Between Worlds

Photographs by Michel Varisco. Since 1955, 98 percent of Isle de Jean Charles, home of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, has washed away.

WHEN JOEY DARDAR FISHES in the waters around Isle de Jean Charles in south Louisiana, he can’t help remembering what used to be. “Over there,” he tells me, pointing at bone-gray snags. “Those were giant oak trees. And the bay, this was all marsh. My cousins and I used to sneak out here to play tag and hide-and-go-seek.”

Over the last sixty years, 98 percent of Isle de Jean Charles, his homeland, has vanished, mostly due to shortsighted engineering. To prospect, access wells, and build pipelines, oil and gas companies have dredged canals throughout Louisiana’s wetlands. Though these waterways make the swamp more accessible, they ultimately destroy it by letting salt water enter a freshwater habitat, poisoning trees and grasses. Weakened root systems no longer hold the soil together and the land erodes. On top of that, the Mississippi River levee system, built to control flooding, prevents the current from depositing new silt into the wetlands, upending the natural balance of sediment erosion and buildup.

Sitting atop a red motorboat, Joey points to where his house used to be. A hurricane flattened it six years ago, but he moved away long before, half a lifetime ago, when he was twenty. At that time, the road to the mainland flooded so often it threatened his employment: “It was all right when I was in school. We’d miss a week here, a week there. But you can’t keep a job you can’t get to.” Since he left, the flooding has gotten worse.

My fifteen-month-old daughter, Keira, sits in my lap. This is her first boat ride and she’s thrilled. At the moment, she can’t take her eyes off Joey’s fourteen-year-old son. On the boat’s bow, Tristan is dancing the floss, pumping his fists past his hips. “One time I caught a shark out here,” he tells us. He lies down to scoop a jellyfish out of the water. The clear blob jiggles like a raw egg in his palm. “It don’t sting unless you hold it too long. At night, these dudes glow blue.”

Joey slows the boat and we drift past a rookery. Black-crowned night herons lift into flight. Roseate spoonbills circle above, their pink wings glowing in the evening sun. “Cajun flamingos,” says Joey.

The tribe was so self-sufficient that when the oil and gas companies began prospecting nearby, they were surprised to discover people.

Tucked in his pocket, Tristan’s phone lets out a whoop, disrupting the silence. New Orleans’ football team, the Saints, scored a touchdown. As remote as we are, we’re not off the grid.

“My uncle will shave his head, even his eyebrows, if the Saints go to the Super Bowl,” Tristan says. “He and my dad made a bet. If the Cowboys go, my dad will have to shave.”

“Is that right?” I ask Joey, amused by this arrangement.

He smiles and nods, but his attention is elsewhere, both here and not here. “Those red berries,” Joey says, nodding at the shoreline, “I can’t tell you what they’re called, but as kids we ate them. They taste like cherry tomatoes.”

 

In his mother’s front yard, Deputy Tribal Chief Wenceslaus “Boyo” Billiot Jr. recalls growing up on the island.

I’M HERE with my daughter to learn about Isle de Jean Charles, a slip of land off the coast of Louisiana that is home to a hundred or so people, members, mostly, of a Native American tribe called the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw—the BCC for short. The Isle de Jean Charles band of the BCC tribe is so small it traces its origins to a single couple, Jean Marie Naquin and Pauline Verdin, a French man and a Native American woman who settled here in the early 1800s, back when the island was hidden inside a massive labyrinthine swamp. At the time, they were escaping persecution for their interracial marriage, but they ended up founding a community. In the 1830s, the population grew as other Native Americans joined them, seeking refuge after the Indian Removal Act and the violence of forced relocation. For eight generations, the people of Isle de Jean Charles thrived, eating the bounty of the land and the sea: shrimp, crawfish, fish, and oysters, as well as plants they wild-harvested and grew in gardens. The tribe was so self-sufficient that when the oil and gas companies began prospecting nearby, they were surprised to discover people.

