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Virtually ignored

Indigenous nations hit hard by hurricanes

Published Sep 23, 2007 9:09 PM

Seldom mentioned, seldom held in the conscience of most people when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita are spoken about, is the devastating effect the storms had on Indigenous peoples on the Gulf Coast. Just as was and is the case for New Orleans, the plight of the Indigenous people is a history of oppression beginning with the colonization of the Americas by Europeans and the genocide committed against Indigenous peoples.

Witness Tony Sferlazza, left and tribunal
prosecutor, Efia Nwangaza in
New Orleans Aug. 31.
WW photo: Monica Moorehead

A number of Indigenous nations—the Pointe-au-Chien Tribe, the Isle de Jean Charles Indian Band of Biloxi-Chitimasha, the Grand Caillou-Dulac Band and the Biloxi-Chitimasha Confederation of Muskogees—were in the path of the twin storms.

Tony Sferlazza, a member of the Lakota nation, testified at the International Tribunal on Hurricanes Katrina/Rita about the history of the Houma nation and the effect of the hurricanes and oppression on the Houma people.

The Houma people live in settlements in lower Plaquemines, lower St. Bernard, and lower Jefferson parishes, and the bulk of the nation lives in the lower bayou region of Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes southwest of New Orleans.

According to the Houma nation website: “On Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina swept ashore on the Louisiana coast. Among those communities devastated by her impact were the small Houma Indian settlements in lower Plaquemines, lower St. Bernard, and lower Jefferson parishes. The population of these Indian settlements, some 3,500 tribal citizens, was hit hard by the storm. Over one thousand of that number were left homeless, their homes completely destroyed by wind and water.” (unitedhoumanation.org)

The larger population of the Houma nation in the lower bayou region was further threatened by Hurricane Rita, while the settlements in lower Plaquemines were trying to cope and deal with the devastation wrought by Katrina. The website states about Hurricane Rita: “The ‘near miss’ by Rita pushed a massive storm surge into the bayous and our more populous settlements in lower Terrebonne went underwater. The Houma communities of Dulac, Grand Caillou, Montegut, Pointe-aux-Chene, and Isle de Jean Charles were inundated with seven or eight feet of water. The tribe now had an additional four thousand of its citizens with houses devastated by the effects of this new storm.”

After the storm, the Indigenous nations were almost completely ignored. Houma nation Chief Brenda Dardar-Robichauxsaid in the Houma nation newspaper: “We are an Indian tribe here that is falling through the cracks. Nobody has made contact with us except the native media. Everything we are doing has been a grassroots effort, and it’s taken weeks to get this far with the help of many volunteers and private donations. We’re basically doing it on our own.”

Because the Houma nation—though recognized by the state of Louisiana—has not been federally recognized, the situation for its members was more difficult, though they have fought on record for federal recognition since 1979.

The first petition was filed in 1979, and findings were released in 1994. The reason given by the Bureau of Indian Affairs is that the United Houma nation of today does not fulfill the criteria noted in Part 83 of Title 25 the Code of Federal Regulations, “Procedures for Establishing that an American Indian Group Exists as an Indian Tribe.” Some of the criteria are:

a. The petitioner has been identified as an American Indian entity on a substantial continuous basis since 1900.
b. A predominant portion of the petitioning group comprises a distinct community from historical times until the present.

Neither the petitioner or its members are the subject of congressional legislation that has expressly terminated or forbidden the Federal relationship.

Set aside the ridiculousness of an oppressed people, especially an Indigenous nation, having to qualify itself to its historical oppressor—an oppressor that committed genocide against its people and continues to deny this great historical evil and justifies it by a doctrine that is a mere cloak for white supremacy. The doctrine is that the Americas appeared before Columbus almost as an epiphany as the slave trader and mass murderer bumbled his way across the Atlantic in search of a quick route to Asia.

History attests to the claims of the Houma people, that they had settled originally the area where Angola prison is and moved to the area they now inhabit. According to the United Houma nation’s website, the tribe was noted in the journal of LaSalle in 1682.

In 1706, the tribe moved southward and their population was noted from then on through various encounters with European conquerors and other Native nations.

There are a number of issues at heart when considering why the nation is being denied federal recognition. One is the continual destruction of the coastal areas near where their tribal lands are. There is ample evidence since the hurricanes and many times before that of the oil industry’s effect on the coastal region.

According to the testimony of Tony Sferlazza, while the Houma people were trying to return home and build their community, it was decided that 18 new oil rigs would be built off the coast, further devastating the area around New Orleans and leaving the people along the Gulf Coast, especially New Orleans and the Native nations, more vulnerable to hurricanes. The marsh lands that are being destroyed had been a natural buffer to weaken storms coming ashore.

The writer attended the International Tribunal on Katrina and Rita in New Orleans.