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Where Land Sinks Into the Sea

A trip to the land of the United Houma Nation sheds light on a Native American people and a culture on the brink

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The Houma Indians of south Louisiana traditionally live in the southern bayous and wetlands of Plaquemines, Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes. For generations, the land and waters of south Louisiana have been kind to the Houma. Now, Hurricanes Ike and Gustav have flooded and battered them. The fishing economy on which they depend is (at best) disrupted, and many of their homes are destroyed.

"Really, what you have here is a complex disaster," says Seth Siegel of Blue Moon, an emergency preparedness organization working in Orleans, Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes. He explains that a complex disaster is one in which a natural disaster is made worse because of existing economic and political inequalities, which in this case includes the poverty and under-education of Houma Indians.

Principal Chief of the Houma Nation Brenda Dardar Robichaux says the Houma are still suffering the effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. They have received no help from the government in the past three years, even though they are a Louisiana-recognized Indian Nation and taxpayers. "What we have been doing for ourselves for the past few years, we have been doing alone," she says. "No one has helped us. Since we are not federally recognized as a Native American nation, we cannot receive funds from FEMA. We tried to become federally recognized, and even brought in the same experts who had helped other Native American groups become recognized nations. Still, our petition was refused by the federal government."

There are 17,000 Houma people in southern Louisiana, which makes them one of the largest Native American tribes in the state. "It is very frustrating to have your charter turned down," Robichaux says. "We believe the oil and gas industry is against us gaining the federal charter. If the federal government recognizes us, then we have more rights to our land. It would be harder for the oil and gas industry to buy up our land after hurricanes. If we were recognized, the U.S. government and the Houma Nation would begin treating each other as equals on a nation-to-nation status."

Robichaux and her husband, former state Sen. Dr. Mike Robichaux, drive me down to bayous and wetlands where Houma Indians have lived and worked for hundreds of years. The post-hurricane air feels different. Love bugs fly awkwardly, mating and almost biting anything they come in contact with. Dead sea gulls and dogs litter the shoulders of the highway.

We pass newly built modular homes throughout Pointe Au Chien. These homes came through the winds of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike unscathed. "Those are new homes and mostly they are white people's homes," says the former senator. "By and large, Houma Indians don't have enough money to live in houses like that."

The Native American fishing village of Isle de Jean Charles has been decimated by the recent storms. In their wake: a constant stench of death and decay — the smells of dead fish wrapped into wetness and insulation. Thick, peaty swamp mud mixed with swamp grass covers the land like a half-wet, half-hardened clay shell.

Isle de Jean Charles is a one-road village looking out over miles of disappearing wetland. It is virtually undefended, open to the Gulf of Mexico's storm surges. The homes are beaten and torn open. Many have been gutted by the storms or by returning families. After a storm, it is amazing how quickly the earth reclaims human imprints.

I take pictures while the Robichauxs drive on to check a friend's house. Everything is silent save the wind, which blows hard across the wetlands, stirring panels of broken metal siding.

Dusk falls and I find myself in the middle of an abandoned village, lightless and without cellular service. I cannot reach the Robichauxs. The mosquitoes come in a swarm as nightfall descends. I scratch and pull at my skin. Rushing along, I must find shelter and people.

A dog trapped in a fragmented house barks loudly, then wails louder as I approach. It sounds fearsome. Further on, the drone of a lone generator echoes over the countryside. I round a hill and the generator's pump and slam get closer. I see a house light.

As I approach the house, headlights come down the road. A truck pulls up next to me and stops. It is not Mike Robichaux. A man inside the truck says he is a Houma Indian who has lived at Isle de Jean Charles all his life. "Only Indians live out here — and I mean no offense to you — but white people don't give a shit about Indians."

I ask him more and he tells me to go up and talk to the man in the house with the generator. "That man will tell you all you want to know." He drives away, leaving me alone on the road again, staring up at the house.

As I approach, I see a man in a wheelchair sitting on a broken porch. Though his house has sustained some damage, it remains mostly intact. The man invites me up and introduces himself as Chris Brunnet, lifelong resident of Isle de Jean Charles. Closer to him and the generator, the mosquitoes seem to disperse.

Over a beer, Brunnet explains how the situation for wetland communities is getting worse after the recent hurricanes. "But we have to be careful when we blame only coastal erosion for this flood and disaster," Brunnet says. "The Army Corps of Engineers told us they had done a "cost/benefit analysis' of our city. It would have cost them over a million dollars to build us a 15-foot-high levee around Isle de Jean Charles. They said they could only find the value of the village to be about $250,000. They told us we could stay, of course, but they didn't feel it was worth saving our Isle."

So why stay?

"This is home," Brunnet says as his friends come out, onto the porch to cook barbecue and drink beer. "My momma and daddy lived out here when the whole Isle was self-sufficient. On the other side of the road, each family owned a small plot of land and grew whatever we needed. On this side of the road, we kept all of our livestock. This place is home."

