In Louisiana, Native Americans struggle to recover from Ida
By REBECCA SANTANA
LE LONG BAYOU POINTE-AU-CHIEN, La. (AP) — Walking through her village along a southeast Louisiana bayou, tribal leader Cherie Matherne points out the remains of house after house — including her own — destroyed nine months ago when Hurricane Ida roars in the community of the Pointe-au-Chien Indian tribe.
Beige Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers and travel campers sit next to stilts that raise homes 4.3 meters (14 feet) off the ground to protect them from flooding. But it was the wind that got them this time. For hours, the Category 4 hurricane tore away roofs and siding, ripped insulation and strewn valuable possessions. He destroyed shrimp boats and threw crab traps.
“It will be years before people can resume their lives. The majority of people are still at a standstill,” said Matherne, the tribe’s cultural heritage and resilience coordinator.
When Hurricane Ida swept through southeast Louisiana on August 29, it slammed into an area home to many Native American tribes, hitting people already struggling to overcome decades of coastal erosion, the long shadow of discrimination and a more recent disaster – the pandemic.
As a new hurricane season begins, the sounds of recovery – the sound of nail guns and the whine of circular saws – are largely absent. And tribal officials worry about an equally bad season could once again put their people in the crosshairs.
“Ida was the worst storm we’ve ever had in our area,” United Houma Nation leader August Creppel said. The roughly 19,000 tribesmen are spread across the Louisiana coast, about 11,000 of whom suffered damage from Ida, according to Creppel.
“Some of our fellow citizens don’t even have a home to return to,” he said.
Other tribes in southeast Louisiana were also hammered. Theresa Dardar, a member of the Pointe-au-Chien Indian tribe, said only about 12 homes in the lower part of the Pointe-Au-Chien community, where many of the tribesmen live, survived the storm. Further west, where many of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw live, Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar said everyone suffered damage, with about 20% of homes lost. total, even his own.
Native Americans lived in the bayou regions of southeast Louisiana that stretch toward the Gulf of Mexico long before French explorer René-Robert Cavelier reached the mouth of the Mississippi River in 1682 and claimed it for France – launching waves of colonization that would radically alter the landscape and the way of life of the native peoples.
After colonization, the bayous became a place of refuge for natives driven from their homelands by violence or disease, said Liz Ellis, assistant professor of history at New York University. This trend accelerated after the American Revolution as more settlers moved to the area, she said.
Historically, Native Americans in these regions are intimately connected to land and water. Many earn their living by fishing for shrimp or crabbing in marshes and estuaries; their parents and grandparents before them also trapped muskrats or nutria.
But decades of development have eroded this land beneath them. Levees built to keep the Mississippi River from flooding have deprived coastal Louisiana of the fresh sediment it needs to rebuild the land; canals dug to facilitate oil and gas development or shipping allowed salt water to encroach further inland.
This means that the buffer zones of marsh land, trees and grasses that once protected Native American communities from storms in the Gulf have shrunk even as climate change portends a future of stronger, wetter hurricanes that will pack more storm surges and escalate faster.
Lester Naquin’s father, a trapper, took his son crab and shrimp fishing. Naquin remembers when there was so much land his family raised cattle behind their home in Pointe-au-Chien. Now, he says, if you walk past the seawall to fish from a dugout — a type of canoe traditionally used by many Native Americans in this area — you’ll catch speckled trout, a saltwater fish.
Naquin, 70, loves the bayou. That’s why he decided to come back even after Ida destroyed the house he shared with his extended family. With money and materials from FEMA and contractors paid for by a charity, he was one of the few to rebuild in the area, although the house was significantly smaller than before. He still lives in a FEMA-provided trailer while the interior of the house is completed.
But for a man who has lived with several generations, he feels alone in the trailer. And he doesn’t know how many of his family members will return. The shell of his nephew’s house still stands next to it. But that’s where Naquin grew up, where his memories are. There are people, he said, moving from place to place. He is not one of them.
“As long as I can stay here, I will,” he said.
Decades of discrimination against Natives in southeast Louisiana reverberates today in ways that affect their ability to prepare for and recover from hurricanes, tribal officials say.
Discrimination limited where they could go to school, and when they were allowed to go to school, many were harassed. Louise Billiot, a United Houma Nation tribal leader who helps people get vocational training, said she could see the ripple effects of this lack of education among tribal elders who find it difficult to use computers or mobile phones to lodge complaints or follow up on their appeals.
The tribes most affected by Ida had no federal recognition, though they were engaged in a decades-long process to seek her out. Tribal officials say federal recognition would give them better access before the storms to funding for stronger, more hurricane-resistant homes and other programs to help improve the lives of their members.
After the storms, federal recognition would allow them to negotiate directly with the federal government, tribal officials say. When the Seminole Tribe of Florida was hit by Hurricane Irma in 2017, the federally recognized tribe requested and received an emergency declaration from then-President Donald Trump to help respond to its needs.
In the aftermath of Ida, there was even confusion as to whether certain tribes were recognized by the state. A resolution that failed to make it out of the legislature this session sought to reaffirm their recognition by the state, saying the lack of clarity “impeded the delivery of lifesaving assistance during Hurricane Ida.”
As it stands, tribal members are essentially acting on their own, seeking FEMA or other types of assistance.
Parfait-Dardar said the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw is looking for ways for residents to rebuild homes that are stronger than before. “We are an adaptive people, we always have been,” she said.
But it takes more money than most people, and she worries that tribesmen who can’t afford to rebuild will be forced to move, as high housing prices push them further and further away. The tribe is exploring the possibility of relocating to another area, but that is also expensive. And this is their home.
Rebuilding can also be a grueling process, especially for older tribal members who might not be physically able to do the backbreaking work of emptying their homes or who struggle to pay for repairs on a fixed income. Tribal leaders are concerned about the stress many of their members are experiencing.
Irene Verdin, 67, a member of the United Houma Nation who lives in the Pointe-au-Chien area, lives in a FEMA trailer next to the remains of her home, where memorabilia and waterlogged furniture still lie On the ground. His roof is long gone – somewhere in the swamps behind his house. Showing the house to a reporter, she repeatedly apologizes for the mess.
She is the primary caretaker for her bedridden sister-in-law, who has had two strokes. And Verdin’s 73-year-old husband, who worked on boats, had a heart attack this year. In his youth, when they needed money for something like a car or home repairs, he worked a little extra to cover it. But his health now makes that impossible. Since the storm, his own blood pressure has been climbing.
Deciding what to do is almost paralyzing. She would like to rebuild, but it’s hard to get an estimate from a contractor, let alone find a way to pay for the construction. Verdin said she sometimes feels like those who live in the bayou are forgotten.
“It’s still in the air in my head. We still don’t know what we’re going to do,” she said. “It’s hard.”
Follow Santana on Twitter @ruskygal.