“Nobody knew we lived over here until about the twenties,” says Wenceslaus Billiot Jr., a tribal elder who goes by the nickname Boyo. “It was a true island.” A decade later, during the Great Depression, the tribe remained so independent that they barely registered the economic collapse.

As the cypress, gator, fishing, and oil and gas industries grew, the swamp eroded, giving way to open water. The salt-poisoned marsh could no longer support the diversity and quantity of animal and plant life. Populations of gopher tortoises, ivory-billed woodpeckers, sturgeon, minks, panthers, Louisiana black bears, and even, for a time, American alligators dipped dangerously low. Subsistence was no longer possible.

As the land and marsh changed, the culture followed. Today, residents rely on the island road, built in 1953, to get to jobs, school, and the grocery store. And while the road has become essential infrastructure for the tribe, its construction likely sped up the salt intrusion that destroyed the wetlands. “The more avenues you create for the water,” notes lifetime resident Chris Brunet in Can’t Stop the Water, a documentary about Isle de Jean Charles, “the more she’s coming.”

Hurricane damage is worse these days, too. “For Hurricane Audrey, I was young,” says Boyo, recalling the largest and deadliest June hurricane in US history, in 1957. “[Audrey] was the first time they had water on top of the land over here; maybe a foot and a half, two foot at the most.” Since then, hurricanes have routinely flooded the island, and for a while residents rode out storms in wash buckets and wooden canoes, called pirogues, that they tied to their houses. When the water rose, the islanders floated. Long-gone forests protected them from the winds.

Since 1998, Terrebonne Parish, which includes Isle de Jean Charles, has suffered a presidentially declared natural disaster every two or three years. Climate change has made hurricanes more dangerous, slower moving with heavier rains and higher winds. Waves wash waist high, breaking gas and power lines and gobbling chunks of the road. Storm surges, no longer softened by barrier islands, run boats aground and sweep furniture into yards. The only safe option is to evacuate, though not everyone does.

“Every time there’s a flood, we lose everything,” says Damian Naquin, a nineteen-year-old tribe member from nearby Pointeaux-Chenes. “We don’t have any valuables. We know, if we get something, the next storm that comes through, it’s going to ruin it. It’s going to carry it away.”

After each big storm, tired of the constant rebuilding and the worry, a few more families go. The homes that remain are perched fourteen feet up on stilts, above the floodlines, but even their time is limited. Scientists predict that by 2050, the island will be gone.

 

THOUGH ISLE DE JEAN CHARLES’S land loss is  extreme, it’s not uncommon. The United States Geological Service (USGS) reports that between 1932 and 2016, two thousand square miles of Louisiana’s land, an area the size of Delaware, washed into the Gulf of Mexico. In fact, so much land has vanished that citizens are organizing to have the state map, which resembles a cowboy boot, redrawn. “The boot is at best an inaccurate approximation,” writes Brett Anderson, staff writer for the New Orleans newspaper The Times-Picayune. “At worst, [it’s] an irresponsible lie.” The USGS estimates that at least a football field of Louisiana land erodes every one hundred minutes.

“Our coast is going away faster than pretty much any other coast in the world,” says Pat Forbes, executive director of the Louisiana Office of Community Development. The greatest damage occurs during tropical storms and hurricanes, which produce extreme tides, mammoth waves, flooding, and high winds. In 2005, the most destructive year in recent decades, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the state and, according to USGS estimates, destroyed more than two hundred square miles of coastal wetlands.

Cocodrie. Delacroix. Dulac. Grand Isle. Jean Lafitte. Kraemer. Leeville. Paradis. Pointe-aux-Chenes. Venice. Along with Isle de Jean Charles, these will be among the first Louisiana townships to go, though they won’t be the last. Over the past ten years, the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority has built 297 miles of levee and 60 miles of barrier islands and berms, but if more measures aren’t taken, another 1,750 square miles — an area larger than Rhode Island — will give way by 2064. The 2017 Louisiana State Master Plan predicts two feet of sea level rise within the next fifty years, the highest in the nation. The scale of loss is so vast that in April 2017, Governor John Bel Edwards declared the entire Louisiana coast to be in “a state of emergency.”

