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Coastal

Standing Their (Shrinking) Ground

The Isle de Jean Charles relocation project ignores realities for Native residents

Standing Their (Shrinking) Ground

Photo by Frank McMains

Sunset off the Isle de Jean Charles.

The planned relocation of the residents of the Isle de Jean Charles immediately gained national attention as the United States first climate relocation. The island, 22,000 acres in 1955 and a scant 300acre strip today, has seen its population fall from about 750 people to around 100. These last residents are at the mercy of the elements, as storms frequently flood the island and make the narrow road connecting the island to Terrebonne Parish impassible. A federal costbenefit analysis found that extending the levee to include the island was not worth the expense. Rather than protect or restore the island, the United States has now decided to move the island’s residents.  

To date, the relocation has not gone smoothly, as many of the island’s residents openly state they do not want to move. A complicating factor is that though most of the residents are Native Americans related to one another, they assert two different tribal affiliations. The two tribes are the result of a fissure caused by the United States tribal acknowledgment process, which is widely critiqued for its expense, lengthiness, and Anglocentric requirements for tribal governance. Subsequent competition and disagreement between the groups has only aggravated the complexities of the relocation. 

The Houma have resided in Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes, including the Isle de Jean Charles, for more than two centuries. Until the 1930s, when oil was discovered along the coast, the Houma were largely isolated. Many Houma would not have spoken English at this time, having shifted to French during the colonial era. Oil companies used the language barrier and physical violence to obtain Houma land. The Houma had little recourse, as Jim Crow Louisiana was not keen on respecting indigenous rights. Louisiana law did not recognize the Houma’s traditional marriage ceremonies; hence, Houma children were illegitimate under Louisiana law and barred from inheriting land. The Houma endured formalized racial discrimination in Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes until 1969.  

The Houma began to formally organize in the 1970s and formed the United Houma Nation (UHN) in 1979, at which point they entered the federal acknowledgment process. The United States government refuses to recognize the Houma as a tribe, though the government does acknowledge them as Native Americans. Without recognition, the Houma are unable to protect the land and waters that have sustained them for generations. In an effort to achieve federal recognition, various groups broke from the Houma. These offshoots have been unsuccessful in their federal recognition efforts to date. The state of Louisiana does recognize the Houma, as does the Intertribal Council of Louisiana; neither government entity recognizes the splinter groups. 

In 2016, the federal department of Housing and Urban Development awarded one offshoot, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw (BCC), a $48 million climate relocation grant of earmarked funds, to be administered by the state. The BCC claimed that everyone on the island is enrolled in their tribal organization; however, the Houma responded immediately after the grant was awarded, alleging that half of the families on the island identify as Houma. Intertribal tensions boiled. The state met with both the BCC and the UHN to resolve the situation. State officials admitted they mistakenly believed only BCC live on the island and acknowledged that the Houma live there too. Accordingly, the grant was revised to include the Houma and any other group of island inhabitants. State officials would later acknowledge that the only difference between the people in the BCC and UHN is that some people chose to leave the UHN to form the BCC after the UHN’s failed federal recognition bid. Indeed, they noted that some of the Native-descended residents “are unsure about which organization they belong to.”  

The bigger problem: roughly one-third of the islanders openly state they will not leave the Isle de Jean Charles, and the true number may be much higher, meaning government agencies budgeted $48 million to move a group of people who mostly want to stay put. State representatives have made efforts to communicate with the residents, but reception to relocation has not been positive—little in the state’s efforts has inspired trust. Of the roughly one hundred residents, only twenty responded to a state survey on attitudes to relocation, and four said they attended a community meeting regarding the relocation. Meanwhile, the island continues to lose land. Unless Louisiana is able to prevent further coastal land loss, the state had better learn well from the attempted IDJC relocation.  

Adam Crepelle is an enrolled citizen of the United Houma Nation. He is an associate professor at Southern University Law Center and managing fellow of the Native American Law and Policy Institute. 

This article was made possible by the BHP-funded project, Coastal Impacts: An Integrated Approach for Community Adaptation, Understanding, and Planning, which will assist local communities to build intergenerational coastal literacy through community conversations around books, film, and exhibitions, fostering greater understanding of and support for coastal restoration projects.