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When John Silver drove back into Dulac, Louisiana, just a few days after Hurricane Ida slammed into the southeastern part of the state, all he saw was a war zone.
Four pine trees had fallen through his house. Downed utility poles crisscrossed the roads. Mobile homes were upside-down. Debris was everywhere, and people were waiting hours in line for gas to power their generators, only to come home empty-handed, according to Silver, a 41-year-old member of the United Houma Nation.
“I’m not very emotional, but driving down, it really affects you,” said Silver, who also serves as the executive director of the Inter-Tribal Council of Louisiana. “People are crying out for help.”
When the Category 4 storm made landfall on the Louisiana coastline Aug. 29, 150 mph winds ransacked Indigenous communities like Silver’s and blew apart the homes of families that were already disproportionately affected by coastal erosion and climate change. But the United Houma Nation and other, smaller tribes in the region lack federal recognition, which cuts them off from a wide range of government benefits and funds. Even though the state sees several tribes in southeastern Louisiana as legitimate, being officially recognized at the national level would open up a more robust “government-to-government” relationship with the feds during times of disaster.
The lack of recognition has already been a barrier to some tribes’ ability to recover in the weeks after the hurricane. After watching the steady disappearance of their coastal marshland for years—as tribal leaders have continued to plead for recognition—their communities are now mostly without livable homes.
“We have land that’s washing away every day. We’re running out of land in our area for our people to run to,” said August Creppel, the principal chief of the United Houma Nation and a firefighter based in Gretna, just outside New Orleans. “With federal recognition, we would’ve had federal people on the ground right away helping us out. Ninety percent of the stuff we get, we have to get it ourselves.”
The storm impacted more than half of the 19,000-plus members of the United Houma Nation, the state’s largest tribe, according to Creppel. About 75 percent to 80 percent of the Houma’s homes, spread across several parishes, were damaged or destroyed. Some Houma elders, left with nowhere else to go, temporarily moved into the tribe’s office for shelter.
“My people’s lives changed so much in just a few hours,” Creppel said.
But it wasn’t just the Houma. The Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw has been trying to get federally recognized for 26 years. For the approximately 1,003 members of the tribe, no one’s home survived the storm unscathed, according to Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar, who’s also the chairwoman for the Native American Commission within the Louisiana Governor's Office of Indian Affairs. Even her house in Chauvin, which also served as her tribe’s office, was decimated. Tribal members are living in their vehicles.
“Everything on my property was completely destroyed,” Parfait-Dardar said, her voice breaking. “My whole life is gone.”
The Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe has also been fighting for federal recognition for decades. Only 10 percent of the homes in the tribe’s main village were livable after the hurricane blew through the southern parts of Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes, according to Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, a tribal member. Black, smelly water seeped into the bayou. The community was left without electricity.
Theresa Dardar, a 67-year-old tribal member who lives in the unincorporated community of Pointe-aux-Chênes, told VICE News last week she planned to wash her hair with cool rainwater that her husband had collected earlier in the day, since she hadn’t had power or running water for the entirety of September.
At least her home survived.
“We came home to devastation,” Dardar said. “We’ve never had a storm like this before.”
A ‘black hole’
Nearly two weeks after the hurricane, Ferguson-Bohnee, who serves as an attorney for the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe, had reached her limit. At that point, her tribe and others weren’t hearing back from government officials about their pleas for aid. But that was par for the course.
The Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe had been told it would have to work through the parishes to get recovery assistance from the storm, since it didn’t have the ear of the federal government. But going to the parishes—the tribe is split between Lafourche and Terrebonne—didn’t immediately get anything done.
With little help by Sept. 11, Ferguson-Bohnee sent an email to both state and parish officials to fight for her tribe and three others devastated by Hurricane Ida: the Isle de Jean Charles Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe, the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, and the Bayou Lafourche Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha. Her email, which she shared with VICE News, stressed that the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs is supposed to ensure coordination with tribal governments during emergencies, while the parishes are expected to give tribal people “the same level of lifesaving and sustaining support as the other citizens” of the area.
The tribes asked for a feeding plan, cooling stations where people could escape the heat, help clearing debris, and “a functional response effort” that would allow them to request help directly from the state.
“If the parish doesn’t do their job, and the state is supposed to coordinate, we are in a black hole,” said Ferguson-Bohnee, who’s also the director of the Indian Legal Clinic at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law. “If you’re not federally recognized, you’re screwed. It’s not a legal term, but that’s what happens.”
Local officials bristled at the notion that anyone was being left behind. Mart Black, the spokesperson for the Terrebonne Parish Emergency Operations Center, told VICE News that the parish was slammed trying to meet everyone’s needs, though he acknowledged the frustration that people who’ve had their power off for weeks might feel.
“I’ve been here at this emergency operations center for two weeks, and everybody here has been there about that long, too,” he said. “We’re all dealing with problems the best we can and getting information out to people.”
(Parfait-Dardar said Monday that both Terrebonne Parish and the state have stepped up their efforts to fulfill their requests for aid.)
Over in Lafourche Parish, local Councilman Jim Wendell said nobody is being intentionally neglected on his end, either. He’s spent hours delivering supplies to the Pointe-aux-Chênes area and noted he has family members that are part of a non–federally recognized tribe.