As the Gulf Coast erodes, coastal residents like those on Isle de Jean Charles face difficult decisions. Staying put is risky, but moving away usually means leaving a community for good. In a region where people are so tied to the land, sea, and swamp, the cultural cost of uprooting is steep. It doesn’t help that moving is expensive. Unlike with catastrophic events such as hurricanes or tornadoes, almost no funding is earmarked for slow-moving disasters. On Isle de Jean Charles some residents have bailed themselves out, saving up and moving away or leasing their land and using those funds to finance a rental. But not everyone has the means, or the desire, to go.

Both current and former residents make up the social fabric of Isle de Jean Charles. For the dispersed tribe, their best hope for saving their culture and community lies in resettling together, a feat with almost no precedent in the United States. Twice in the past the BCC attempted a group relocation and failed.

In 1992, Congress authorized the building of the Morganzato-the-Gulf Levee, a ninety-eight-mile engineering project designed to protect people and property around Houma, Louisiana, from storm surges and flooding. Originally, Isle de Jean Charles was to be included in this plan. The levee would keep water off the island, enabling land to rebuild. Then, in 2002, the Army Corps of Engineers decided it was more cost effective to bypass Isle de Jean Charles, stranding residents outside the protection zone. The news was devastating. “When your state and your government exclude you from the master plan,” says Chantel Comardelle, tribal secretary for the BCC, “you can pretty much say, ‘Okay, we’re going to be the next barrier reef.’”

The Army Corps of Engineers offered to relocate the tribe, but only if the residents voted unanimously to do so, an impossible condition. “The plan was dead in the water,” Comardelle recalls. Though most residents wanted the resettlement, a few resisted, citing a long history of corporations and developers stealing tribal land. Relocation, they feared, was an underhanded means of taking their island.

Over the next few years, a barrage of hurricanes — Lili, Isidore, Katrina, and Rita — flooded houses and toppled trees. Then, in 2008, Hurricane Gustav hit Isle de Jean Charles directly. Roofs and walls collapsed. Gas lines ruptured. Mold flourished. The road to the mainland sustained so much damage it was reduced to a single lane of traffic. School buses would no longer traverse it. Awakened to the inevitability of land loss, the onslaught of storms, and the absence of public transportation to and from school, many residents left on their own. Those who stayed reconsidered resettlement.

In 2009, the tribal council contacted their parish government to start the resettlement process again. Plans progressed further this round. Residents agreed to leave and tribal elders picked land to purchase. This time, would-be neighbors halted their efforts. “That community rose up and said they didn’t want [us] in their backyard,” remembers Comardelle. They worried that the presence of the tribe, a relatively poor community, would decrease property values. “Following that,” Comardelle says, “island residents got frustrated. The council got frustrated.”

BEFORE BOARDING Joey Dardar’s boat, Keira and I visited Boyo’s mother, Denecia Billiot. Concrete statues of Mary and an angel flanked either side of the long staircase that led to her elevated home. When the last hurricane hit, Boyo told me as I followed him up, both figurines were untouched. On the far end of the house, an outdoor elevator was sheathed in sheet metal. Denecia, who’s in her nineties, uses a walker. Her husband, Wenceslaus Billiot Sr., a tribal elder, passed on last year, but she’s managing okay. Her daughter lives with her, and Boyo visits often.

Inside, Gilligan’s Island played on a box television and wood panels darkened the walls. An antique stove slumped on a slanted screened porch and a dreamcatcher hung above a sofa. The furniture was eclectic and worn. Old photographs striped the kitchen walls. When they met, Keira and Denecia touched one another’s faces, lighting up like old acquaintances.

