In Pointe-Aux-Chênes, Louisiana, a small town with a majority Native American and Cajun French population, the local elementary school is one of the only majority Indigenous schools in the state. Or, it was, until authorities voted to shut the school down despite a massive outcry from parents and Indigenous advocates.
Last month, Terrebonne Parish School Board voted 6-3 to close Pointe-Aux-Chênes Elementary.
“The message is clear. They’re giving up on us,” said law professor Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, who is also the director of Indian Legal Clinic and a member of the Pointe-au-Chien tribe. “Our kids don’t matter; we don’t matter.”
At the Apr. 13 board vote, parents argued the closure would disproportionately affect the Native American community; about 70 percent of its 100 students belong to the local tribes of Pointe-au-Chien and Isle de Jean Charles.
For years, tribal members have worked with the school’s principals to ensure lesson plans are culturally responsive—from hosting tribal gatherings on site to bringing in Indigenous community members as teaching assistants.
“The school serves as a pillar of hope and opportunity for many facing dire circumstances—poverty, coastal erosion, and effects of hurricanes,” Melissa Viguerie said at the meeting, reading the official statement from the Pointe-au-Chien tribe.
Upon hearing rumors of the potential school closure in March, a coalition of tribal and community members, researchers, and state officials swiftly mobilized to keep the school open—and even turn it into a French immersion school, which they argued could drastically increase enrollment. The local paper Houma Courier published an op-ed signed by 32 academics who argued the decision would violate the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Louisiana’s House of Representatives passed an unanimous resolution urging the school board to vote against closure, warning that it would consider withholding COVID relief funds if the school was closed.
Richard S. Conley, the director of the Native American Studies Program at the University of Florida, drove 500 miles to attend the board vote.
“If you dig into the data as I have, you find that achievement gaps are significantly more overcome by this type of schooling, which is designed to match the environment and culture that is unique in this part of the world,” Conley said before the board.
When reflecting on parents’ recollections of being called Indian slurs at parish schools in the past, board president Gregory Harding said he didn’t think it should be a “Black, white, or Indian issue.” Harding then voted in favor of closing the school.
Terrebonne Parish superintendent Philip Martin, who first proposed the school closure, told VICE News dwindling enrollment numbers have made the school inefficient to run.
Unless the decision is overturned, students at Pointe-aux-Chenes Elementary will merge with Montegut Elementary in a town 4 miles away starting next school year.
Martin declined to answer if the school is struggling financially or provide any factual analysis in support of the decision despite repeated requests.
Geneva LeBeouf, a member of the Pointe-au-Chien tribe who worked at the school as a bilingual educator for many years, said Martin’s argument rings hollow. “To shut it down even when they’re getting federal funding for our kids. It’s really disgusting,” she said. “It’s a slap in the face to the Natives.”
Native Americans of South Louisiana have historically been targeted for both their Indian French language and for being Indigenous, and schoolchildren often bore the brunt of this prejudice. A state law passed in 1921 banned speaking French in state schools, a decision that took aim at both Cajun and Indigenous populations. Native Americans were legally barred from attending schools in Terrebonne Parish until 1964 and banned from speaking their language until 1974.
“When we first started attending schools, Indian students were punished for speaking French. My mom was put on her knees on rice for speaking French,” said Ferguson Bohnee. “Cultural heritage is a human right that my mother was being denied from a young age. Closing the school is another attack on our cultural heritage.”
The closure is the latest in a series of disturbing government actions affecting Indigenous communities in Terrebonne Parish. In March, the school board sold the former all-Indian Daigleville School building, which is listed on the National Historic Register and was legally under the stewardship of the United Houma Nation—without consultation. The tribe is now suing for allegedly wrongfully selling protected property.
“Once you close the school you don’t have a community anymore. What do you have if you take away the school? They closed our library down. Now we only have two churches, a grocery store, and a marina,” LeBeouf said.
For those students coming from Isle de Jean Charles, one of the first communities in the country forced to relocate due to climate change, the stress of having to relocate to a new school could have a profound impact on their development. “The area where we live is the fastest eroding basin in the United States, so basically we’re a sacrifice zone,” said Ferguson-Bohnee.
Terrebonne Parish has invested millions into the Morganza Levee Project, which will provide extensive hurricane and flood protection for the area. Levee board director Reggie Dupre said that contrary to the “dwindling enrollment” argument for school closure, by 2023 the $500 million of flood protection will be complete and people will move back.
“It’s critical that we maintain these communities as culturally and economically vibrant so that in the future if displacement happens or if they need to adapt, they’ll still be very cohesive and resilient,” said Will McGrew, who has been working with the community to keep the school open.
In an environmental impact report for the Morganza Levee, the Army Corp of Engineers states, “The presence of social institutions such as libraries, places of worship, and schools provide residents an opportunity for civic participation and engagement which increases community cohesion.”
The report goes on to identify social institutions in Terrebonne Parish such as schools as a marker for necessity in funding, leaving community members like Theresa Dardar, a member of the Pointe-au-Chien tribe, perplexed. “There’s no reason to close the school now that the levee will protect our town. It just seems like they’re pushing us out.”
The tribes, the community, and their allies plan to take every step to overturn the board’s decision, including a lawsuit at state and federal courts.
“We’re not giving up the fight for sure. We’ll find some way to keep it open,” said Dardar.