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Katrina, Rita and the Houma Tribe: A Nation Recovers

Reznet, News Feature + AudioVideo, Victor Merina, Multimedia by Steven A. Chin Posted: Apr 20, 2008

Editor's note: "Katrina, Rita and the Houma" is the product of a year-long reznet project, in which journalism students Mary Hudetz, a Crow reporter from the University of Montana, and Martina Rose Lee, a Navajo photojournalist from Arizona State University, teamed with veteran professional journalists Victor Merina, a former Los Angeles Times investigative reporter, and multimedia journalist Steven A. Chin to produce an in-depth multimedia report on a complex issue of importance in Indian Country.

HOUMA, La.Up the bayou. Down the bayou. Across the bayou.

For a visitor to this stretch of Louisiana, those are the directions you quickly learn while traveling the waterways and roadways of this southeastern region of this Southern state.

For those at home in the bayou, no weathervane is needed to guide you. No compass readings are required. There is the water's landmark, the signpost of the bayou to tell you which way to drive, which way to travel.

Louisiana may be best known as the home of Mardi Gras and the football Saints, as a stirring pot of jazz and blues and zesty cuisine. Thanks to hurricanes Katrina and Rita, it may forever be the memory stick for disaster, for images of broken levees and a stifling Superdome, and for tales of heroism and despair in now-familiar places like the Ninth Ward of New Orleans.

But it is also Indian Country, land of the mostly forgotten. It is home to the United Houma Nation, nearly half of whose members were displaced up and down the bayou, their homes battered by hurricane winds or flooded by avalanches of water.

"Our people suffered a lot, and many people don't know that," said Brenda Dardar Robichaux, principal chief of the Houma Nation. "We're still recovering, and it's been a slow process."

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With 17,000 enrolled members, the Houma constitute the largest tribe in Louisiana. Over the centuries, they have found themselves moving farther down the bayou, historically pressed by the encroachment of European and American newcomers whose appetite for land pushed them on their southward migration and whose later discoveries of oil and gas made the Natives vulnerable to land grabs.

Today, the Houma Nation is largely spread across six southeastern Louisiana parishes, or counties, and when the hurricanes struck in 2005, the damage that resulted reflected the communities in which the Houma lived. When Katrina hit in late August that year, wind damage and broken levees translated to torn rooftops, ravaged buildings and flooded lands. When Rita came three weeks later, surging water caused the most damage, overflowing the bayous and swamping houses and businesses.

Katrina displaced about 4,000 Houma, according to the tribe. Rita drove an equal number of tribal members from their homes.

In the wake of the hurricanes, much of the state's attention and chaotic relief efforts centered on New Orleans, but problems along the bayou and in the heart of the Houma Nation were also severe and dramatic, if not as easily visible.

"Have the Houma been overlooked?" asked Paige Ashby, director of the governor's Office of Indian Affairs. "Definitely."

'A Little Bit of a Voice'

Ashby, whose small, nondescript office is tucked away in a state office building in Baton Rouge, runs a one-person operation coordinating government programs that could benefit Louisiana's four federally-recognized and seven state-recognized tribes. She said the disasters wrought by Katrina and Rita have drawn attention to those tribes affected by the hurricanes, especially the Houma (pronounced HOE-muh).

"It was able to give them a little bit of a voice," Ashby said of the momentary spotlight resulting from the storms. "[People now] recognize that these areas are down here and that they are of Native American population."

Relying on the 2000 census, Ashby estimates the number of Indians and Alaskan natives in her state at more than 25,400 when counting those who identify as single-race categories. There are nearly 43,000 when including those who call themselves biracial and identify Native Americans as one of those groups. But Ashby, a Cherokee, acknowledged that the Houma hold a special place in the state because of their sizable population and the collective needs of many tribal members.
houma couple
"They are poor, uneducated and they need a lot of assistance," she said. "A lot of them are elders and disabled populations."

Based on a 2004 survey of tribal households, United Houma Nation leaders estimated that 39 percent of tribal members live in poverty and that 25 percent are unemployed, many because of disabilities. Meanwhile, the survey showed that 43 percent of Houma Indians have less than a high school education.

To the Houma, the hurricanes underscored those problems and magnified the needs of tribal members whose plight has escaped the eyes of the public, even those who may have had a glimpse during the post-Katrina coverage.

"People unfortunately don't see that," Dardar Robichaux said. "They've moved on to whatever else is making headlines. But people here are struggling and trying to get their lives back."

For the last decade, Dardar Robichaux, 49, has been the public voice of the Houma Nation. She was elected tribal chairwoman in 1997 and principal chief in 2002. Her grandfather was a spiritual healer, known as a traiteur, or treater. Her father was a longtime fisherman who trawled for shrimp and fished for oysters while her mother worked at the tribal center. Her husband, Michael, is a physician and former state senator who has long championed Native American causes.

When the hurricanes hit and Houma were seeking shelter or simply a place to camp, Dardar Robichaux and her husband opened their home in Raceland and invited people to set up tents and shelters on their spacious lawn and park vehicles along their rural drive.

The couple also transformed a 100-year-old building that sat at the edge of their property and was once a family-owned general store into the Houma Nation Relief Center. In the months after the storms, more than 1,000 tribal members left desolate by the hurricanes visited the makeshift store to obtain cans of food, secondhand clothes, shoes, used furniture and diapers, among other donated goods.

