AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

These Native American Tribes Are Fighting To Stop Their Land From Literally Disappearing

DULAC, LOUISIANA — Shortly after the sun rose over the southern coastal bayous of Louisiana, a group of United Houma Nation tribal members and environmental advocates, many of whom had just returned from fishing and crabbing trips, gathered to discuss a threat that looms larger every day. “The seas are rising and so are we,” they chanted at the end of a traditional ‘unity clap.’ The group came together on tribal lands that are quickly disappearing into the Gulf of Mexico — taking not only the ground beneath their feet but generations of culture and their traditional way of life.

One tribal artist described how her father’s medicine plants are dying from saltwater intrusion, while another worried that her community would migrate north and abandon the land where she once climbed trees as a young girl. Left with few protections and without recognition from the federal government, the tribal members’ agreed that their struggle has largely been ignored, leaving them no choice but to take matters into their own hands.

“They think we’re not going to fight back, but we have,” said Clarice Friloux, the outreach coordinator for the United Houma Nation who called herself an environmentalist “not by choice.”

The United Houma Nation and other Native American communities in the bayou region of Southern Louisiana are fighting a daily battle against the rising seawaters and disappearing land — a natural process which has been expedited over the last century by the dredging of tens of thousands of miles of wetlands for pipelines and navigation canals by oil and gas companies dating back to the 1930s.

“We do need the oil and gas industry … but it’s a struggle every day,” Friloux said. “But we stick together. That’s how our Native people are.”

Members of the United Houma Nation sat on a panel at the “Bayou Rising” event in December.

Members of the United Houma Nation sat on a panel at the “Bayou Rising” event in December.

CREDIT: Kira Lerner

While other groups have banded together to bring a historic lawsuit against several oil and gas companies, their lack of federal recognition means the tribes are cut out of that process because filing charges individually would be costly. Both the Houmas and the Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha Choctaw, who live on a disappearing island in the Gulf of Mexico, are left without benefits granted to other tribes and with little standing to sue the oil and gas companies causing the damage.

Adding to the Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha Choctaw’s struggle, an Army Corps of Engineers’ plan for the construction of a massive levee leaves out the island community because saving it was deemed too expensive. So the tribes have all but abandoned hope that the government will help save their tribal lands from eroding into the gulf.

As the process for obtaining federal recognition currently stands, tribes must prove they maintained a continuous community with political authority dating back to their first contact with non-Indians — a difficult process because of intermarriage and divided ancestral land.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs has proposed sweeping changes to the process that could help the Native communities gain traction in their fight to save their communities, but the rules are stalled amidst heavy opposition from other tribes and local governments. So, the two coastal Louisiana tribes are stuck in a waiting game.

Without help from the federal government, the tribes turned to their local parishes. But even the local government acknowledges that its resources cannot do much to help the vulnerable land.

“Honestly, I think there’s maybe one or two generations more,” said Regee Dupree, executive director of the Terrebonne Parish Levee District. “It’s heartbreaking with the culture aspects but sooner or later, as a government official, you have to be realistic about how much you can spend per capita. All you can do is rearrange the chairs on the deck of the Titanic right now.”

Without federal recognition, or levee protection in the case of the island, the tribes are trying to come up with solutions on their own or divide their communities. Some believe the end goal should be to move the communities inland, while others remain adamant that they should adapt to the changing environment — fishing in areas where they once hunted, elevating their homes, building makeshift levees out of whatever material they can find, abandoning their traditions or just evacuating when the worst of the storms hit.

“If we don’t do anything, our community is going to be dead,” said Albert Naquin, chief of the island’s Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha Choctaw. “And where are our people going to be? All gone. We don’t have a community anymore. We don’t have Indian blood anymore. Our culture is gone. Eventually we’ll just be history.”

Living On High Stakes: What Remains Of Isle de Jean Charles

Naquin has fond memories of growing up in a tight-knit community on Isle de Jean Charles, a narrow strip of land in the southern reaches of the coastal Louisiana bayous. His family fished and trapped muskrats and otters to support themselves. The residents would gather together at the island’s general store, community center, dance hall and church.

Though the community was separated from the mainland for those without a boat, the residents never suffered, Naquin said. In the 1930s, “people didn’t even know there was a Depression going on, because they lived off the land,” he said, pointing out the few remaining homes and abandoned buildings while driving through the island. “There was no money, but they always had food.”

In 1953, after more than a century of physical separation, a road was built through three miles of marshland for easier access to Point-aux-Chene, the nearby town with the school and healthcare facilities.

