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Of hurricanes and federal recognition

Guest columnist


hen Hurricane Katrina made landfall in the early-morning hours of Aug. 29, 2005, it slammed into the southern portion of Plaquemines Parish. As the storm moved on toward St. Bernard Parish and the New Orleans area it left nearly every home in lower Plaquemines under water.

Among those immediately affected was the small Houma Indian community where my family and I lived. My home, as well as the homes of all my Houma and non-Houma neighbors, was gone. The impact on my nation was devastating; across southeast Louisiana more than 4,000 of our tribal citizens were impacted by Katrina. Out of that number about 1,000 of us left were made homeless by the storm.

From the very beginning there was little response save confusion and denial coming from government sources such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Red Cross. The real salvation for the Houma people came from nongovernmental organizations, concerned individuals and other Native nations. Houma Principal Chief Brenda Dardar Robichaux began to speak out on Native radio shows recounting the stories of our predicament, which was overshadowed by the horror stories taking place in New Orleans. As the aid began to come we set up a relief center in Raceland and had just got it going when Hurricane Rita came. The flood waters of Rita gave the tribe another 4,000 storm victims, and again it was nongovernmental resources that were key to relief and recovery.

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Over the course of this last year I have met some truly wonderful people, Native and non-Native, who have come from across this country and stood with us like family. In their response there was never any hesitation because the United Houma Nation is not federally recognized. Indeed, the majority of tribal leaders we have dealt with expressed disbelief in the fact that we were not recognized by the U.S. government.

Of course there are still those tribes that see recognition as some sort of exclusive club and will not demean themselves by working with the “un-recognized.” They are not a part of our story of recovery; they instead employ their experts and consultants to undermine the type of intertribal cooperation that has been so critical to our hurricane relief effort. In their eyes a state-recognized tribe is no more legitimate than a cemetery association or a garden club. But countless others – Senecas, Mohawks, Lumbees and Cherokees among them – who value the traditions of our collective cultures have come with open hearts and willing hands.

In the process of this hurricane relief effort I have been asked the same questions many times over: Was I surprised at the lack of governmental response? And would the federal recognition of the United Houma Nation have made the recovery easier? While these may be valid questions, to be honest I see them as irrelevant. To speculate on what would have or should have happened is not what I’m here to do. The truth of the matter is that hundreds of people, a large number of nongovernmental organizations and many tribes have been the source of funding and manpower that have enabled the Houma people to recover. It is they who recognize us for who we are, and in the end they are the only ones that I concern myself with.

Federal recognition is not a determiner of identity; it is no more than a potential resource to be used for the benefit of our citizens. Over the centuries we have weathered many storms, natural and man-made, and have survived with our identity intact. The Houma are defined by much more than a decision of the BIA or the opinion of a tribal historic preservation officer.

Michael “T. Mayheart” Dardar is vice principal chief of the United Houma Nation.