“If we get a major hurricane, this place could be wiped out tomorrow. It’s not a question of if we get hurricanes. We know we get hurricanes. It’s just a question of when.”
– Louisiana wetlands activist Kerry St. Pe, February 2005
In early 2005, I took a trip to the bayous of southern Louisiana to report on how the United Houma Nation is confronting an environmental and cultural crisis: the loss of their traditional lands to coastal erosion, and the resulting threat to their viability as a people. A story that felt urgent and compelling at the time has, since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, taken on an almost symbolic importance for me. The voices, which seemed then to be pleading for an audience, have become eerily prescient echoes in my head.
For 200 years, the isolation of the bayou has been a blessing for the Houma, helping them to maintain strong ties to each other and to pursue their traditional livelihoods as shrimpers and oystermen. But dams and levees along the Mississippi River have deprived the delta of silt from natural flooding, and the Barataria Terrebonne region, southwest of New Orleans, is now the fastest eroding land mass on earth. The loss of wetlands has left the coast increasingly vulnerable to hurricanes and flooding. In recent decades, vast expanses of the Houma’s traditional territory have disappeared under water. And one by one, Houma families have been forced from their homes.
Houma leaders fear that this gradual dispersal will soon undermine tribal identity. As Vice Principal Chief Michael Dardar, puts it: “Native American existence is about a people and a place, a community and its relationship to each other and its relationship to the land it belongs to. So if you lose that, you’re still individually Houma, but you lose that sense of nationhood. And you lose what we’ve struggled to maintain for 200 years.”
Like dozens of other Native American tribes, the Houma are not recognized by the federal government, which means they don’t have the protection of a permanent reservation. Michael Dardar and other leaders have been looking for ways to purchase a plot of land where the entire community can relocate – where tribal traditions can be kept alive for future generations. But not everyone is on board. The proposal, like the flooding, has divided the tribe. Many Houma can’t bear the idea of abandoning the lands they have occupied for centuries, and have vowed to hold on for as long as they can.
My reporting was completed before Hurricane Katrina and Tropical Storm Rita devastated much of coastal Louisiana in August and September, 2005. The community of Isle a Jean Charles, which is featured in my story – the ancestral home of Curtis Hendon, Virgil Dardar and Chris Brunet – was spared the worst of the storms’ damage. But many other Houma, spread throughout the Gulf Coast region, suffered terribly.
– Melissa Robbins