Boyo asked Denecia a question in Cajun French and told me that his mother used to make her own cast nets, knotting them with a stick, tying nylon threads one or twice around each other, depending on what style she was going for. We discussed the mechanics of her nets. Instead of using floats to keep the edges high, she preferred lead weights to drag the center down.

The moment already felt cinematic. Here we were in a home built like a tree house discussing dying arts. Then a voice from the television said, “The island is sinking.” I looked up to see if anyone else noticed, but Denecia and Boyo were back to conversing in French, and my daughter was nursing.

These past few years, reporters have descended on Isle de Jean Charles. Dr. Heather Stone, an oral historian who works with the tribe, once told me that every time she visits the island, a new documentary film crew is on-site. At first, it surprised me that the uncertainty of the BCC’s future has inspired so much talk of the past, but then I realized it’s not just their future that’s at stake. If the tribe keeps dispersing, they’ll lose their history along with their community and their place.

Hurricanes have routinely flood the island, and for a while residents rode out storms in wash buckets and wooden canoes that they tied to their houses.

IN THE UNITED STATES, Louisiana and Alaska are on the front lines of global warming. Though their climates differ vastly — Louisiana is semitropical while much of Alaska is covered with glaciers — their plights are surprisingly similar. Like coastal Louisiana, coastal Alaska is losing land at an alarming clip. Over the last sixty years, Alaska has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the United States. As Arctic sea ice retreats, the ocean absorbs more heat, and the speed of the ice melt increases, creating a positive-feedback loop. Glaciers retreat. Permafrost thaws. Flooding and erosion are transforming the landscape. “Climate change is no longer some far-off problem,” said President Barack Obama when he visited Alaska in 2015. “It’s happening here. It’s happening now.”

Warming temperatures threaten the futures of more than 180 Alaskan villages, and, as with Isle de Jean Charles, the residents of these towns are largely indigenous, people whose ancestors have drawn their sustenance and livelihood from the land and sea since long before Europeans arrived. “Natives,” Comardelle theorizes, “were pushed so far into the extremities by Europeans. I think that’s how we progressed to be on these front lines.”

Historically, Alaskan tribes moved across the tundra with the seasons in order to maximize fishing, hunting, and berry picking. Between 1900 and 1950, missionaries and federal legislation requiring children to attend school forced most tribes to settle. “The missionaries and the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] stopped us from being nomadic,” reflected Stanley Tom when I spoke to him in 2017. The former tribal administrator of Newtok, Alaska, Tom is an elder in the Yup’ik Eskimo tribe.

Tom’s branch of the Yup’ik were among the last tribes to settle. Tribal leaders determined the site of their permanent home when a government barge transporting building materials for a new school ran aground near a fish camp on the Ninglick River. “We didn’t have any democracy in those days,” said Tom. “There was, like, five elders that decided for us to settle here.”

Back then, Newtok was on a peninsula sandwiched between the Ninglick River and its smaller tributary, the Newtok River. Twelve miles from the Ninglick River, the original settlement seemed safe from flooding and erosion. “It looked like [Ninglick] would never reach us,” Tom recalled, but, as the permafrost melted, the rivers widened, cutting the peninsula off from the mainland. By 2017, Newtok, population 354, sat on an island below sea level and the Ninglick River flowed ten feet from houses on the edge of town.

At age ninety-four, Denecia Billiot has no plans to leave Isle de Jean Charles.

The residents of Newtok have been trying to relocate for years. “I was shipped out to Buffalo to St. Mary’s High School, back in ’79,” remembered Tom. “They were still discussing the relocation then, the pros and cons of each potential site.” Tom became the leader of the relocation effort in the ’90s, when villagers voted to move to Mertarvik on Nelson Island, nine miles from where their people used to summer. After years of lobbying, FEMA grants eventually funded the construction of six homes in the new location, but, for a long time, Mertarvik was stuck in bureaucratic limbo. The school district wouldn’t build a school until twenty-five families lived on the island, but without a school, families weren’t willing to go.

“That system is very crazy,” reflected Tom. “The agencies are trying to prevent us from moving, but we’re not going to quit.”

