Wanted: help

ISLE DE JEAN CHARLES, La. – Weeks after the houses on this tiny strip of land clinging to the Louisiana coast by a narrow causeway were pounded by two hurricanes weeks apart, Albert Naquin was looking for bleach.

“The thing we didn’t get that we really need is Clorox,” said the chief of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha Indians, who live on Isle de Jean Charles. “We got a few gallons, but not enough to clean the houses. The water’s been setting in there now for two weeks and mildew is setting in, so we’re going to need lots of Clorox to pour in there and rinse it off and pour in some more.

“There’s all this black mud that’s settled in from sea water. People are rinsing it out with fresh water from the bayou, but that’s contaminated.”

All of the island’s 150 to 175 residents were staying on the mainland with friends or relatives.

“They couldn’t be on the island now. There’s no water and no electricity. There’s no way they could live there. We call them escapees. People say we’re evacuees, but we say escapees,” Naquin said, laughing.

“But nobody’s hurt,” he added on a more serious note. “That’s the only good thing about the hurricane. Nobody was hurt.”

Escaping from the yearly hurricanes and floods has become an annual ritual on this low-lying ridge of land and other similar nearby communities located around 80 miles southwest of New Orleans. Ike’s nine-foot water surge deluged the island, which is about three feet above sea level. It was the third major flood in as many years.

No help was available from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he said.

“We had hurricanes before, but people could always return home. We could give them dry mattresses and blankets, but now? I don’t know what we can do. We don’t have a warehouse ready to dish out what the people need at the moment. We have water and food and that’s just about as good as we can do right now, so, honestly, I’m lost and I’m going to tell you this – you’re Indian country and I hope maybe you all can help us.”

The question Naquin grapples with now is how much longer the community can remain there.

The island and others like it nearby were built up over thousands of years by sediments poured down from the Mississippi’s annual floods. But the buildup has stopped since the Mississippi levees were built in the early 20th century; and the wetlands along the Gulf of Mexico that used to act as a barrier, absorbing the surges of floodwaters, have been degraded by gas and oil companies cutting large swathes through them. The result is that Isle de Jean Charles and other nearby islands are eroding away and sinking.

Isle de Jean Charles used to be a farming community.

“My mom and dad could live off the land. We had cows and chickens, and we grew vegetables. But I can’t live off the land and neither can the others. We need to work and make a living.”

The island, once about 4 miles wide, is now only around a quarter-mile wide and 2 miles long. The Bayou Jean Charles runs through the middle of the island, which has a single road on one side and wooden houses clinging to its edges, water almost lapping up against them.

Six years ago, the Army Corps of Engineers offered to relocate the tribe inland. Building a levee system to protect the island would cost $100 million; moving the residents off the island would cost $8 million, Naquin said.

But the word “relocation” resonates badly in Indian country.

“I thought they were trying to create a modern-day Trail of Tears. The people would keep their land and everything they had. They would build 68 new houses, a community center and, since we had a church on our island, they were going to build us a church. We would move as a community and make it a reservation if we could.”

But residents rejected the offer. Now Naquin plans to seek a new relocation offer from state and federal officials and the Army Corps.

“But it has to be done quickly. I have to go and present what I have, but no matter how good a politician you may be, you cannot get 100 percent of the people to vote and I cannot get 100 percent to move.”

Even after Hurricane Ike’s destruction, not everyone is willing to move.

“It’s not the best place, but for them this is their story and they don’t want to move. To me, it’s not where I live or where my mom and dad lived that makes me an Indian, but they say they lived here all their lives and their parents before them. Well, that’s all fine, but what about their children?”

The tribe is also struggling for federal recognition, which would provide funding for housing, health care and education. The Isle de Jean Charles tribe and nearby tribes at Bayou Lafourche and Grand Caillou/Dulac comprise the Biloxi-Chitimacha Confederation of Muscogee. They are state recognized, but the confederation’s petition for federal acknowledgment was denied in a proposed negative finding last spring.

Naquin is considering seeking congressional recognition, but the immediate problems facing his community have taken precedence.

Judy Shapiro, an attorney who has practiced Indian law for more than 25 years, has helped spread the word about the crisis facing the tribe. Although she has met with Naquin, she does not represent the tribe, but she is a lawyer who is interested in the issues of recognition and injustices.

“I’m trying to get some resources for them. They’re really in bad shape and nobody comes to help these guys. They were badly hit by Katrina and nobody helped them. The recognized tribes are going to have resources, but the unrecognized tribes don’t get any help.”

Contributions are tax-deductible. Relief donations can be sent to Isle de Jean Charles Tribe, c/o Albert P. Naquin, 100 Dennis St., Montegut, LA 70377.