Sacred Indian mound caught in red tape


By Naomi King -- The (Houma) Courier

DULAC, La. (AP) - A snag in bureaucratic red tape could jeopardize a roughly $45,000 state grant to preserve an American Indian mound in Dulac.

To use the state government's money to buy the land, the property has to be open to the public and remain under the parish government's ownership. But the land's appraised price is $250,000 - well in excess of the state grant being offered.

Meanwhile, a private conservation nonprofit has offered to help buy the site and put it under the United Houma Nation's stewardship, but that organization requires the land be kept private.

The Catch-22 has those wanting to preserve a piece of Louisiana history unsure if the grant money can be used.

The mound in question is toward the front of a five-acre plot on Shrimpers Row. A 1978 archaeological report says the mound may have been used in ceremonies or as a place for rulers to live. Similar mounds around the country and in Terrebonne Parish include both ancient and modern graves.

At first, the United Houma Nation planned to convert the land into a recreation area and educational center, a place where visitors could learn about local history and American Indian heritage.

However, the United Houma Nation has talked about its plans with The Archaeological Conservancy, a national nonprofit, with its nearest office in Marks, Miss. The conservancy focuses on buying and preserving archaeological sites.

A group of south Louisiana American Indians that broke away from the Houma tribe in the 1980s is also claiming historical connection to the mound. Members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha Confederation of Muskogee Indians, however, have not been involved in the talks between the parish government, the United Houma Nation or the conservancy.

It's unclear whether the conservancy would expect complete preservation of the mound, and the conservancy's regional director was not immediately available for comment.

United Houma Nation members said the conservancy would create a plan for the land if the nonprofit bought it. Within that plan, the tribe would explore the possibility of a museum or learning center, said Michael Billiot, a member of the United Houma Nation who's on the tribe's Indian Mount Committee.

''It's kind of like when you go to England and see Stonehenge,'' he said. ''You can't touch the rocks. But you can go around it.''

Since the conservancy has experience with these types of projects, the tribe is supporting the nonprofit's purchase of the land, so long as the tribe could be stewards of the property.

''We decided that they had the expertise to do what we wanted to do to conserve it so it's never excavated or developed,'' Billiot said.

Who owns the land could jeopardize the state's grant, however. In order to use the grant, certain requirements have to be met, said GeGe Roulaine, a spokesman for the state Office of Community Development.

''For the parish to use the $45,480 grant received from the [state], this particular piece of property would need to be acquired by the Terrebonne Parish government, remain under the jurisdiction of the parish and made publicly accessible,'' Roulaine wrote in an e-mail to The Courier.

While similar Indian mounds in Louisiana do provide limited public access - prohibiting visitors from being on the mounds themselves - Roulaine said an equally important grant requirement is that the parish government retains oversight and jurisdiction of the property.

State officials wouldn't say whether parish officials can use the grant money for another project, but Terrebonne Parish Council Clerk Paul Labat said the parish government can amend the grant to use the money for something else.

Regardless of whether the state government has a part in the mound preservation, the conservancy will likely still be involved, Billiot said.

''If the state decides in the end that we're not ineligible,'' Billiot said, ''well, we'll still move forward.''

Multiple people own the five-acre plot, including developers Carl Heck and S.P. LaRussa. In 1982, the land was appraised at $225,000, according to landowner documents. Last year, Heck sent a letter to the Parish Council asking for $300,000.

But LaRussa said those prices were ''ridiculous,'' and it will be sold for a lot less, though he wouldn't give a price. His only stipulation, he said, is that local people have control of the property, and the land includes recreational amenities, such as a walking track and playground.

''It's a matter of getting someone to get control of it that wants to make something happen,'' LaRussa said.

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