Their persistence paid off. In 2018, Congress awarded the tribe $15 million to renovate barracks at the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage and float them out to Mertarvik, where they’ll hopefully be used as homes. There still aren’t enough houses or infrastructure for all of Newtok to resettle, but every bit helps.

Though no model exists for relocating a community ravaged by land loss, there are examples of the other extreme. About fifty miles south of New Orleans lies Grand Bayou Village, an island inhabited by the members of the Atakapa-Ishak tribe. Less than a century ago, one thousand people populated this remote town, accessible only by boat, but today only forty residents remain. Like the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, the tribe once practiced subsistence living. Land loss as well as massive fish and sea life die-offs caused by the 2011 BP oil spill have made their traditional lifestyle nearly impossible. However, unlike the Yup’ik and BCC tribes, the Atakapa-Ishak don’t want to move.

“For us, home is more than the building you live in,” Rosina Philippe, a spokeswoman for the tribe, tells a local Louisiana newspaper, The Lens. “It’s everything in the environment that surrounds you. If you leave, you become someone else. You are no longer the same person. No longer the same people. That would kill our culture and our future entirely.”

The remaining residents are facing off with corporations and with the state, demanding that the companies who ruined the wetlands rebuild their island. “This was a paradise,” Philippe recalls. “There were forests on the high ground with plenty of game. There were ducks and fish in the marshes and the lakes and bayous. There was everything they could ever want.” Meanwhile, with lapping waves eroding the soil, Philippe’s worst fear, that her tribe will lose its land and its culture, seems to be coming true.

 

IN 2016, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe received extraordinary news. They’d won a $48 million grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s National Invest in Resilience  Competition, the  first  US  grant  designed to resettle an entire community. “The tribe has physically and culturally been torn apart with the scattering of members,” explains the original grant proposal submitted by the state. “A  new settlement offers an opportunity for the tribe to rebuild  their homes and secure their culture on safe ground.” For a community who’d grown accustomed to having their resettlement plans squashed, the grant was an unprecedented and beautiful surprise.

“We really [had] a community that was ecstatic,” remembers Comardelle. Tribe members no longer felt their futures were defined by loss, particularly because the conditions that accompanied the grant were less stringent than in the past. The Louisiana Office of Community Development, appointed to administer the grant, no longer insisted on 100 percent participation from island residents; leaving would be voluntary; and no one would have to give up their housing or land rights on Isle de Jean Charles. The resettlement could happen gradually, and, as long as the island existed, tribe members could visit. Furthermore, the tribe planned to document their process from start to end so that others might learn from their experience.

In 2017, when I first spoke to Comardelle about the resettlement, she had big dreams. “I want you to feel like you have just walked onto the original island, with the way the trees look, the way the vegetation looks,” she said, leaning back in a brown armchair and closing her eyes. Physically, she was in the living room of her two-bedroom house in Houma, forty-five minutes from Isle de Jean Charles, but spiritually she was in the future, imagining what her tribe’s relocation would look like, what it would mean for her family and for the future of her people.

“When you pull up, when you approach the community, the center grounds are also powwow grounds.” In the front of the grounds, she imagined a museum, a wooden building with a front porch so that when visitors entered they would feel like they were entering someone’s home. “I want guests to walk through the history of the island with the original settlers. I want to have a big map on the wall and show the island. I want it to be digitized to show you how the island’s progressed [and] as far as land loss, how it’s shrunk.”

Comardelle’s belief in her community — its future and its past — was so great that she began taking online graduate courses in museum studies, using assignments to plan exhibits and features and eventually earning a degree. “Even the sounds will be like you’re on the island,” she told me at that first visit. “I want French music playing. I want people talking. I want animal sounds.” In 2017, Comardelle’s vision was so detailed and her belief so firm that I couldn’t imagine then how differently the resettlement would pan out just two years later.

