Katrina pushes Houma Indians towards cultural extinction

Reports Sarah Garland of Newsday Sept. 9:

Michael Dardar lost his home when Hurricane Katrina flooded his trailer in Boothville, La., but that is the least of his worries. For Dardar, 43, a Houma Indian, the loss of his land and culture could be far worse.

“An indigenous existence is about people and about place; it’s not like we can go buy land in Arkansas,” he said from a friend’s house in Lafayette, La.

Most of the 15,000 Houmas live in isolated towns dotting the edges of the bayou southeast of New Orleans, an area hard hit by Katrina, and Dardar estimates up to 3,400 could have lost their homes.

Brenda Dardar-Robichaux, chief of the United Houma Nation, said she feared the worst, although she has been unable to get in touch with members in several of the most vulnerable towns.

“We’re looking at so many people being displaced, it’s never going to be the same,” said Dardar-Robichaux, who is unrelated to Dardar.

The Houmas have endured hurricanes and floods in the past, but each disaster weakens the tribe’s already tenuous existence as shrimpers and traditional craftspeople, Dardar-Robichaux said. Homes destroyed by the storms, and by coastal erosion that is gradually sucking the tribe’s soggy land into the ocean, have driven increasing numbers of Houmas to New Orleans and beyond, where they lose touch with their community, she said.

“The elders are going to stay, they just want to stay, but the younger generation, some are hanging in there, but some are saying we can’t fight this forever,” she said.

Dardar believes the tribe – traditional French speakers who also had their own language – would have a better chance at withstanding the region’s frequent natural disasters if it were federally recognized. Though the state of Louisiana recognizes the tribe, the Houmas have been pushing to change their federal status for more than 20 years.

A share of the federal money available each year to recognized tribes could have helped the Houmas lift flood-prone houses onto stilts or buy drier land for a reservation farther inland, Dardar said.

The Houmas applied to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for federal recognition in 1984. Ten years later, the bureau proposed that the request be rejected, though the tribe is still waiting on a final decision. In the 1994 finding, the bureau argued that historical documents don’t show them as a long-established tribe. It also said they had European and African ancestors and cited the emigration of members from their traditional land in Louisiana as a reason to deny the application.

Dardar-Robichaux said her tribe is authentic, however, and suggests the government’s denial is linked to commercial interests. She says she suspects that oil companies operating in the region want the bayou’s rich land for themselves and have lobbied the Bureau of Indian Affairs to deny them recognition.

“You look at where our tribal members sit, on the largest resources of oil in the state… they’re more powerful, they’re stronger, they’re bigger and badder than us,” she said.

Nedra Darling, a bureau spokeswoman, said no oil companies have registered as interested parties in the Houmas’ case, nor has she heard of any oil companies ever contacting the bureau.

With or without federal status, Dardar-Robichaux said the tribal leadership would do its best to convince people to return and keep the tribe together. She added, though, “You’re always fearful…if they decide not to come back, that’s a part of our culture that’s gone.”

See our last post on Katrina’s aftermath.

  1. Houma Nation aerial survey reveals total devastation
    From Indian Country Today, Sept. 15:

    GOLDEN MEADOW, La. – United Houma Nation tribal officials and representatives of the National Congress of American Indians surveyed Houma tribal communities on the Louisiana coast by helicopter and found communities blown away and under water.

    In Plaquemines Parish, the 40-member Houma community known as ”The Village” was completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina; and the community of Boothville, adjacent to Venice on the tip of the peninsula southeast of New Orleans, was devastated by flooding.

    ”What we saw there is just heartbreaking, total devastation,” said Houma Principal Chief Brenda Dardar Robichaux of The Village, which was beyond the protective levee. ”It was all blown away. Everything is gone.

    ”If you didn’t know the area, you wouldn’t know that there was anything there before,” she told Indian Country Today on Sept. 14, one day after the aerial survey.

    Surveying Boothville, the team found Houma Vice Principal Chief Michael Dardar’s trailer home flooded to the windows.

    Further, Dardar’s home had been moved by the floodwaters and was lodged between two trees. His mother’s home was gone and his daughter’s home flooded.

    ”This is kind of hard to put into words,” Dardar said. ”I’m 43 years old and have been in this community for the majority of my life. I saw Hurricane Camille come through in 1969 when I was a kid, and to see it now with the eyes of an adult – it is heartbreaking.

