Toward the southern end one of the many narrow, low, longitudinal ridges that extend from Louisiana into the Gulf of Mexico, the United Houma Nation has been struggling to preserve its way of life. These ridges, locally called cheniers, are the natural high ground formed by the regular flooding of the bayou, bay and river system of southern Louisiana. Each stretches out into the marsh, frequently terminating in island-like formations that are often as culturally isolated as they are geographically.
This landscape is hard to visualize and even harder to navigate. Principal Chief of the United Houma Nation, Thomas Dardar, Jr. has spent most of his life in this ever-changing land of tides and storms. His home has always been between Isle de Jean Charles, Pointe-aux-Chenes and Golden Meadow—points that roughly mark the corners of a triangle within which the majority of Houma live. It is the brackish zone where river and sea combine, and it’s always changing. And apart from nature’s regular reshaping of the land, there are few constants here other than the United Houma Nation.
It is a place where coarse marsh grass sways in the persistent salty breeze from the Gulf of Mexico. Crab, redfish, shrimp, alligator, ducks and all manner of other creatures hide within the maze of tiny islets. The 17,142 members of the Houma Nation have relied on these animals for food and as resources to sell. The marsh has always been their hard but bountiful provider. Highways, cell-phones and satellite television brought the Houma’s world closer to the Creole French and Cajun neighbors with which they had mingled for generations, but the Nation managed to maintain its own identity.
It is not just modernity that is changing the way the Houma live. It used to be that the cheniers were constantly reinforced by sediment from the Mississippi, but choices made decades ago by the Army Corps of Engineers now cause the river to dump its sediment out in the deep sea. Oil exploration cut channels in the marsh allowing salt water to pour in behind islands and disrupt the delicate ecosystem that held the soil in place. More recent calamites like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill have endangered the life cycle of many of the marine animals that the Houma rely on for food and commerce. Well-publicized storms like Katrina and Rita and the lesser known Ike and Gustav pummeled a system of sea and land that is in a constant damaged state.
This is the situation that Chief Dardar surveys on a recent fall afternoon. The coast he and the rest of the Houma call home is disappearing at a rate equal to one football field an hour. As the land goes, so does the Houma’s chance for survival as an intact culture. But this afternoon there is less talk of what is being lost. Instead Dardar, other members of the tribe and the Restore America’s Wetland Foundation are deploying a novel technology developed in nearby Baton Rouge that holds promise for rebuilding the land.
Baton Rouge’s Martin Environmental Solutions has manufactured hundreds of floating mats, each about the size of a pool table, in which marsh grass is planted. The mats are pushed out into the water and then anchored in critical areas where the marsh is being eroded. The grass sends down roots through the mats and new land is formed as soil and other plant material accrete around these strange looking, floating islands. At least, that is the hope.
The technology has proven effective in other places, but the particularly harsh conditions of the coastal marsh are different than the lakes in the midwest where Martin has had previous success. In these marshlands, the storms, tides and salinity will all test this new invention’s ability to curb the destruction that is very literally eating away the Houma homeland.
While the earth may be moving under the feet of Dardar and the Houma, their status as a Federally recognized tribe is also subject to the rise and fall of tides — political tides. The Houma Nation is recognized by the State of Louisiana but has yet to receive the same designation from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Houma have a few small parcels of land. Their tribal headquarters stands on two and a half tribe-owned acres in Golden Meadow. Their hope is that much of the Pointe-aux-Chenes National Wildlife Management Area, where many Houma currently live, may one day be designated as tribal lands.
All the people living along the Gulf coast have been menaced by storms and spills. In response to these disasters the Federal Government has issued a series of emergency declarations. Each declaration allows for affected people to apply for aid to offset the effects of the successive events. Dardar explains that the Houma’s case for recognition is tied to these declarations. They could move ahead with the process of Federal recognition if they were willing to remove themselves from the disaster declarations. In order for the tribe to gain status and land (and perhaps some of the oil revenue that comes with it) they would have to opt out of the disaster-relief programs. For a people who are, in many cases, watching soil beneath their homes slip away, this is a difficult choice to make.
If Louisiana and the Houma make it through a few more years without a major catastrophe then, Dardar believes, their chances for recognition will improve. In the meantime they are doing what they can to prevent the earth from dissolving too quickly from under their feet.
This hopeful afternoon, flat bottom skiffs, called Johnboats, slowly pull a waving grey-green daisy chain of floating islands out to a point along northern Terrebonne Bay. In the native French of the first Europeans to visit this area, Terrebonne means “good earth.” The Houma are hoping that, with a few more hurricane-free years and the help of a innovations like these floating islands, the name Terrebonne will eventually regain some of its original meaning.