Comardelle’s idealism was intentional. After Hurricane Gustav in 2008, volunteers heard about the tribe’s resettlement plan and encouraged the council of elders to plan for their best-case scenario. In 2010, the tribe began working with a nonprofit called the Lowlander Center, a community-run organization aimed at helping coastal residents build a future while adapting to an ever-changing coastline. “All the bells and whistles,” recalls Comardelle. “Everything you want. Everything you desire.”

Dreaming is essential. Resettlement isn’t just a question of finances and geography. “One of the things that we’re really starting to understand about resilience is that it has a lot to do with community cohesiveness,” says Pat Forbes, who is administering the resettlement. “How well people know each other and how they help each other can have a lot more to do with [resilience] than infrastructure.” Maintaining culture when they create a new homeland is pivotal for the tribe if they’re going to enable future generations to know who they are and where they came from. After all, cultural longevity isn’t accidental. It’s engineered.

THE SUN is nearing the horizon when Joey Dardar’s boat propeller starts churning up mud. For a moment, the smell of sulfur is so thick I can taste it, but Joey’s not worried. He knows this area too well for us to run aground. Yellow-crowned night herons glide overhead. “Gros-bec,” Joey calls them. French for crooked beak. To our right is Isle de Jean Charles. To our left, the Gulf of Mexico. Directly ahead, the biggest backhoe I’ve ever seen is parked beside an oil well. “They’re taking that one out,” Joey says. “It’s no longer producing.” He shows us where pipelines tunnel through open water and points out the ring levee that encircles the island. “It’s got its pros and its cons,” he answers when I ask if it’s been helpful. While the levee protects islanders from storm surges, the earthen barrier also prevents drainage: when it rains, the island fills up like a bathtub.

In fact, “Bathtub” is the name given to the township in director Benh Zeitlin’s 2012 Oscar-nominated film, Beasts of the Southern Wild. Filmed on Isle de Jean Charles, the fabulist movie follows a father and his young daughter as they try to survive a catastrophic storm. Inspired by the island it was filmed on, the story is fictional, but the situation is not. Depending on the location of the storm, both sides of the levee can be perilous.

I ask Joey his opinion on the resettlement plan.

“To be honest, I didn’t even hear about this other tribe, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, until about ten years ago. I don’t know who they are.”

“You grew up here, but you’re not part of the tribe?” I ask. I’m confused. I thought everyone on the island was BCC.

“I’m Houma Indian,” he answers. With his accent, it almost sounds like he says “homeless,” not “Houma.”

I ask if he knows the Billiots, Denecia and Boyo, whom I’d visited earlier that day.

“Yeah,” he says. “We’re family.”

I have so many questions. The Billiots identify as BCC and Joey is Houma. Both have families that go back generations on this island, and Joey says that they’re kin. How can they have such similar stories about family history and yet claim different tribes?

I’m not the only one who’s confused, it turns out. Disagreement about affiliation has plagued the resettlement process. When the BCC tribal council first applied for the grant, their goal for the resettlement was tribal reunification. Two weeks after being awarded the grant, Chief Thomas Dardar Jr. of the United Houma Nation, another tribe in the parish, complained that the members of his tribe were being excluded. Not everyone, he claimed, on Isle de Jean Charles was BCC.

There’s considerable disagreement about exactly how many islanders are Houma and how many are BCC. Comardelle says she knows of three Houma Indians on the island, all married to BCCs. Dardar claims there are thirty-four. The state won’t provide numbers, but Comardelle points out that it wouldn’t matter anyway. The original resettlement was written to include all islanders, regardless of affiliation.

The scale of loss is so vast that in April 2017, Governor John Bel Edwards declared the entire Louisiana coast to be in “a state of emergency.”

Researching, I learn that the BCC used to be part of the United Houma Nation. They withdrew from the Houma a decade or more ago, though no one seems to recall just why. What is clear is that the tribes don’t get along. One woman I speak to, who identifies as Houma, insists that the BCC wasn’t a real tribe, that members were just a group looking for money.

