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Ninth Ward shares common fate of forgotten Indian peoples

The word "tragedy" can hardly signify the extent of the pain being suffered
by many in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. While America comes to grips with
the enormity of the despair, the primarily black population of the
previously unheard-of Ninth Ward of New Orleans (one of the country's most
impoverished ghettos) already understand the touch, taste and sound of
generations of poverty -- a poverty created by a very real caste system,
which exists here in the United States of America. And Indians are no
exception.

Indian country has its own Ninth Ward of faceless individuals and families
who have been some of the hardest hit over the course of this past week.
The BIA won't be assisting them anytime soon. The United South and Eastern
Tribes won't be shipping supplies their way. And by all current accounts,
the National Congress of American Indians has also left them out of the
loop. The reason: federal recognition.

The United Houma Nation in southeastern Louisiana and the Mobile-Washington
Band of Choctaw Indians, located just north of the city of Mobile, Ala.,
have been forgotten. The United Houma Nation will not receive final word on
their petition before the Bureau of Acknowledgement and Research until
September 2006, and the MOWA Band of Choctaw Indians pending House of
Representatives bill 3526 is currently being reviewed in Washington, D.C.

Though forgotten in legal terms, poverty hasn't forgotten them. Racism
hasn't forgotten them. Help, it seems, has. While the federal government
and national Indian organizations intent on assisting federal Indian tribes
-- many of whom need little assistance -- send money and supplies from one
casino-wealthy Southeastern tribe to another, the United Houma Nation's
eastern territory sits submerged under the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
Homes, vehicles, personal mementos and their traditional lands have
disappeared. From Boothville in Plaquemines Parish to New Orleans, Houma
Indians have had their lives turned completely upside down.

When the phone rang Aug. 31, my heart was in my stomach. My Aunt Dove was
calling me to let me know that they had escaped New Orleans and made it
many miles north to Clinton, La. Her beloved pets had not. Many of her
irreplaceable photos of tribal history and family had remained as well. She
was all right, though shaken. The previous evenings had been filled with
emotion and non-stop phone call attempts by me and my wife. Two days later,
the Houma's Vice Principal Chief Michael Dardar would call. He and his
family had also escaped. His words to me were simple: "There is nothing
left down the bayou. Our home is gone. All the people's homes are gone."

News from the MOWA reservation, though better, wasn't that great either.
Tribal citizens had extensive roof and water damage. No electricity or
phone service for a week meant there were no edible foods in refrigerators
or contact with the outside. Our tribal school, they told me, had been
closed since the hurricane struck. Needed repairs are forthcoming.

The MOWA Choctaw and United Houma Nation are one and the same. As
communities of primarily impoverished and identifiable Indian people, we
have never had the best of what America has to offer. The prosperity parade
doesn't march down the roads of our communities. And neither will
assistance. Our lack of federal recognition has placed us at the mercy of
federal bureaucrats and the BIA. We are the neglected of the neglected.

You see, it is easy to forget about people when you marginalize them and
pretend they no longer exist.

Just ask the people in New Orlean's Ninth Ward.

Cedric Sunray is an enrolled tribal citizen of the MOWA Band of Choctaw
Indians and has numerous family members among the United Houma Nation of
Louisiana. He is employed as a Cherokee language teacher and coach at
Tahlequah High School in Tahlequah, Okla.