ISLE DE JEAN CHARLES, La. – A day in the life of Edison Dardar starts with a caterwaul of a shout. A yawlp. His chest puffs up: “Yay-hoooo!” Morning cries down the road greet him. “Wa-hoooo!” …. “Yaaaah!” .... “Aaaahh-eee.” The Indian fisherman smiles. His cousins and nephews are doing well.
Soon enough, roosters and dogs join the morning chorus, and the island is awake.
“It keeps your chest clear,” the 60-year-old barrel-chested fisherman rationalizes. “Over in Bourg, if I did that, they’d probably put me in jail.”
Bourg is a tidy Cajun bayou town a few miles north of Dardar’s hurricane-smashed Indian village in the marsh where holdout families are being urged to move by a tribal chief, scientists and public officials.
Why? Because life on this spit of soggy land six miles from the Gulf of Mexico may soon be impossible for the interrelated families with French, Choctaw, Houma, Biloxi and Chitimacha bloodlines that go back 170 years when a Frenchman came here with his Choctaw wife and named the island after his father, Jean Charles.
The road to the island is caving in. Hurricanes are flooding homes more often. The Gulf gets closer every year. Isle de Jean Charles is at risk of disappearing under the Gulf of Mexico.
But to Dardar and his kin, the name Bourg sounds like a prison.
“What am I going to do there? Wake up and look at the road?” Dardar shrugs. “No, not me. I’m not moving. This island is more beautiful than ever. This island is a gold mine for me.”
AP Photo/Bill Haber This Sept. 29 photo shows people who are renting this house move an appliance into the home on Isle de Jean Charles, La. Holdouts in the hurricane-damaged Indian village refuse to give in to urges from a tribal chief, scientists and public officials to relocate inland, despite frequent floods and disappearing marshland that brings the Gulf of Mexico closer every year.
He casts for shrimp at sunset behind his house. Sips coffee at Oxcelia’s, his sister’s place up the road, in the mornings. Checks in on Leodilla, his blind, 90-year-old mother who’s old enough to remember the huts made of mud and grass, or bousillage. His wife, Elizabeth, is content watching old Westerns like “Bonanza” and feeding her chicks. A son still lives at a home they raised on 12-foot stilts after Hurricane Andrew in 1992 flooded the island. It wobbles like Jell-o when someone walks from one room to the next.
With a bad limp from 40 years of backbreaking work dredging for oysters, Edison Dardar hobbles over to a handmade plywood sign on the road through the village. He stands next to it proudly.
It reads: “Island is not for sale. If you don’t like the island stay off. Don’t give up fight for your rights. It’s worth saving. Edison Dardar Jr.”
“My son wrote it,” Dardar, who cannot read and write himself, says with a grin.
From New Orleans, it’s a long road to this alligator- and mosquito-infested marsh island. The road goes past the city’s outskirts, postwar suburbs and po’ boy sandwich shops; it sails across Cajun farmlands of sugar cane fields, moss-draped oaks and roadside watermelon vendors. You must drive beyond the inland fishing towns connected by clunky drawbridges and bayous bobbing with shrimp trawlers and hyacinth.
Push on, and the canopy thins out, the road crosses a levee and enters the wide open expanse of marsh tidelands that run for miles out to the Gulf of Mexico.
An end-of-the-world nausea sets in on the narrow road that rolls across open water toward Isle de Jean Charles. A crooked yellow sign warns: “Water On Road.” When high tides and a stiff southern wind combine, the road is slick with water. Half the road caved in after last year’s hurricane season.
A gut check hits as the road wends through the island. Half the houses are empty shells, blown apart by hurricanes. Most of the others are raised high on pilings – not for the view, but to keep sofas, beds and grandma’s photos out of the Gulf’s regular inundations. The church is gone, the store is gone, most of the children too.
The islanders are living the doomsday scenario that many researchers say awaits Miami, Houston, Savannah, New York: A rising sea at the doorstep.
The village sits outside the main levee systems of south Louisiana, and in the middle of some of the fastest eroding wetlands in the world. For the past 80 years, oil drilling, logging and the Army Corps of Engineers’ levee building on the Mississippi River have doomed the island. The knockout is the combination of sea level rise and intense hurricanes.
“In the 1980s, I asked someone to take me to look at Fala, an important Indian settlement, and he took me out there in a boat and said, ‘Look down,’” recalled Jack Campisi, an anthropologist who’s worked to get south Louisiana’s American Indians recognized by the federal government. So far, the BIA has shot down their petitions. “What’s at stake is a viable ethnic identity. It’s easier to do if you have a federal relationship.”
Many tribes moved into the swamps to escape enslavement or forced banishment after Congress passed the 1830 Indian Removal Act. Today, there are about 20,000 American Indians on the coast. Until the 1950s, most Indians lived in isolation with limited interaction with whites. Old timers recall barefoot children scampering into the woods to hide when the first cars rattled onto the island in the 1950s.
Before the coast was overrun by the oil boom and shipyards, the Indians lived off the land, growing small gardens and raising livestock. Fish, oysters, crawfish and crabs were staples. For medicine, they relied on plants. There was “bon blanc” tea made from a leafy plant. Medicinal teas were gotten from boiling “citronelle,” “venera,” a Houma word for sage, and the bark of the “bois connu” tree.
“We had no running water. We washed our clothes in the bayou,” recalled Hilda Naquin, a 95-year-old Houma woman who grew up between mud walls covered in newspapers and under a thatched palmetto roof. “We didn’t have much to eat. My grandpa used to plant a garden. Thank God for that. Our oven was made outside with the dirt and mud.”
This isolation was imposed, as stories of discrimination attest. Indian children were barred from schools until the 1960s and called “sabines,” a derogatory term.
“My daddy couldn’t go get a haircut up the bayou. He couldn’t get a hamburger in the town of Golden Meadow,” said Laura Billiot, Hilda Naquin’s daughter. “The prejudices are still there today; not as bad, but they’re still there.”
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