Thank-You Cards
Well after the storms had faded, you could still read the thank-you cards pinned to a display from well-wishers. As one handwritten card put it: "I'm hoping you can find some folks who may be in need of these clothes, and my prayers are with all of you who have suffered loss and who are standing strong after such a challenging event."

Standing strong is what the Houma people have had to do over the centuries, Dardar Robichaux said.

Other coastal tribes suffered in the hurricanes. They included the Bayou Lafourche, Grand Caillou/Dulac and Isle de Jean Charles bands of the Biloxi-Chitimacha as well as the Pointe-au-Chien tribe. But their numbers were much smaller than those of the United Houma Nation.

For generations, the Houma have hunted, trapped, fished and farmed in south Louisiana where marshes, bayous and the open sea have nourished their livelihood and culture. They worked land and water, traveling the bayous in their pirogues, or flat-bottom boats, and using palmetto leaves and cypress plants to create everything from baskets to blowguns and building homes of palmetto with walls of mud and Spanish moss.

Even before the hurricanes, the Houma faced the grim reality of coastal erosion and a depleted commercial fishing industry that diminished their lands and sapped local jobs. While there is a movement to preserve the French dialect spoken by 40 percent of tribal members, some of those same Native speakers particularly the elders also possess limited English skills and less education, making it more difficult for them to recover from the storms.

Language issues and lack of education have made the task of completing paperwork needed for recovery grants more daunting, said Ashby of the governor's Office of Indian Affairs. Some Houma were accustomed to handing down property from one generation to the next with little or any documentation, she said, making it difficult to locate deeds and other proof of ownership that officials require.

Lack of education among the Houma is not lost on tribal leaders such as Dardar Robichaux whose parents had only a seventh-grade education in settlement or Indian schools because of enforced segregation.

For decades, Houma and other Natives were barred from the parish's public schools, and tribal elders reminisce about attending Indian schools or learning from Christian missionaries offering lessons from houseboats. For many, civil rights victories in Louisiana were meant to admit the state's black residents into public schools and public facilities denied them, but doors also opened for Native Americans long treated as second-class citizens, if they were even recognized.

'No Indians Allowed'

Willie Sanders, 56, who lived in Terrebonne Parish, remembered not being allowed to enter movie theaters or shop in certain stores as he grew up. Physicians' offices had a "whites only" warning for people of color, he said, but a special distinction was made for Indians.

"There were signs on the back door that said colored,' " Sanders recalled, "but it also said no Indians allowed.' "
Sanders was among the first Houma to attend public high schools after they were integrated, he said, and his most vivid memories remain the racial epithets and fistfights that greeted him and other Indians. That thought still brings tears to his eyes when he is asked about those days. "No good memories," he said quietly.

His niece, Lora Ann Chaisson, a Houma tribal council member, was even more emphatic. While progress has been made, she said, some things haven't changed. "To this day, it depends on what communities you go into, but there is still prejudice against Indian people. It still happens to this day."

The Houma's battle for respect and recognition extends to the political arena and as far away as Washington, D.C.

Despite its status as Louisiana's largest state-recognized tribe, the United Houma Nation is not federally recognized. Such recognition would make the tribe eligible for many benefits, including federal grants, housing and health care assistance, and college scholarships. It also would allow the tribe to set aside and govern its own lands.

When the Houma filed for federal recognition in 1984, many thought a decision would come in a couple of years. Instead, the stalemate has continued for more than two decades with no final outcome in sight.

In denying the tribe's initial petition in 1994, the Bureau of Indian Affairs determined that the Houma Nation had failed to meet three of seven criteria for federal recognition. The bureau said there was no proof that the Houma descended from a historical Indian tribe or maintained a cohesive political identity "from historical times to the present." Officials also questioned whether the Houma met the requirement of maintaining a distinct community over that period.

Kirby Verret, a former tribal chairman, disputed the notion that the Houma do not qualify as a federally recognized tribe, and he dismissed the idea that they lack a sustained community. As Verret walked through Dulac where many tribal members live, he spoke of a nearby community called Shrimper's Row and imagined taking a softball and throwing it from one Houma family to another in one continuous pattern.

"You could actually toss that ball from one household to another for almost five miles," he said. "That's our tribal community, and how many areas in the world can you do that?"

In 1996, the Houma Nation appealed the federal government's negative determination but still awaits a final decision. Meanwhile, several splinter groups within the Houma community have filed recognition claims, further muddying the process.

For now, the Houma can only brace themselves for the eventual outcome in a slow bureaucratic process. "It's a long and complex struggle ... and there's just no telling how it will end," said Michael Dardar, vice principal chief who also acts as the tribal historian.

No matter the decision, however, Dardar remains confident that the Houma Nation will survive.

"We were here before the French. We were here before the Spanish, and we were here before the Americans," he said. "We'll be here after they're all gone."

Victor Merina is reznet's special projects editor and reporter. A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he also is a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Institute for Justice and Journalism. Merina is a visiting faculty member at The Poynter Institute, where he leads seminars on cross-cultural reporting and writing about race.

Steven A. Chin is reznet's managing editor. A former new media specialist at the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and former reporter at the San Francisco Examiner, Chin is principal of MKmedia, a web development consulting firm.

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