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.”
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 leveeleaves 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.
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.
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.”