Native Ways and Wetlands Disappearing into the Sea
“The seas are rising and so are we,” chanted the tribal members of the United Houma Nation. The chant followed at the end of a traditional tribal “unity clap,” as their meeting with environmental advocates came to a close. The meeting was over, but the day had just begun. Rising over the southern coastal bayous of Louisiana, the sun shined a spotlight on the rising waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Many of the Houma Nation tribespeople had just returned from fishing and crabbing trips to join this critical meeting. Discussing the threat to their tribal lands, they fear the rising seas are swallowing not only the earth under their feet, but also countless generations of culture and traditional native ways of life.
The daily struggle against rising water and disappearing coastline in the Southern Louisiana bayou region has roots stretching back to the 1930’s. Although climate change has impacted the sea level, repeated dredging for pipelines and navigation canals by oil and gas companies over the last century has increased the speed at which seawater has replaced freshwater in tens of thousands of miles of wetlands.
The Irreversible Impact of Saltwater on Native Ways
The intruding saltwater is impacting the daily life of native tribes in ways that may be irreversible. One tribal artist described how her father’s medicine plants are dying from saltwater intrusion. Another woman worried that her community would have to migrate north, abandoning the land where she once had enjoyed climbing trees as a young girl.
There are other tribes in the region suffering similarly. The Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha Choctaw live on a disappearing island in the Gulf of Mexico. While the Army Corps of Engineers has a plan for constructing a massive levee in other areas for protection from the rising sea, they have no plans to protect the island community because the Corps has determined that the effort would be too expensive.
“There was No Money, but They Always had Food”
Albert Naquin is chief of the island’s Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha Choctaw. A narrow strip of land in the southern reaches of the coastal Louisiana bayous, in his childhood the Isle de Jean Charles was unreachable except by boat until the 1950’s. Chief Naquin holds fond memories of his family fishing and trapping muskrats and otters by his peoples’ native ways to support themselves.
In the 1930s, Chief Naquin said, “people didn’t even know there was a Depression going on, because they lived off the land.” The chief continued, “There was no money, but they always had food.” He tells how the tightly-knit community gathered together often at the island’s general store, community center, dance hall, and church.
The road to Isle de Jean Charles arrived in 1953. But like the rest of the island, the road sits only a few feet above the rising waters of the gulf. Even though in 2011 a multimillion-dollar restoration project was completed, still the road to the mainland is impassable during heavy storms and high tidal floods.
Damage Arrives with the High Tide of Oil
Taking advantage of the marshland around the island, many oil and gas companies have built pipeline canals. This has enabled the saltwater of the gulf to enter the canals, poisoning and eating away at the land. Nowadays oil companies come and go like the tide of the gulf, tied to the ebb and flow of oil, but many of the island residents have no where else to go.
Without levee protection, the tribes are trying to determine solutions on their own. Some believe that they should move, relocating their communities further inland, while others remain loyal to their native ways and lands. They are all trying to adapt to the changing environment, even if this means fishing in areas where they once hunted, elevating their homes, or constructing makeshift levees out of second-hand and found materials. They are being forced to abandon their traditions as life changes, and some consider evacuating only with the worst of storms.
“We Don’t Have a Community Anymore”
However, the people are becoming as storm-battered as their island. Less than 75 people now call Isle de Jean Charles their home. Even Chief Naquin, now 68, has moved inland, almost ten miles away from the island of his birth and homeland of his blood.
Chief Naquin proclaims ruefully, “If we don’t do anything, our community is going to be dead.” He points out, “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.”
Due to lack of federal recognition, both the United Houma Nation and the Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha Choctaw are left with few resources from which to draw political support for their native ways of life. Lack of political power is draining the hopes of these two native tribes as the saltwater slowly rises under their feet.
The Problematic Issue of Federal Recognition
The process of applying for federal recognition as a native tribe requires proof that they have maintained a continuous community with political authority since before the time of their first contact with non-native peoples. Because this region has seen tumultuous native tribal rivalries and divisions of ancestral lands, as well as heavy intermarriage with non-natives, the proof required is nearly impossible to provide, making federal recognition very problematic for the two tribes.
Their lack of federal recognition means they can not file joint legal suit to have their case looked at in court, but can only file individually, which would be too expensive for tribemembers. Other native groups with federal tribal recognition have banded together and are bringing a historic lawsuit against oil and gas companies responsible for damages to their lands, but the United Houma Nation and Biloxi-Chitimacha Choctaw have little hope to join them.
“The Seas Are Rising, and So Are We”
“They think we’re not going to fight back,” Clarice Friloux said at the early morning meeting as the sun rose over the Louisiana bayou, but the tribal members all agree that they must take matters into their own hands. Outreach Coordinator for the United Houma Nation, Clarice calls herself an environmentalist “not by choice.”
As their native ways and tribal lands slowly melt into the Gulf of Mexico, the tribes recognize that their struggle leaves them few alternatives. “The seas are rising and so are we,” chant the United Houma Nation tribespeople, “The seas are rising and so are we.”
(Image note and source: Louisiana wetland habitats clearly underwater. Wikicommons)
(Top image note and source: Louisiana Wetlands, wikicommons)
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