“We don’t really have a big tribe,” Boyo says when I ask how the BCC distinguishes itself from the Houma. “It’s just the descendents from over here. If you’re not from over here, you can’t be in our tribe.”

Some of the mix-up may date back to the turn of the twentieth century, when Smithsonian anthropologist John Swanton visited southeast Louisiana and misidentified many of the people he met. The historical record, the one he created, perpetuates error.

When I step back and consider the conflict between the Houma and the BCC, I’m not surprised that $48 million and the promise of a new homeland would bring up questions of belonging and inclusion. Smaller sums of money have promulgated much larger conflicts, and misinformation about the grant abounds. Some in the area believe the BCC is now rich, that the council, rather than the state, received the grant money. Others believe tribe members are receiving half a million dollars each to spend as they like. Considering just how many people along Louisiana’s coast will eventually lose their homes, it occurs to me that despite all they’ve suffered, the BCC is lucky. The tribe won a resettlement grant when so many others did not.

Collaborative processes can only move as fast as the speed of trust. For the BCC, a tribe that survived the Indian Removal Act of 1830, Jim Crow segregation, and environmental devastation at the hands of oil and gas companies, memories of mistreatment linger in the collective consciousness of the community. Boyo recalls, “I remember when they first built the road. I was with my grandma who used to live all the way at the end of the road, and she tell us that when you hear a car or see a car coming, you all go hide. They didn’t know that [the Indian Removal Act] wasn’t going on no more. That was in the ’50s. They didn’t know what was going on in the outside world.”

Pat Forbes acknowledges this. “Their ancestors moved to the island to keep from being displaced, forcefully displaced,” he says, speaking of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw. “Coming from that background, there’s a distrust of government.”

After learning Houma people lived on the island, the Louisiana Office of  Community  Development  stopped  working  as closely with the BCC tribal council and rewrote the terms of the grant, shifting the goal from a tribal resettlement to an island-based resettlement. “We’re using federal funds, and the Fair Housing Act doesn’t allow discrimination based on tribal affiliation or anything else,” explains Forbes.

Comardelle sees it differently. “Once they got the money,” she says, “they didn’t need the tribe anymore.” Instead of being honored as decision makers in their own future, the BCC tribal council was relegated to stakeholder status. And because of new eligibility requirements about how long ago a family moved off the island, many in the six-hundred-member tribe are no longer eligible to resettle. “They shifted all the terms,” Comardelle tells me. “Our people are just giving up. Our people are saying, ‘Here we go again — just another broken treaty.’”

 

Joey Dardar, with son, Tristan, stands where a hurricane flattened his home.

ON JANUARY 9, 2019, almost three years to the day after receiving the Housing and Urban Development grant, the state announced that it had finally purchased land for the new settlement, a 515-acre sugarcane farm forty miles inland. According to maps distributed to islanders, commercial spaces will run along the highway while houses, a community center, and a solar farm will be built toward the back, away from passing traffic. The remaining land, including a bayou that cuts across the property, will stay wild.

On the surface, this sounds like good news, but the BCC tribal council was irate. “We find out by a public press release that the property’s been bought. That’s blatant disrespect and disregard of everyone who’s worked on this project,” says Comardelle. “They had a great chance to do something good, to show that they really could respond to disasters in a humanistic real-life way.”

Comardelle’s disillusionment with the project has been building. Under the rewritten grant proposal, her family is no longer eligible for a house in the new resettlement because they moved away too long ago. They still qualify for a lot, but it comes with conditions: if they don’t build a house within eight years, they’ll lose it.

“Knowing our economy,” she explains, “knowing our financial situation in this area, after eight years I would probably have to surrender [the lot] to the community land trust.” Her pain at imagining this future — getting so close to rejoining her community and then giving the land back — is evident in her voice, but her greatest fears are bigger than herself and her family. She worries that the resettlement will become “just another low-income housing development” and will fail to secure a future for her people. “My ultimate concern,” she says, “what has been my concern the whole time, is that at the end of all this we still have a tribe.” With the majority of the BCC now living off the island, traditions and culture are harder to maintain. “My concern is for the people . . . [on and off the island] who really want to come back and have that community and raise their kids like they were raised.”