On the state level, the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs visited with chiefs for the multiple tribes, including the Pointe-au-Chien. It also followed up with their requests to Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes, where requests for aid are supposed to originate, the office said in an emailed statement.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, for its part, said it’s in touch with the state’s Office of Indian Affairs—the “primary point of contact for any tribal community in Louisiana with federal recognition.”
Federal recognition—described as “that magical status that most Indian tribes try to achieve”—gives Indigenous communities greater financial resources for recovery, the possibility of creating their own environmental standards to ward off further calamity caused by climate change, and the simple ability to request a presidential disaster declaration.
Tribes can go about trying to achieve that status a few ways, according to Danielle Hiraldo, an outreach specialist and senior researcher at the University of Arizona’s Native Nations Institute. (She’s also a citizen of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, which lacks federal recognition.)
Most tribes petition the Interior Department’s Office of Federal Acknowledgment and put together a packet that demonstrates how they qualify, which can be “extremely expensive,” biased, and reliant upon paid experts and a ton of Western-style forms of documentation, Hiraldo said, or they go through Congress, which can quickly become politically fraught.
For Parfait-Dardar’s tribe, the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, she said she has the evidence needed for recognition but complains they need “a damn bedtime story”—a written narrative of the tribe in 10- and 20-year increments, going back hundreds of years—to get what she believes they deserve.
In the meantime, non–federally recognized tribes have to lean on nonprofits, religious organizations, other Indigenous groups, and their own members for support when government officials don’t, or can’t, meet their needs. Creppel said the American Red Cross has been of immense help to the United Houma Nation since Hurricane Ida.
Still, if Louisiana’s tribes don’t eventually receive federal recognition—during the aftermath of this storm and all the other future disasters worsened by climate change—Indigenous people say they’ll have to fend for themselves at the same time they’re fighting just to maintain their heritage and communities.
The region’s coast is rapidly eroding—“a football field of wetlands vanishes into open water every 100 minutes,” according to the group Restore the Mississippi Delta—due to the damming of the Mississippi River, shipping canals bringing in saltwater, environmental disruptions caused by oil and gas infrastructure, and rising sea levels.
Hurricanes, which are growing stronger due to warmer ocean temperatures, only make the problem worse.
Some tribal members are even considering whether it’s time to move out, according to Silver, of the United Houma Nation. While the situation in Dulac, where he lives, has gotten better in the weeks after Hurricane Ida, the region is still a long way off from normal.
“Because the tribe is state-recognized, the tribe is not eligible to go after those grants, those dollars to help rebuild and recover our communities,” Silver said. “We like to say that we like to have our own self-determination and drive our own destiny. But because we don’t have federal recognition, because we don’t have that government-to-government relationship with the feds, the United Houma Nation isn’t able to totally be in the driver’s seat.”
Yet Silver, who’s currently staying in the city of Thibodaux, can’t imagine himself living anywhere but the fertile, low-lying bayou communities where he’s lived his entire life—and where American Indian communities migrated to escape conflict with European settlers long ago.
While it’s getting more expensive to live in Dulac—in part due to the cost of homeowners and flood insurance, which Silver said will allow him to rebuild—Terrebonne Parish is where the United Houma Nation’s elders never have to go hungry, because they can always catch their lunch or supper themselves.
Fighting for recognition
Thomas Dardar Jr., a former principal chief for the United Houma Nation who’s currently running hurricane relief operations for the tribe, had warned top-level officials of what the Houma would face without federal recognition back in 2012: the loss of their identity. Speaking before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, he testified that “many tribes such as ours are fighting battles at home just to keep our members and culture afloat.”
“Getting federally recognized should not be the complicated process that it is,” Dardar said in his testimony of the process the United Houma Nation formally entered in 1979, calling their status a “major barrier in fighting the environmental onslaught.”
After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, for example, the United Houma Nation was denied compensation when it filed a claim with the oil giant BP. The problem: It wasn’t federally recognized.
Nearly a decade after that testimony, Dardar told VICE News that his tribe’s plight is still being ignored. It’s the same for other marginalized people, he said.
“These areas have been heavily impacted because of the ferocity of the storms that are being thrown at us now,” Dardar said. “Before, you had a bit of a buffer when you had the barrier islands and some of the marshland. We’re losing that at an astronomical rate, and it’s going to be difficult to try to maintain living in these areas. But we’re going to do the best that we can to stay as long as we can.”
Parfait-Dardar, of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, said her tribe’s lack of recognition doesn’t make her any less Native American. It was just one more process that was forced upon Indigenous people—and one they need to complete to maintain their communities, particularly after Hurricane Ida.
“I know our people are hurting, they’re suffering. I’m with them,” Parfait-Dardar said. “Why things are the way they are, the only explanation I have is just pure hatred. There’s no love at all in the system that they created, and they’re still using that system today.”
“As long as they use that system,” she continued, “it’s because they intend to just keep pushing forward with these genocidal practices that they’ve had in place since they came here. But we won’t give up. We can’t. I refuse to have my children watch their mother give up.”