Carolina, at a protest that drew hundreds. “We stood for those that can no longer physically march nor stand, and we will continue this fight with all that we can,” she wrote in a blog post afterward.

Goodwine is also calling for members of her community to contact federal officials and take part in anti-drilling events. The Gullah/Geechee Nation will join a lawsuit planned by the South Carolina Environmental Law Project if the drilling proposal gets final approval.

According to Goodwine, the move to open the coast to offshore drilling is fundamentally out of step with actions Congress has taken to protect Gullah/Geechee identity. In 2006, Congress formally recognized the group through the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Act, which also established the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, a national heritage area administered by the National Park Service. These efforts, Goodwine says, mean that the government is “supposed to fight to protect us and work with us to empower the people to maintain their culture and continue it. You cannot then turn around and put something right out where we live that would cause irreparable harm with the least little leak and the explosions.”

Goodwine imagines a different destiny, one in which the proposed drilling plan is defeated, and the Atlantic beaches and ocean are free of oil exploration and its perils. That, she says, would help “keep our Gullah/Geechee culture ‘gwine een da fucha’—going on and on into the future.”