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Tribe's homeland sinking into Gulf

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A small island is Terrebonne Parish is bringing global attention to coastal erosion. The Isle de Jean Charles has been the historic homeland for a band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians for over 170 years, but now, most of their land is covered by water.

Since 1955, the island has lost 98% of its land. Without land to buffer storms, the community is exposed to destructive hurricanes.

The island's population has decreased from almost 100 families to 25. Most of the families relocated because their houses were destroyed by storms and because they did not have insurance to rebuild. The majority of houses on the island are abandoned.

At 89, Wenceslous Billiot is the oldest man on the island. He says his house has been flooded more times that he can count.

“I’ve seen a lot of water on the island,” said Billiot. “I’ve see a lot of wind blow all kinds of stuff over here.”

His brother-in-law, Albert Naquin, is the island’s chief. He remembers Billiot’s house after a hurricane in 2003.

“I mean when I went in, there was mud. Not only on the floor but it was dirty probably about three feet up,” said Chief Naquin. “There was probably three to four feet of water in the house, so there was mud all over. You walk in and the refrigerator is tumbled over the stove is somewhere else. All the beds and sofas are all falling apart.”

Chief Naquin said that this picture is normative of what people on the island experience every two to three years. He moved to Pointe-aux-Chien, the community across the water, when he grew tired of the storms.

“Relocating does work. I haven’t lost a piece of furniture or an appliance since I moved,” said Chief Naquin.

The government believes that relocating can work too. In the first-of-its-kind test case, the state is granting the community $48 million dollars to rebuild on higher ground.

The purpose of the proposal is to preserve the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians' culture. Many members have moved and lost touch. It is hoped that building a new community will bring tribe members back together and help the culture pass to the next generation.

Chantel Comardelle is the tribal secretary. She is also Billiot’s granddaughter. She believes this grant is essential to her culture’s survival.

“Relocating is essential in order to rejuvenate our culture," Comardelle said.  "We can bring our kids and elders back together. They’re supposed to teach us how to live and how to survive and how to continue in the culture. We do palmetto baskets and basket weaving and things like that. We’re going to be able to have our elders teach our kids this again.”

Isle de Jean Charles has lost land from a number of factors, the biggest being sea level rise, sinking land, and dredging for oil.  

They have gained international attention as the world’s first "climate change refugees"—but they won’t be the last. Coastal communities around the world are experiencing the same thing. Many have reached out to Chief Naquin for advice.

“I was very surprised because I didn’t realize there were so many,” said Chief Naquin. “I thought we were the only ones being washed away.”

Richard Krajeski is on the Board of Directors of the Lowland Center, a nonprofit organization in Terrebonne Parish that is aiding the Isle de Jean Charles residents in their relocation. According to his organization, Louisiana’s coast is most at risk. Louisiana is losing land to the ocean faster than anywhere else on earth. It is estimated that Louisiana loses a football field of land every hour.

“This is valuable land,” said Krajeski. “It’s all part of a very important ecosystem.”

He pointed out that even the loss of uninhabited marsh can have a big repercussions. These lands are the nurseries for fish and the home for birds that keep insect populations in balance.

Louisiana's coast is integral to many industries, and the communities along it's edges foster a rich culture. 

“We have people along the coast of Louisiana who can trace their families back farther than any group in the United States,” said Krajeski.

Chantel Comardelle hopes that her tribe’s story will prevent someone else from losing their land.

““Every day, Americans hear climate change, and they think, "Oh, yeah! The polar ice caps are melting, but how does that correlate back to us?” Comardelle said. “In this situation it does, it’s a direct affect.”

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