“The indigenous experience is one of loss,” observed Alaskan Inupiat writer Laureli Ivanoff in a recent New York Times op-ed. “My community, like others around the world, has lost a lot: Language. Ceremonies. Dances. Songs. Ways of connecting to the earth, and to one another. We lost ways of nourishing ourselves.” Like the Inupiat in Alaska, the BCC know loss too well. At first, the resettlement process presented an opportunity to reverse that trend, putting the tribe on the other end of an equation that dates back to first European contact. However, unless drastic changes are made in the way the state interacts with the tribe, that opportunity, like so much else, will slip away.

Isle de Jean Charles’s resettlement doesn’t just impact the BCC and Houma tribes. The success or failure of the resettlement matters to all of us. What they’re doing, what they’re trying to accomplish for their people and for their children, is only the beginning. Resettlement will be a defining part of the Anthropocene epoch. And as climate change intensifies, loss will be a reality we’ll all confront.

In October 2018, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report warning that the immediate consequences of global warming will be far more devastating than previously predicted. As soon as 2040, coastal flooding will jeopardize 50 million people across the United States, Bangladesh, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam. And by 2050, an estimated 200 million people in coastal communities worldwide could be displaced. Unless we aggressively decrease greenhouse gas emissions, we’ll suffer crop failures, health epidemics, wildfires, droughts, extreme rainfalls, ocean warming and acidification, and mass die-offs of coral reefs. Climate refugees will evacuate from tropical countries in such quantity that some experts believe national borders may become irrelevant. The likelihood of violent conflicts will increase exponentially. With the world’s economy still dependent on oil and coal and President Trump promising to withdraw the  United  States  from the Paris Climate Accords, the likelihood of these outcomes is strong. More crushing yet, scientists warn that the worst-case scenario — runaway warming caused by a total failure to mitigate greenhouse gases — may come to pass, creating a scenario called “Hothouse Earth,” with temperatures heating up by seven to nine degrees Fahrenheit and sea levels rising up to two hundred feet.

We tend to talk about culture as if it is stagnant, a force rooted in history rather than a way of being. But as more communities face displacement, this way of thinking will be challenged. Cultural resiliency will be defined by a community’s ability to adapt to, rather than resist, change. In the life span of our planet, the climate has never changed so rapidly, and, ready or not, we’ll find ourselves facing monumental challenges that will determine not just who we are, but if. Like Isle de Jean Charles, humanity is at the brink of terrifying new frontiers.

 

IT’S DUSK. A sheepshead fish flops in the boat’s cooler, making a bang like a gunshot. Tristan caught it himself and brags that he could catch another one, easy. When a mink runs along the shore, he says he’ll catch that too.

“I used to see those all the time,” Joey says.

“Here, kitty,” sings Tristan.

“Don’t. It’ll bite your fingers off.” “Bet?” says Tristan.

“Bet,” says his dad.

The winter tides are low this year and high watermarks stripe the cane grass. The water shifts from brown to blue to black as clouds drift past the sun. A few feet away, a bright pink feather, a gift from a spoonbill, drifts.

Joey edges the boat closer, and Tristan positions himself to grab the plume. The barbs, I notice, are the same pink as the hood of my daughter’s jacket. I hold her close, wishing for her to remember this moment. The sun’s last light dances on the chop, but just as we pull close, the feather spins off.

“I can do it,” says Tristan, waving to his father. “Hand me the paddle.” The spoonbills are gone, roosting out of sight. Joey turns the wheel and his son holds the paddle out over the marsh. Should it float back, he’ll be there to catch it. O

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Anya Groner’s essays, stories, and poems have appeared in Guernica, the New York Times, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. She lives and teaches in New Orleans.

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