The ground is eroding under the feet of southern Louisiana’s indigenous people. These rural residents are dealing with the local consequences of a global problem. They may be the first to be displaced, but they won’t be the last.
A tribe of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw from the Isle de Jean Charles, in the bayous of coastal Louisiana, is soon to become one of the first communities in the lower 48 states to relocate because of coastal erosion. They will certainly not be the last.
Southern Louisiana loses a football field’s amount of land every hour to the seas, and that’s before expected sea level rise from climate change. In the coming years, coastal erosion, driven by a multitude of factors, will force the relocation of thousands of people, many of them part of indigenous communities. Southern Louisiana, faced with increasingly powerful storms, disappearing swamps, sinking land, and now, rising seas, has become the American test case for dealing with climate change. And if Katrina was the precedent for an urban climate crisis, Louisiana’s bayous have become the pilot site for dealing with climate change in rural American. This means working on mitigation, resiliency, and relocation.
“You see all that water out there?” Chris Brunet, a native of the Isle de Jean Charles asked, pointing out his window, past the small levee several dozen feet from his house, to a large bay. “That used to all be land…. They used to have cattle out there.”
Jean Charles’ story is classic in southern Louisiana. In the late 1950’s, oil companies dug canals in the swamp to drill wells. With more direct access to the sea, the canals brought a deluge of saltwater to the swamps. This compounded the problems that engineering the Mississippi River had already created. Several decades earlier the Army Corp of Engineers had nearly stopped the Mississippi River from overflowing its banks—a process that previously had built up the land by depositing billions of tons of sediment across all of Southern Louisiana. That feat meant building and maintaining hundreds of thousands of miles of levees. With the sea encroaching, storms have gotten much worse on Isle de Jean Charles. Even surrounded by a levee, houses are now required to be 16 feet off the ground to prevent regular storm-surge flooding.
Floods, land loss, and government inaction have discouraged many residents. A community that had 325 residents in 2002 now has 25 homes – 60 or so residents. Many of those who are left are elderly or disabled.
“It’s a second Trail of Tears,” Chief Albert Naquin says in Jason and Rebecca Ferris’ recent documentary, Can’t Stop the Water. The film will be publicly available soon – showing dates can be found here. Chief Naquin explained to me that during the Indian Removal Act of 1837—which resulted in the Trail of Tears— his people fled as far south as possible. “So we pretended to be French,” he related one windy winter day on the Island. “But everyone knew we were Indians.”
A group of people, many of whom speak a mixture of French and Choctaw as their first language, are facing a hard question: Where do they go, as a community? With most of the tribe rapidly scattering across southern Louisiana, the Isle has remained a cultural center. Now, the chief is looking at a piece of land 15 miles inland. In the film we see expansive meadows, woodlands – plenty of land compared with the narrow strip of road and houses that now make up the island. “It could be Isle de Jean Charles New Reservation,” says Chief Naquin. But without federal recognition as a tribe, it has been, and will be, a struggle.
Losing a Way of Life
If the people of Jean Charles are the front line, many more are already experiencing just some of the effects of land loss.
“We’re not just losing our land,” said Greg Sanamo, a member of another tribe, the Houma Tribe, from Bayou Lafourche, southwest of New Orleans. We met in the large greenhouses where he grows tomatoes to sell at the farmers market. “We’re losing our way of life.”
The Houma are a much larger south-Louisiana tribe with state recognition, but they are still battling for federal recognition. Sanamo’s grandfather lived off the land and the sea. His father captained a ship taking supplies to the oil rigs. Now, later in life, he’s become a farmer. “You just can’t live here like you used to,” Sanamo said. “I want my son to have a place to fish, to hunt. So that’s why I bought a place in north Louisiana…. For me it’s easier. I can afford to go. But what about a working man, who just wants to take his family out to do something on the weekend? Now, he can’t.” What Sanamo means is that even guys like him can’t get access to their old hunting grounds anymore.
The swamps and inlets surrounding Lafourche Parish – the narrow strip of land jutting south into the Gulf of Mexico where Sanamo farms – were once covered in oak groves, fed by freshwater streams and lakes. Saltwater intrusion has killed the oaks, as have successive hurricanes and the erosion itself. As the land slips into the sea, so do the hunting and fishing spots of Sanamo’s childhood.
“Now you see it’s all gated and posted,” Sanamo explains. The land that’s left is more valuable. “You can’t just go hunt anywhere. It’s all leased out.” Sports hunters pay large amounts of money to go to those lands in the hopes of shooting a deer or better, an alligator. “I had a little camp down in Golden Meadows. I remember when we first got it, maybe in ‘95, you would walk out a little jetty to get to this island to fish. Then we put a board down because the jetty started disappearing. We came back after one hurricane and it was all water. Shallow water. But still water.”
