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Ancestral Land in Harm's Way

Years of storm erosion and recent hurricane damage threaten to distance thousands of Indians in Louisiana from their roots.

November 12, 2005|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

DULAC, La. — For all of her 89 years, Marie Dean has lived in the bayous of coastal southeastern Louisiana. And for as long as anyone her age can recall, this was the home of the United Houma Nation, one of several Indian tribes that have inhabited this land for generations.

But over the past years, flooding from hurricanes has eroded the land of Dean's family, forcing them and hundreds of other Indians to keep moving to higher ground -- gradually inching away from ancestral lands.

Dean's home of 50 years had been flooded twice in the past, and this year hurricanes Katrina and Rita delivered fresh blows.

But the white-haired Dean refuses to be pushed out. "It's very important," Dean said of the land that was home to her people long before European colonists arrived. She speaks only colonial French, so a neighbor interpreted. "We had more land, but it's all washed away."

Together with the Houma, thousands of members of at least five Indian tribes in southern Louisiana were affected by the hurricanes. They include various bands of the Biloxi-Chitimacha, as well as Muskogees.

"There's been a total devastation of homes, communities, jobs and lifestyle," said Brenda Dardar Robichaux, principal chief of the United Houma Nation.

Many people were displaced and found shelter with relatives and friends in the region. Others had no choice but to move back to water-damaged homes.

Tribal leaders said it was important that their members remained near ancestral land, and worried that many might eventually be forced to move away. Hurricanes, they said, threatened to erode not only their land, but age-old community ties as well.

"We feel like we've got to get our people home to rebuild, because if we don't, we lose a part of our history; we lose a part of our culture; we lose a part of who we are as Houma people," said Robichaux.

She estimated that at least half of the tribe's 16,000 members were affected by the storms. They were residents of several urban New Orleans parishes, and many lived in the bayous.

To keep the community intact, Robichaux said, the tribe was seeking to purchase a tract of land on higher ground, in any of the areas of Louisiana that her nation once called home.

"People have just gotten to a point now where there's not really much they can do, apart from just getting out of that community altogether," said Joby M. Dion, 28, a member of the Biloxi-Chitimacha. He recalled how as a child his family moved at least three times to escape storm-related flooding from the bayous around Dulac.

Dion now lives in Memphis, Tenn., but has been making trips to the area where he grew up to donate supplies and help community members jump-start their lives.

A team of volunteers, some from California, are helping to rebuild the elderly Dean's home. The workers have cleared the mud that caked her floors, ripped out the drenched interior walls to install insulation -- the first the house has had -- and are working on plumbing repairs.

Others who live in this rural enclave, set along alligator-infested waterways and dotted with rickety single-story houses and trailers, are less lucky. Their homes are uninhabitable.

Marlene Foret, chairwoman of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha Confederation of Muskogees, said almost all of the tribe's 1,200 registered members had hurricane damage to their homes or to their shrimp boats, crab ponds or oyster gardens. Many Indians in the region depend on the fishing industry for their economic survival.

"I'm hoping and praying that people don't move, but if they do, I can't say I blame them," Foret said. But, she added, "I tell them: I understand if you want to move away -- to move to higher ground -- but you must remember where you came from."

Ronald Feet's trailer is surrounded by woods and is a stone's throw from Bayou Guillaume, near Dulac, where he fished as a boy. Floodwaters filled the structure and left mounds of sludge when they receded. Visitors now encounter thick mud tiles at the trailer's door.

For weeks, 55-year-old Feet, a Biloxi-Chitimacha, had not dared to venture inside.

"It's totaled," the boat captain said recently as he peered through the trailer's murky windows and tried to force open the door.

Feet moved in with his mother in Houma, 20 miles north, but said he planned to return to build a cabin 10 feet off the ground on stilts.

His brother lives in a trailer 50 yards away, a cousin lives next door to him, and another relative occupies the house where Feet's mother grew up, at the end of the street.

"It's sort of ... longevity," said Feet. "It's all family. I will be back."

Although recognized by Louisiana as legitimate Indian tribes, groups such as the Houma and various Biloxi-Chitimacha bands lack federal recognition.

Recognition establishes a formal government-to-government relationship between the United States and an Indian tribe. Federally recognized tribes are eligible for federal assistance.

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