Island Road connects Isle de Jean Charles to the mainland.

Island Road connects Isle de Jean Charles to the mainland.

CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

But like the rest of the island, the road rests just a few feet over the rising gulf waters, and even after a multimillion-dollar restoration project was completed in 2011, Island Road becomes impassable during storms or times of high flooding.

Open water flanks the road on both sides, even at low tide. Fisherman pass the time sitting on the edge of the road casting their poles into a bayou that was solid land earlier in Naquin’s life.

What’s left of the marshland is picturesque — the scene was the inspiration for the fictional “Bathtub” community depicted in the film Beasts of the Southern Wild. Tall grasses and homes are flanked on both sides by the clear blue bayou waters dotted with pelicans and an occasional dolphin fin.

But oil and gas companies have taken advantage of the marshland around the island to build pipeline canals that have allowed saltwater to encroach and eat away at the land. And while the oil companies come and go, sealing up and abandoning spent wells when they’re no longer gushing, it’s the island residents living in the most vulnerable part of Louisiana’s wetlands who deal with the consequences everyday.

After a series of devastating storms have eaten away at the land, the 68-year old chief moved inland, almost ten miles away from the island that less than 75 people now call home.

Chris Brunet is a lifelong Isle de Jean Charles resident and tribal member. Born with a disability that leaves him in a wheelchair, Brunet lives near the southern tip of the island with his niece and nephew in a home perched on a cluster of tall wooden posts. He relies on a small elevator to access his elevated house.

Brunet has lived through many storms and floods. Most recently, Hurricane Isaac, a Category 1 storm that hit the Gulf Coast in 2012, was one of the most damaging for the island, he said.

“That road y’all came in on wasn’t passable,” he said, referring to the Island Road. “We was one of the last ones to leave. Anybody who had tried to go like 30 minutes after us were stuck.”

After Isaac made landfall, the island was flooded with six feet of water and many homes were destroyed, a consequence the residents had too recently seen after Hurricanes Ike and Gustav in 2008. With time, the storms have gotten worse — climate change has contributed to rising sea levels which make storm surges more destructive each time a hurricane hits.

While the Terrebonne Parish government provides assistance to the community post-floods, many of the funding programs require residents to pay for a portion of the damage if they do not have flood insurance. Rebuilding a home also requires meeting minimum elevation requirements of approximately 12 feet, which many residents cannot afford.

Pat Gordon, the director of planning and zoning for Terrebonne Parish, said the strict requirements for building new homes are difficult for Isle de Jean Charles residents to meet.

“It’s a very high elevation and they’re in a tidal surge area so when they repair their home, if it’s substantially damaged, then it’s required by FEMA that if it’s over 50 percent of the value of structure in repairs, they have to elevate,” he said. Without flood insurance, most residents do not have the money to match the government in order to get a subsidy to elevate.

Gordon added that “it wouldn’t be a good idea” to build new structures on the island because of the land’s vulnerability.

With little means to protect themselves from the rising seawater, the island community needs a large-scale intervention to survive. The Army Corps of Engineers is currently building a massive levee, the Morganza to the Gulf levee project, to protect coastal Louisiana from storm surges, but the plan leaves out Isle de Jean Charles because government officials determined it was not cost effective to build the levee around the island.

“The inhabited areas of Terrebonne Parish that were not included in the levee project, lower Dulac and Isle de Jean Charles, the decision was made that they did not meet the federal cost benefit ratio,” said Dupree, director of the Terrebonne Parish Levee District.

An oil rig directly offshore from the island.

An oil rig directly offshore from the island.

CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

If the parish government were to follow the post-Katrina levee width requirements around the island, you “basically would have nothing but a levee and no houses,” Dupree said.

As more and more residents move off the island, emptying the land of inhabitants becomes a more viable option. Because the land will fall outside the levee, the Army Corps of Engineers has suggested moving the entire community. Although at first Naquin said he thought the proposal was a “modern day Trail of Tears,” he has more recently considered the idea of relocating the community.

“I started thinking, maybe it’s the best thing to do — get everyone a new place to live that’s safer than the island, where we don’t have to worry about floods,” he said. “Right now, we’re putting one here, one there, but I’d rather have the whole community together.”

The Rising Bayous of Houma

Just ten miles to the west, connected by history and kinship ties but separated by the crumbling wetlands, another Native American community is struggling with many of the same problems as Isle de Jean Charles.

