With their land and culture threatened by the effects of climate change and other human activities, one Louisiana tribe is doing everything it can to gain federal tribal recognition and claim the benefits that come along with it before it’s too late.
Audience in Congress for the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) briefing on the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians.
WASHINGTON — The Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians of southern Louisiana is in immediate danger of losing their home and culture due to rising sea levels as a result of climate change and human activities.
For the past 100 years, the island home of the French-speaking tribe has been slowly losing landmass to the wetlands of coastal Louisiana as a string of severe hurricanes has continued to pound the coast, a series of oilrig drillings has exposed the marshlands to seawater and man-made levees prevent necessary sediment build-up.
“At the current rate, coastal Louisiana is losing a greater amount of land faster than anywhere else in the world,” Julie Maldonado, an anthropologist and climate justice expert, said at a panel briefing held by the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) on Monday to discuss the tribe’s dire situation.
Maldonado was joined at the panel in Congress by a representative from the tribe, JC Naquin, who was standing in for Chief Albert “White Buffalo” Naquin, and Bob Gough, secretary of Intertribal Council on Utility Policy, an organization of tribes that provides policy analysis and recommendations about climate change and energy. The event was moderated by Carol Werner, executive director of the EESI.
Bob Gough, secretary of Intertribal Council on Utility Policy, an organization of tribes that provides policy analysis and recommendations about climate change and energy.
JC Naquin and the panel took to the halls of Congress to describe the tribe’s dilemma and push for federal tribal recognition. Though the tribe, located in Terrebonne Parish, is recognized by the state of Louisiana, lack of recognition on the federal level means it’s ineligible for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“How many of the already federally recognized tribes and or how many European families can go back two hundred years plus? We have been displaced ever since the white man came to our country and took it from us. We have been running for our lives and finally about 180 years ago we settled in a small area where fishing and farming was good. Also, a great hiding place to hide from the government soldiers. Families were separated and never came back together.
As for the movement of the Indians, we didn’t have a writing or reading language, so we couldn’t leave a note to let anyone know where we were going or did we want anybody to know where we were going.”
There are currently 566 federally recognized Alaska Native and American Indian tribes and villages, according to the BIA.
Efforts to relocate
In 2002, there were 325 Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw people living on Isle de Jean Charles and 68 homes. Now there only about 75 people and 25 homes.
The peninsula is sinking and the water is rising.
“In the Bayou, this community’s been working on it [solutions to their problems] for at least 15 years, and they’re likely to be the first in the lower 48 [U.S. states], in the mainland, as a community to take this problem as a nation, as a group and look to relocate,” Gough told the room of mostly congressional assistants on Monday.
He also gave some perspective on the magnitude of struggle the tribe is expected to face by comparing their situation with Alaska Native tribes.
“We’re seeing in Alaska, the [U.S. Army] Corps of Engineers estimates over 100 villages are going to need to relocate due to storm water surging, permafrost melting, erosion along the rivers and sea coasts at the tune of $1.5 million per household as the [environmental impact statement] EIS estimate for relocating villages, whole villages, a tremendously expensive undertaking,” he said.
The Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw in Louisiana have found a piece of land they plan to relocate to about 30 miles inland to Bayou Blue, Louisiana. To do so they would like to use about $12 million of federal money, which they do not currently have access to because they are not federally recognized. A rough estimate of the total relocation effort given to MintPress by Chief Naquin was put at $25 million, which would help reunite more than 100 families and over 400 people.
“He’s [the chief] got a masterplan to relocate the people, put them all together, bring the houses in, and solar panels, and all that energy efficient. He does have a plan in place,” Naquin said at Monday’s panel. “He just needs the help to get it up and running.”
The tribe is not depending solely on federal funding, however. They have made a number of partnerships and alliances with tribes in Alaska to learn from their relocation efforts.
They’ve also either met with or are already working with a number of agencies and bodies, including the United Nations, the EPA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, local Louisiana government, NGOs, and some universities.