    ”It is like losing your balance – you lose your sense of direction because you have lost contact with the ground.”

    Dardar left during the mandatory evacuation of Plaquemines Parish on Aug. 27 before the hurricane hit two days later. Now, the homes of 400 tribal members are underwater in his community of Boothville, adjacent to Venice on the peninsula southeast of New Orleans.

    The homes of another 650 Houma tribal members are underwater in St. Bernard Parish. Still, other homes of tribal members have sustained water and flood damage in Jefferson, Plaquemines and Orleans parishes.

    Dardar said he can only look ahead to the cleanup and recovery. ”I’ve lived in Venice for 40 years and I can’t see living any place else.”

    In the low-lying bayou at the tip of the Louisiana coast, Robichaux said the levee failed and the water pumps could not keep up with the surge of water during the hurricane.

    Robichaux said 3,400 Houma tribal members are either homeless or their homes have been damaged. It has not been determined whether any lives were lost. The tribe continues to search for tribal members in shelters and is asking the American Red Cross and church shelters to help.

    ”It is our concern that a lot of tribal members in shelters may not be receiving the help they need because of language and cultural barriers.”

    As Houma officials struggled to locate Houma tribal members in shelters across the nation, Robichaux said, ”We are struggling so we don’t lose a part of our heritage and who we are.

    ”We still have tribal council members at evacuation sites out of state. It is still a frustration trying to find out where our tribal members are,” she said, adding that only about one-half of the council members have been located.

    Robichaux sent the tribe’s gratitude to Indian country. ”We really appreciate the well-wishes and support that has been given to our nation. We ask for continued prayer and support.

    ”It is just heartbreaking to see these communities this way. We are very fortunate that NCAI was with us and could see the challenges we face in rebuilding our communities.”

    NCAI Communications Director Adam McMullin and NCAI Director of Emergency Management Robert Holden released a report from their visit to the United Houma Nation on the following day, as they arrived on Mississippi Choctaw tribal lands on their tour of the Gulf Coast region.

    McMullin and Holden described the hot meal of crawfish etouffe with tribal members meeting at Robichaux’s home and the reports of devastation.

    ”My home is under nine feet of water,” said Hope Larios, a member of the tribal election committee living in St. Bernard Parish. ”I haven’t been able to return, but I am fortunate enough to have been given a place to stay.”

    NCAI said the 3,400 affected tribal members live in St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Orleans, and Jefferson parishes, all suffering varying degrees of damage.

    ”But regardless of the extent of the damage, it is clear that the people of the Houma Nation need help and need it now,” Holden said.

    Tribal officials have expressed frustration at the lack of attention paid by both federal and state emergency management officials to Native people whose lives were changed by Katrina.

    NCAI is currently visiting Indian tribes in the Gulf Coast region to assess damage in an effort to distribute relief funds to the tribal communities that need it most.

    ”The people of this tribal community are in the midst of the largest natural disaster in the country, but I don’t think they will let the impact destroy their sense of community as they are reaching out to each other to share homes, food and inner strength,” said Holden.

    ”To see the aftermath of Katrina is really sad, but several tribal members seemed to have lifted spirits knowing that Indian country as a whole is inquiring on their well-being and is now reaching into their hearts and their pockets to assist in the relief effort.”

    NCAI President Tex Hall said tribes on the Gulf Coast would not be forgotten.

    ”The hurricane’s destruction has touched all of us and reminded us that all Native Americans have a responsibility to care for each other. So you can bet that NCAI is going to stick with the Gulf tribes and see this through together with them.

    ”I have already sent our own staff to the Gulf to meet with the tribes and bring back a first-hand report so we can get working right away.”

    1. If this article hold any “Truth”. Then Why Were Refused Help?
      The real truth is that the United Houma Nation only helps out their own people, not the community as a whole. During this Diasterous Time, I don’t believe than race should play a factor. Especiaaly when you turn down your own race just because they are being told they are not a member and when asked when this change, they don’t have an answer. That’s what I got from Brenda Dardar Robichaux on Monday September 26, 2005, in Raceland, Louisiana. My mother and her 3 great-grandchildren loss everything and I went to get clothes and I was told NO. My sister-in-law was also refused. Why is that?, since the article states we should stand together as an Indian Country and open our Hearts and Homes and pockets to All Our People. Was this a misprint? Did you mean ONLY the UNITED HOUMA NATION TRIBE not ALL TRIBES, as stated?