NEW ORLEANS – After 170 years fishing and crabbing in southern Louisiana’s swamps and marshes, a group of American Indians repeatedly flooded by hurricanes says it is intent on moving from its ancestral island home.
The band’s chief said Sept. 22 that the group is seeking to start a new life as a community behind levees on higher ground.
A migration inland would symbolize one of the most obvious defeats in south Louisiana’s losing battle with land loss and hurricanes. The Mississippi River Delta, on which south Louisiana sits, has lost about 2,000 square miles of marsh and swamp since the 1930s.
But relocation was inevitable, said Albert Naquin, the chief of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw. He said the marsh community had been flooded five times in the past six years. About 25 families still call it home.
Naquin said the tribe hoped to use about $12 million in federal aid to build 60 homes on 50 acres in Bourg, which is about 10 miles inland.
But many details had to be worked out and the plan was not a done deal.
Naquin said Terrebonne Parish and state officials would have to sign off on it.
State Sen. Butch Gautreaux, D-Morgan City, said he was working with the tribe and Louisiana congressional members to get the relocation plan executed.
Christina Stephens, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Recovery Authority, said she was unfamiliar with the tribe’s plans, but that funds for relocation could come from a variety of federal sources. Michael Claudet, the Terrebonne Parish president, said he was unfamiliar with the details.
Officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency did not immediately comment.
Windell Curole, a coastal manager and hurricane expert, said Isle de Jean Charles would be the latest town in a long list to retreat from Louisiana’s sinking and hurricane-threatened coast.
“We’ve been retreating a lot in south Louisiana,” Curole said. “People have moved to the high ground.”
Naquin said the road to the village has been battered and reduced to one lane. Even in modest bad weather, the road can flood, he said. The church was relocated after Hurricane Rita in 2005, and the fire station has been closed.
“I don’t think they want to spend any more money out there,” Naquin said about federal officials.
He said the relocation plan calls for moving the band of American Indians into prefabricated homes.
“These are real homes,” he said. “We won’t have to move for a couple of hundred years, hopefully.”
Moving to Bourg, he said, might bring the community back together. He said many residents had been displaced and were scattered.
Moving to the land in Bourg “would be a displacement, but it wouldn’t be as much if we went way out into a subdivision,” he said.
C. Ray Brassieur, an anthropologist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said there was the danger that Louisiana’s traditional folk were being displaced by land loss.
“We need to watch if the indigenous population will be replaced with these weekend fun seekers,” he said. “If they are bumped out so we can have some big fancy marinas placed there, that doesn’t seem right to me.”
He said a plan to remain close to the marsh was a good one. “I’d rather they do that than go into some mobile home park in a metropolitan area,” Brassieur said.
The tribe’s first families, made up of French and American Indians, moved to the island around 1840, Naquin said. The tribe remained secluded for the next century when a road was built to it in the 1950s, Naquin said.
Naquin, 62, recalled how secluded the location was. “We didn’t get electricity until I was 16 years old.”
The tribe, as with many other American Indians in south Louisiana, is not recognized by the BIA.
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