America’s First Climate Change Refugees
In a remote area off the coast of Louisiana exists a community that was settled in the 1700’s by a French pirate who intermarried with a Native American woman; that community grew after intermarriages continued with nearby Native people from the Biloxi, Chitimacha, and Choctaw tribes. During the era of the Indian Removal Act, these inter-tribal people broke away from their larger bands to hide among the swamps and group together for strength during a time when it was illegal to be Native American. They hid, tucked away, deep in the bayous and began a new life with the pirates who accepted them. They took them in, gave them new names, a new identity and a new language, yet their indigenous roots were never forgotten.
Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana was once a self-sustaining island full of lush farmland, plentiful game and good fishing for families who made a living by becoming trappers and fishermen. Named after one of the first settlers, Jean Charles Naquin, the island was once considered by outsiders as uninhabitable swampland and left almost untouched by the contemporary world. “In the 1950’s and ’60’s, almost a hundred years after the boarding school era, my mother would still tell me to hide in the bushes if I heard a car coming; this was out of fear that the government was going to steal me away to a boarding school” explains Albert Naquin, the tribe’s traditional Chief. Chief Naquin references a time when boarding schools were omnipresent in America during the late 1800’s. Native American children were often taken from their families, forced to speak English, and give up all cultural practices and ways of life in an effort to assimilate the Indians. “That goes to show how isolated we were on island. No news ever came in or out and our way of thinking was very primitive even then [in the 1960’s]”. At its peak, nearly 300 Native American residents lived on the island that boasted nearly 5 miles wide and over 22,000 acres. Today the island is just a half-mile sliver of land making up less than 320 acres. Since the 1950’s almost 98% of the island has disappeared into the salty waters of the Gulf of Mexico, a fate many generations prior would have never thought possible. It is estimated that within the next 30-50 years, the island will be completely gone. Isle de Jean Charles is just one of several communities along Louisiana’s coastline that suffer the consequences of canal dredging for pipelines, oil drilling, hurricanes, and rising sea levels – the foolproof recipe to expedite the rate of land erosion. What makes Isle de Jean Charles unique is that it is the first community, a Native American community, in the United States to receive government funding, $48 million, to relocate them due to climate change. However, this relocation is not a popular idea among this tribal community. A mere 25 families still remain on the island, most choosing to stay despite the funding efforts and risk of hurricanes every year. The people living on the island range from those in their 90’s to young children.
Howard Brunet, 15, says he doesn’t speak his relatives’ native language nor does he relate to how his ancestors once lived on the island, but he can’t imagine living anywhere else other than where he and his family come from for generations. “I know how to fish, I know how to hunt and I can tell you anything you want to know about this island”, he proudly shares. He and his sister, Juliette, 13, are only two of 5 teens that currently live on the island and must travel an hour each way to go to school. There is only one road that connects the island to the mainland and it often floods with just the slightest of wind or daily tide. Up until the 1950’s, the only way to and from the island was by pirogue or boat. The state of Louisiana has stated they will no longer invest in upkeep of the road after the last restoration in 2011, nor did they include the island in the construction of the bigger levee to protect it from flooding. When a hurricane or tropical storm sweeps into the area, families pack up what belongings they can and immediately leave, often times to never return. “Hurricanes don’t scare me but you have to keep your eyes on it. You can’t underestimate a hurricane”, Chris Brunet, 52, explains. Chris is a life-long resident who raises his niece and nephew, Juliette and Howard. He has been through more hurricanes and tropical storms than one could ever believe and he quickly rattles off the names and dates of the storms like they are family members’ names and birth dates. “Once the bad weather is gone and you’re still blessed with your house, then you get on with your life. If not, then you immediately begin picking up the pieces. It’s all I know.” He says that leaving the island one day is inevitable, despite his convictions of wanting to stay to live out his life there. Juliette and Howard’s future is what made him come to the ultimate decision to eventually resettle off the island. He is one of the residents that is standing strong on his will of being able to keep his land and home in his possession, despite the State trying to get him to sign it over. “The process to relocate myself has been slow. I’ve made the decision, but it’s still hard to have to accept that decision and I’m still trying to accept it.”
The eroding land is one thing, but the depletion of their culture and way of life is another issue that goes unresolved. Today, most of the structures still standing on the island are ghostly shells with a sense of sudden abandonment. The few occupied homes on the island stand on 13-foot stilts to protect residents from water damage and mud that comes with the wind, rain and hurricanes. Ocelia Naquin, in her late 70’s, is one of the oldest residents residing on Isle de Jean Charles. A few of her brothers also remain and live down the road. She sits barefoot on her porch eating a snack while her husband, Mark, strums his guitar on the porch swing. They are a couple almost untouched from the modern world; a pack of Marlboro Lights and can of Coca-Cola on the bench next to her is the only hint that the year was 2017. She reminisces about her love of dancing as a young girl and how her husband Mark used to sing covers of Hank Williams songs at the local dance hall, which is now a converted marina for local fishermen. Her language is a fascinating blend of broken Southern English and French, very unique to this part of the country. They’ve lived on the island all of their life and don’t ever plan to leave despite several requests.
This is my home and no one can force me to leave.
“The only way I’d ever move is if they [Louisiana HUD] gave me one million dollars”, says Edison Dardar, Ocelia’s younger brother. Edison has remained on the island his entire life and specializes in shrimping. “I used to catch about 300 pounds per day and now I’m lucky if I get enough for dinner”. The tiny levee that encompasses the island helps to keep out water from small currents and tidal forces, but it has also displaced the major food source for the community: fish, crab and shrimp.
The people shown here are some of those inhabitants mentioned that refuse to leave the only home they’ve ever known. We were fortunate to spend time with this community and become intimately familiar with their way of life and struggles from the perspective not often explored or told.