Less than a century ago, the Houma area was well-protected by the Barrier Islands, masses of land home to many species of fish that once protected the Louisiana wetlands from storm surge and saltwater intrusion. As the islands have disappeared underwater, the higher wetlands are more vulnerable to natural erosion and accessible to oil and gas extraction.

The United Houma Nation, whose name means “red” in Choctaw, settled on the coastal wetlands when French settlers in central Louisiana violently displaced them from their land. Tribal members were traditionally fishers, farmers and trappers who were able to live off the land until oil and gas was discovered in the area in the 1930s.

Members of the United Houma Nation still live in the wetlands near Houma, Louisiana. Corine Paulk, an elder with the tribe, spoke to younger tribal members in early December about how the land has changed since she was a child. Her parents were raised in Bayou La Butte, an area now completely submerged in water.

“It’s no longer there,” she said. “It’s a whole community gone.”

Paulk remembers hurricanes hitting Houma when she was young, but the damage was always minimal. The water would recede quickly and most residents would ride out the storms from their homes.

“Now, I see that there is more water coming in. It just seems there’s no stopping the water,” she said. “Even though they’re building small levees that we didn’t have back then, it just seems like there’s still a problem.”

United Houma Nation Chief Thomas Dardar is fighting to save the tribe’s traditional language.

United Houma Nation Chief Thomas Dardar is fighting to save the tribe’s traditional language.

CREDIT: Kira Lerner

Like many residents of the coastal communities, Paulk feels conflicted about the activity of the oil and gas companies. While the corporations provide thousands of jobs which are needed in the area, the damage caused by dredging and pipeline construction has hurt the land beyond repair, she said. Paulk’s own son currently works as a tugboat captain for a gas company.

“I think its both of our responsibilities,” she said, referring to the work that needs to be done to mitigate the land erosion. “They should have helped more than they have. And I think that’s been our downfall. Because we didn’t put back. We took away.”

Thomas Dardar, the chief of the United Houma Nation, is similarly torn. “It’s kind of a double edged sword,” he said. “We’re very careful not to really bash the oil companies, but just because they have that right and privilege doesn’t mean they can come down and destroy everything and not be held responsible for the injustice to our communities and our environment.”

The companies that came in to drill were never forced to mitigate their damage — although the state flood protection agency’s lawsuit targeting the oil companies is attempting to make them pay — and the companies enjoyed decades of largely unregulated and unopposed drilling activity.

“It’s the poor communities who are always the victims,” said Houma Nation member Kirby Verret, the pastor of a Methodist church in Dulac. “It’s intentional — find the people less able to defend themselves and that’s where you go in. And even when they fight you, they don’t have the means to really stop you.”

As the land erodes and estuaries disappear due to salt water inundation, tribal members are finding it much more difficult to make a living the same way their ancestors did, Dardar said. “A lot of our young people are looking at [fishing] and thinking it’s not a way of life for them anymore.”

Faced with the very real prospect that their communities could be wiped out entirely, Dardar and other tribal leaders are doing what they can to sustain the tribal culture. He is trying to get a museum and cultural center set up to continue teaching their language.

Janie Verret Luster creates jewelry using the scales of alligator gar fish.

Janie Verret Luster creates jewelry using the scales of alligator gar fish.

CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

The rising bayous are also affecting all sources of income in the community, from fishing to traditional crafts. Bayou Du Large-native Janie Verret Luster is a basket weaver and jewelry maker who crafts pins, earrings and necklaces using the scales of the massive alligator gar fish that roam the nearby freshwater bayou. She said her work has been threatened by the hurricanes, erosion and saltwater intrusion. Her parents, both crafters as well, were some of the first to notice the effects of the saltwater.

“My mom knew what was coming long before all these studies and researchers,” she said. “She was a file maker, using the sassafras leaves to grind up and make file, which is the ingredient in gumbo. She started seeing her trees dying and she knew it was from the salt water.” Her father also built huts out of palmetto trees, but the area where he would gather materials no longer exists.

Janie’s brother Kirby Verrett feels strongly that United Houma Native Americans need to come together to devise solutions so that the community doesn’t turn into another underwater silhouette.

“We were on the outside of society to begin with,” he said. “We’ve already lost communities further south from here. One of our Acadian sayings is ‘Let the good times roll,’ that everything will be okay, but it won’t. If we don’t do something, things will get worse.”

Part Three of this series looks at the impact of the oil industry’s activities and the rising waters on Louisiana’s fishing community.

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