“By forming these various partnerships with academic institutions, with agencies, what they’ve done also is partnering together with these communities to write a number of grant proposals, to really put together a relocation plan,” said Maldonado, an anthropologist and climate justice expert, at Monday’s panel.
“It’s not just about building houses and moving people into them. This is about bringing an entire community back together to maintain social networks [and] reinvigorate the culture.”
Losing land faster than anywhere in the world
Isle de Jean Charles, an island in the Terrebonne Basin of Louisiana has been home to several Native American tribes since the 1800s. The island was 11 miles long and 5 miles wide in the 1950s, a stretch of land that older residents remember well. But the strip of land has been shrinking rapidly since then. Today the island is only a quarter of a mile across, and less than two miles long. These artificially-colored aerial photos from the USGS document how the island has slipped away as the rising ocean and human development sink the marshes.
Over the years, the Isle de Jean Charles has been pounded by a series of hurricanes that have slowly eroded landmass on the peninsula and swallowed up large segments of earth.
In 1992, there was Hurricane Andrew, followed by Lili in 2002, Katrina and Rita in 2005, and Gustav and Ike in 2008. The effects of those storms on the Isle de Jean Charles community were devastating.
The Environmental Protection Agency states that the sea level has risen by 8 inches in the last 50 years in coastal Louisiana where the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw are located. According to the EPA, sea level rise in coastal Louisiana is compounded by the fact that the land is also sinking.
Maldonado told the room in Congress that the Louisiana Coastal Protection Restoration Authority estimates that if nothing is done south of the Isle de Jean Charles it will cease to exist by at least the year 2050. However, she warned, “It’s going to happen much sooner than 2050.”
Indeed, it is not only natural disasters that have led to devastation on Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw land. Louisiana’s flood protection levees also cause problems for marshlands because they stop sediment from building up and making land.
The Isle de Jean Charles has been particularly badly affected by oil exploration, drilling and rigs. The creation of canals for oil-drilling rigs in the bayou area brings in saltwater, which worsens land erosion by killing vegetation.
“During the Removal Act we came down here to get away from the Trail of Tears. Basically, that’s when we moved to the island,” said Chief Albert Naquin in “Can’t Stop the Water,” a film about the tribe’s perils that will air on PBS later this year.
“The first oil rig that was brought down there cut a canal all the way to where I was born and raised at. They dug them out to bring drilling rigs. Now today, I think we have three in the vicinity of the island,” he continues in the film.
“Throughout the years they dug five or six wells. They said it was dry holes, so they just plug and abandon and leave. But then the canal would stay there. You know the more openings you put in the wetlands the faster the water comes in. And then the hurricanes took advantage of them canals comin’ in through there and washing away the marsh.”
The Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians
The tribe is a grouping of three different Native American peoples, the Biloxi, the Chitimacha, and the Choctaw, who were forcibly relocated westward toward Oklahoma following the Indian Removal Act of 1830 along the so-called “Trail of Tears.”
They were able to evade some of the suffering beset upon other tribes by going south and settling on the Isle de Jean Charles.
“During the Removal Act we came down here to get away from the Trail of Tears. Basically, that’s when we moved to the island,” Chief Naquin says in the film.
“But today our land is almost gone,” he continued.
Gough explained their situation in a different way during the congressional briefing. Noting that as a marine- and fishing-based culture, Oklahoma wasn’t an ideal destination for the tribes, he said, “So they took a turn, consciously as a group, found themselves on an island right after Lewis and Clark had come through with the Louisiana Purchase, and have been there for the last 200 years.”
The peninsula had been mostly cut off from all European-American civilization until the 1950s, according to the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals at Northern Arizona University (NAU), which supports the environmental protection of Native American natural resources.
The NAU concluded, “The island’s isolation protected inhabitants from EuroAmerican settlers who banished nearby tribes to reservations in Oklahoma.”