“It’s sad to have to leave this place.” Sanamo’s eyes glistened. “There’s some of the best people in the world down here…. But we just can’t stay.”
A Red Line
At the local level, everyone is worried about land loss. In the town of Houma, the parish seat of Terrebonne Parish — which is also includes Isle de Jean Charles — Nick Matherne, director of the parish’s Office of Coastal Restoration and Preservation, explained that there was huge progress in restoration efforts. The parish has successfully started trials to rebuild swamps using pipelines that can divert sediment from the Mississippi River and rebuild lost land. Already, dozens of acres have been created. But it’s not cheap, he pointed out; funds from the Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill payout have been instrumental. Now, these projects are going deeper into the bayou. A pipeline is being developed to carry sediment dozens of miles away from the Mississippi River – longer and more expensive than anything imagined before the BP funds arrived.
Matherne, in his Houma office, noted that it’s hard to lay blame for this land loss. “Some people want to blame the oil companies. Some people want to blame the people that dug their own canals and ponds for fishing…. The reality is that nobody knew this was going to happen when it all started. What’s important is what we do now.”
Nonetheless, the Orleans Levee Board in 2013 filed a lawsuit against dozens of oil and gas companies to get the companies to pay billions of dollars for restoration efforts. The suit is stalled, and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has publicly denounced it. Even environmental groups are doubtful that any lawsuit will be successful. However, across the political spectrum, there is a growing consensus that something must be done about coastal restoration in southern Louisiana.
“This is a problem that effects everyone,” Matherne said. “It effects industry, it effects voters. And people realize that we have to fix it now. There’s no more waiting.”
Matherne conceded that Louisiana is paying the price of the Army Corps of Engineer’s decision a century ago to channelize and contain the Mississippi River.
He ended our interview with an important reminder: “Coastal restoration gets treated as a Louisiana issue. It’s not. Its a national issue.” Southern Louisiana is addressing locally a problem caused by a host of national and international decisions around industry and commerce, from Mississippi navigation and flood control to oil exploration – all of which have generated vast wealth.
Meanwhile, the tribe continues to push for relocation benefits at the national level. In mid-April, in Washington, D.C., tucked in a Senate briefing room filled with early 20th century photographs of the then-considered “vanishing Indians,” a panel of indigenous rights advocates and a member of the tribe from Isle de Jean Charles explained to a handful of Senate staffers that a red line has being drawn on Louisiana maps. On one side, restoration efforts are expected to maintain the land, even bring back lost swampland. This restoration effort is critical for protecting New Orleans. The other side of the line won’t be saved. And the Isle is on the other side. But as the staffers bustled out of the room, there were conversations about how, while no one was getting their land back, perhaps this island could become a model for climate relocation.
This is not the first time people from Jean Charles have sought allies in government. In Can’t Stop the Water, we see Chief Naquin explain how the Army Corp of Engineers had proposed to save the Isle de Jean Charles. “You can see in the 1998 maps proposed that the levee system extends down to the island. But in the revised proposal, the line goes right behind us.” Isle de Jean Charles was on the wrong side of massive levees that were erected, part of the slow process of abandoning the island.
Residents have not left the island without a fight. Chief Naquin even took his story to the United Nations, seeking an audience with the world’s indigenous forum, but was passed over to speak at the last minute.
Matherne with the restoration office at Terrebonne Parish is hopeful that there can be cooperation among the state, environmental groups, oil companies, and the federal government. Several major oil companies have already admitted some degree of culpability for land lost in the bayous, simply from digging canals. The Army Corps of Engineers continues massive investments in infrastructure, such as levees, while the state matches these in research and agencies like Matherne’s. But, as it stands, everyone agrees that more must be done just to save the land deemed savable.
Matherne is right. Looking to the future, Louisiana’s bayou communities are on the national, if not international stage. As climate change quickens, with already measureable sea-level rise and increased storms, displaced coastal communities across the country will look to coastal Louisiana for answers.
Meanwhile, for the vulnerable communities on the front lines of climate change, the problem looms large. On Isle de Jean Charles, residents are struggling to find assistance. So far they have been excluded from plans for remedies. “I haven’t won many battles,” Chief Naquin contends, with a bit of a smile. “But I’ve brought several to the field.”
Some individuals from Isle de Jean Charles received state buyouts and federal insurance incentives to leave the island. The chief worries what will happen as the gradual dispersal continues. Perhaps the most important battle the chief is waging is over the ability of a community to determine its collective future — to preserve its identity in the face of crisis and relocation.
CORRECTION: The original story has been corrected to include the proper name of the tribe, who are Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw; the number of oil companies sued by the Orleans Levee Board; and the origins of the tribe's language. The Daily Yonder regrets the errors.