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In Louisiana, Native Americans struggle to recover from Ida

ALONG BAYOU POINTE-AU-CHIEN, La. – Driving through her village along a bayou in Southeast Louisiana, tribal official Cherie Matherne points from house to house to the remains – including her own – that were destroyed nine months ago Hurricane Ida roared through the community of Pointe-au-Chien Indians.

Beige Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers and touring campers stand next to poles that raise homes 15 feet (4.3 meters) off the ground to protect them from flooding. But this time it was the wind that got them. For hours, the Category 4 hurricane ripped off roofs and trim, ripped out insulation and scattered valuable belongings. It wrecked shrimp boats and threw crab traps.

“It will be years before people can get back to their lives. The majority of people are still standing still,” said Matherne, the tribe’s cultural heritage and resilience coordinator.

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As Hurricane Ida swept through southeastern Louisiana on August 29, it struck an area populated by many Native American tribes and struck people already struggling with it, decades of coastal erosion, the long shadow of discrimination, and a more recent catastrophe – to overcome the pandemic.

When a new hurricane season begins, the sounds of recovery — the popping of nail guns and the whine of buzz saws — are largely absent. And tribal officials are worried bad season too could target their people again.

“Ida was the worst storm we’ve ever had in our area,” said August Creppel, chief of the nature conservation agency United Houma Nation. The tribe’s approximately 19,000 members are spread across the Louisiana coast, of whom about 11,000 have suffered some sort of harm from Ida, according to Creppel.

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“Some of our people don’t even have a home to go back to,” he said.

Other tribes in southeastern Louisiana were also hammered. Theresa Dardar, a member of the Pointe-au-Chien Indian tribe, said only about 12 homes in the lower part of the Pointe-au-Chien community, where many tribal members live, actually survived the storm. Further west, where many members of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw live, Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar said everyone had some type of damage, with about 20% of the homes being totaled, including their own.

Native Americans lived in the southeastern bayou regions of Louisiana, which extend to the Gulf of Mexico, long before the French did Discoverer Rene-Robert Cavelier reached the mouth of the Mississippi River in 1682 and claimed it for France – sparking waves of colonization that would drastically change the landscape and the way of life of the native people.

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After colonization, the bayous became a haven for Native peoples driven from their homes by violence or disease, said Liz Ellis, an assistant professor of history at New York University. That trend accelerated after the American Revolution as more settlers moved to the region, she said.

Historically, Native Americans in these areas have strong ties to land and water. Many make a living fishing for shrimp or crabs in the swamps and estuaries; Their parents and grandparents before them also caught muskrats or nutria.

But decades of development has deprived them of this country. Levees built to keep the Mississippi from flooding have starved the Louisiana coast of the fresh sediments it needs to rebuild land; Canals dug to facilitate oil and gas exploration or shipping have allowed salt water to encroach further inland.

That means the buffers of land, trees, and marsh grass that once protected Native American communities from Gulf storms have shrunk, even as climate change heralds a future of stronger, wetter hurricanes that cause more storm surges and intensify faster .

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Lester Naquin’s father, a trapper, used to take his son crab and shrimp fishing. Naquin recalls when there was so much land that his family raised cattle behind his home in Pointe-au-Chien. Now, if you walk past the levee to fish from a pirogue, a type of canoe traditionally used by many Native Americans in this region, you can catch speckled trout, a saltwater fish.

70-year-old Naquin loves the bayou. Therefore, he decided to come back even after Ida destroyed the house he used to share with his extended family. Using FEMA funds, materials, and contractors paid by a charity, he was one of the few to rebuild in the area, though the home is considerably smaller than before. He still lives in a FEMA-supplied trailer while the interior of the home is finished.

But for a man who used to live with several generations, it’s lonely in the trailer. And he’s not sure how many of his family will retire. Next door is the shell of his nephew’s house. But this is where Naquin grew up, here are his memories. There are people, he said, who move from place to place. He’s not one of them.

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“As long as I can stay down here, I will,” he said.

Decades of discrimination against Native peoples in southeastern Louisiana are reflected today in ways that affect their ability to prepare for and recover from hurricanes, tribal officials say.

Discrimination restricted school attendance, and when allowed to attend school, many faced harassment. Louise Billiot, a United Houma Nation tribal official who helps people get vocational training, said she can see the impact of this lack of education among tribal elders who are struggling to use computers or cellphones to make hurricane claims or their to pursue appeals.

The tribes hardest hit by Ida have not had state recognition, although they are seeking it through a lengthy, decades-long process. Tribal officials say state recognition would give them better access to funding for stronger, more hurricane-resistant homes and other programs to improve the lives of their members ahead of storms.

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After storms, federal recognition would allow them to deal directly with the federal government, tribal officials say. When Hurricane Irma struck Florida’s Seminole tribe in 2017, the state-recognized tribe requested and received a declaration of emergency from then-President Donald Trump to meet their needs.

After Ida there was even confusion as to whether some tribes were recognized by the state. A resolution that failed to make it out of the legislature this session attempted to reaffirm its state recognition, saying the lack of clarity “prevented the delivery of life-saving aid during Hurricane Ida.”

As it stands, tribal members are essentially acting alone and requesting FEMA or other types of help.

Parfait-Dardar said the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Grand Caillou/Dulac Band is looking at ways for residents to rebuild their homes stronger than before. “We are an adaptive people, we always have been,” she said.

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But that costs more money than most people have, and she worries tribal members who can’t afford to rebuild will be forced to relocate as high real estate prices drive them further and further afield. The tribe is exploring the possibility of relocating to another area, but even that is costly. And this is her home.

Rebuilding can also be a strenuous process, especially for older tribal members who may not be physically able to do the back-breaking work of gutting their home or who have a steady income struggling to afford repairs. Tribal officials are concerned about the stress experienced by many of their members.

Irene Verdin, a 67-year-old member of the United Houma Nation who lives in the Pointe-au-Chien area, lives in a FEMA trailer next to the remains of her home, which still has memorabilia and soggy furniture lying on the floor . Her roof is long gone – somewhere in the swamps behind her house. She shows a reporter the house and repeatedly apologizes for the mess.

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She is the main carer for her bedridden sister-in-law who has suffered two strokes. And Verdin’s 73-year-old husband, who used to work on boats, had a heart attack earlier this year. In his younger years, when they needed money for something like a car or repairs on their house, he worked a bit extra to cover it. But his health now makes that impossible. Her own blood pressure has been rising since the storm.

Deciding what to do is almost paralyzing. She’d love to remodel, but it’s difficult to get even an estimate from a contractor – let alone find a way to pay for the build. Verdin said she sometimes feels like those living in the bayou below are forgotten.

“It’s still up in the air in my head. It’s still up in the air what we’re going to do,” she said. “It is difficult.”

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Follow Santana on Twitter @ruskygal.

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https://www.local10.com/news/national/2022/06/16/in-louisiana-native-americans-struggle-to-recover-from-ida/ In Louisiana, Native Americans struggle to recover from Ida

Sarah Y. Kim

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