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 In the 1994 finding, the bureau argued that historical documents don’t show them as a long-established tribe.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.