Minutes later, Mike Robichaux arrives. We leave Isle de Jean Charles for the higher ground of Raceland, where his house serves as the emergency headquarters of the Houma Nation.

Near the Robichauxs' house is a general storage building where the Houma now keep donations to be distributed to tribal members who have been affected by Hurricanes Ike and Gustav. Trucks from Wal-Mart and other organizations arrive with donated goods. As more trucks arrive, children and adult Houma file out of the house to help unload the new items.

Chief Robichaux is very impressed with the character and honorable behavior of her people. She says that through the recent storms, the Houma have taken only what they needed. Oftentimes they should have taken more, she says, but the Houma proudly shun handouts unless absolutely necessary.

"[The tribe still] finds it very difficult to evacuate for these hurricanes," the chief says. Many Houma live in poverty; money for long evacuation trips is hard to come by.

"Twenty-five percent of the nation's oil and gas come up from Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes, so it is imperative that we rebuild the wetlands," Mike Robichaux explains. "And the solution is simple: Bring down the sediment from the Mississippi River to the wetlands of south Louisiana. ... We could easily rebuild the wetlands this way."

But political solutions are never simple, he says, pointing out that he saw a lot of political corruption while he served as a state senator. "For example, a lot of white people live on Bayou Little Caillou, and so the government builds them not one, but two flood gates," the former legislator says. "But in Bayou Grand Caillou, where a lot of Houma live, the government has never built a floodgate."

The lack of a floodgate is particularly distressing because the residents of Dulac, a predominantly Native American Houma town, have been exposed to huge storm surges and flooding from Hurricane Ike.

Chief Robichaux says the Houma need funds to help rebuild their homes to withstand 150-mph winds. "We also need help rebuilding infrastructure, such as roads and wetlands. Finally, we need everyone in Louisiana to hold the people who are destroying the wetlands accountable."

Chief Robichaux and many other Houma believe there is a covert plan by the oil and gas industry, working within the state and federal governments, to expose coastal villages to flooding and storm surges with the intent of removing the native peoples' land and then exploiting what's left for mineral production. "If they have it their way," says one Houma tribe member close to Chief Robichaux, "They want us all out."

State Sen. Reggie Dupre, whose district includes parts of Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes, discounts such a notion. "I don't think that oil and gas interests are directly trying to get Native Americans to leave their homes," he says. Instead, he sees Louisiana's coastal loss affecting everyone. Dupre adds that building a levee protection system and restoring wetlands now will help all of coastal Louisiana. "Levees protect people and coastlines protect the levees," he says. "They both go hand in hand."

Regarding the lack of floodgates for Dulac, Dupre blames the bureaucracy of the Army Corps of Engineers. He explains that the biggest flood danger is from the Houma Navigational Channel (HNC), which runs through the town of Dulac and up to the city of Houma. "The HNC is our area's MRGO," Dupre says. "We want to see a locking facility put on it, but right now that is a very expensive facility to build. Unfortunately, the real problem is the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps wastes a lot of time and money."

Dupre says he'd like to see the federal government give funds directly to local and state governments to rebuild the levees and leave the Army Corps of Engineers out of the equation. He believes that if this were done, Louisiana would have a good levee protection system in relatively short order.

Dupre also supports the Houma Nation becoming a federally recognized Native American nation and says that direct federal funds would help the Houma community rebuild. He adds that the Houma's lack of federal recognition has more to do with the politics of the federal government's Bureau of Indian Affairs than with any surreptitious plan by the oil and gas industry to buy up wetland rights.

"The tribes already recognized by the federal government don't want any more tribes to get recognized, especially not a tribe the size of the Houma," explains another Native American chief, Albert Naquin of Isle de Jean Charles. "It means less federal funds for them. The other tribes would get a smaller cut of the federal pie if the Houma are federally recognized."

It is night as I leave the wetlands of south Terrebonne. I head north, coming up over the Mississippi River on interstate 310. Out in the distance, refineries look like burning towers of fire in the blackness.

The trip leaves me with a feeling of inevitability rising as a new yet familiar fear. It is the feeling that all of us in south Louisiana are connected along an undefended coastline, where the land sinks into the sea as storms wash over us.

Hurricane Guastav demolished many Houma Indians' homes and flooded others, then Ike provided a double-whammy.
  • Hurricane Guastav demolished many Houma Indians' homes and flooded others, then Ike provided a double-whammy.
Many Houman Indians live in sub-par housing. Chief Robichaux says the government needs to help them obtain housing designed to withstand hurricane-strength winds.
  • Many Houman Indians live in sub-par housing. Chief Robichaux says the government needs to help them obtain housing designed to withstand hurricane-strength winds.
Principal Chief of the Houma Nation Brenda Dardar Robichaux, shown here with her father, Whitney Dardar, says the Houmas are still suffering the effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and have received no help from the federal government in the past three years.
  • Principal Chief of the Houma Nation Brenda Dardar Robichaux, shown here with her father, Whitney Dardar, says the Houmas are still suffering the effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and have received no help from the federal government in the past three years.

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