How Coastal Erosion is Affecting the Sacred Lands of Indigenous Louisianians

By: Mandilyn Hutchinson

“How Coastal Erosion is Affecting the Sacred Lands of Indigenous Louisianians”

Evidence of Indigenous peoples living in the Louisiana area date back to more than ten thousand years before the first European explorers arrived in the area. Hernando de Soto’s expedition found several villages along the Mississippi River and when European colonization began, historians estimate that nearly 15,000 native people resided in Louisiana (National Park Service). These numbers drastically diminished as colonization brought on warfare, disease, and displacement, but there are still many tribes residing in Louisiana that now face challenges to their sacred sites and culture with concerns including coastal erosion, influences of the oil industry, and the commercialization of the natural landscape of Louisiana.

Only four Tribes in Louisiana are federally recognized, including the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana, the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians, and the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe. Eight more Tribes are state recognized, including the Adai Caddo Indian Nation, the Biloxi-Chitimacha Confederation of Muskogees, the Choctaw-Apache Tribe of Ebarb, the Four Winds Cherokee Tribe, the Grand Caillou / Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha Indians, the Isle de Jean Charles Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe, the Point-au-Chien Indian Tribe, and the United Houma Nation (Louisiana State University School of Library and Information Science).

The Chitimacha Tribe, or ‘people of the many waters’ in their native language, established their villages throughout the Atchafalaya basin. The Atchafalaya Basin contains almost one million acres of swamps, bayous and lakes and is the nation’s largest river swamp, making it a home fitting for the people of the many waters (Atchafalaya National Heritage Area). The origin stories and legends of the Chitimacha Tribe represent the creation of the landscape of the Atchafalaya, such as the story of how the great spirit made the world. This legend depicts a crawfish, a prominent crustacean in Louisiana culture, digging and bringing up mud to create the land on earth. Another legend in Chitimacha culture is that of Bayou Teche, where it is said that the Tribe battled a snake over ten miles long and where the snake lay writhing in defeat is where Bayou Teche was created (Sovereign Nation of the Chitimacha). The land that is so spiritually significant to the Chitimacha Tribe is changing drastically due to coastal erosion. The same water ways when the snake created Bayou Teche is now infiltrated with dams, locks, and canals. The Chitimacha do not only lose their connection with the land as coastal erosion and man-made changes affect it, but they struggle to ensure their culture survives as well.

Along with stories that are spiritually significant to the Tribe, the ecological systems are also important to the Chitimacha people. Like many of the other Indigenous tribes of Louisiana, the Chitimacha rely on the land as a means of survival. The diverse ecosystem and massive number of waterways in Louisiana provide opportunities for hunting and fishing. As the land is changing, the opportunities for hunting and fishing change as well. Man-made changes on the waterways influence coastal erosion and the ecosystem as well. Waterways are cut off, new ones are introduced, salt and fresh water may mix to create a brackish environment where fish and plant species may not be able to survive. Because of the constant change in the ecosystem, surviving off the land becomes uncertain.

Broadcasting, Roger Emile Stouff, a member of the Chitimacha Tribe, said regarding the waters of the Atchafalaya Basin that “From a spiritual and religious sense this place is my cathedral. It’s my temple” (Louisiana Public Broadcasting, 2011). Stouff believes that there are places across the water that are “thin”, as in that the veil between life and the afterlife are thin and powerfully felt. One of these places was the Pond Lily worship place, which was a central religious site of the Chitimacha nation. It was destroyed by Americans in the early 20th century, but Stouff’s father continued to tell him the stories of the land and it became a sacred fishing spot. The landscapes of Louisiana are not only a way of life for the native American people, but they have a spiritual connection to the land and wildlife of Louisiana that is being damaged by coastal erosion. The water and wetlands that create the landscape of the Atchafalaya are disappearing, threatening the native waters and life of the Chitimacha people (Louisiana Public Broadcasting, 2011).

For the Isle de Jean Charles Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe and other bands of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribes of the South Lafourche and South Terrebonne areas, their existence as a Tribe is threatened by the coastal erosion of the Louisiana coast. Isle de Jean Charles is located in Terrebonne Parish between Bayou Terrebonne and Pointe-aux-Chene. The island is named after Jean Charles Naquin, the father of Frenchman Jean Marie Naquin who was disowned for marrying a native American. Jean Marie and his wife, Pauline Verdin moved to the land where his father had traveled to service the pirate, Jean Lafitte. The marriages of their children combined the descendants of Biloxi-Chitimacha and Choctaw Tribes (Isle de Jean Charles). This land is sacred to their culture and heritage and is important to their community as a present-day Tribe. These lands contain their cemeteries, sacred spots, and mounds built for religious purposes, but much of it has been washed away. The man-made alterations to the Louisiana landscape affect all these Indigenous groups in some way, whether their land is being washed away or their resources and way of life is affected by the coastal erosion of the wetlands.

The abundance of natural Louisiana waterways consequentially leads to an abundance of flooding for Louisiana residents. The Atchafalaya Basin, where the Chitimacha Tribe resides, naturally began forming around 900 AD as the Mississippi River shifted its flow east to its present day route through New Orleans. The flow caused natural levees to form, creating the natural waterways and lakes of the Atchafalaya Basin. The Great Flood of 1927 encouraged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to create flood gates that provide an outlet for the Red, Atchafalaya and Mississippi Rivers and control the path of the Mississippi to ensure the Port of New Orleans can remain an economic stimulant for the state (Lafayette Louisiana).

The introductions of locks, dams, and levees in the Louisiana landscape have caused the floodplains of the Atchafalaya River to become disconnected from it. The more concentrated flow of the distributaries does not give the water time to be naturally filtered by the wetlands. This harms the water quality which is essential for forest health in the wetlands and for the wildlife that inhabit and maintain these areas. Another consequence of the control of the river is the change in sediment distribution. The change in waterways disrupts the sediment distribution from the river that is essential for the wetlands to maintain growth and collect the nutrients it needs to feed the plant life (Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act).

Another man-made factor that affects the native Americans’ lands is the influence of the oil industry in Louisiana. Today, Louisiana provides for 9% of the United States total gas production, making it one of the top five states in production and proved reserves (eia.gov). Oil and gas exploration began in 1902 in Louisiana and by 1990 the coastal area had more than 500 oil and gas fields (Ko et al., n.d.). To access oil fields, companies dredged over 10,000 miles of canals throughout Louisiana, affecting the land (Baniewicz, 2020). The drilling, exploration and establishment of pipelines disrupts the natural waterways of Louisiana, affecting the health of the wetlands. The depressurization of the land leads to land already below sea level sinking even more. In 1895, only 5% of the city of New Orleans was below sea level (Ko et al., n.d.). Today, the entire city sits at the lowest point in Louisiana at six feet below sea level (Szydlowski, 2021).

The introduction of the oil industry in Louisiana and its rapid growth and success has led to a higher risk for petroleum spills. According to the Louisiana Oil Spill Coordinator’s office, on average, 330,000 gallons of oil are spilled unintentionally around the coast every year (Louisiana Oil Spill Coordinator’s Office). Oil in the waters of the Louisiana Gulf have an extensive effect on the wildlife and vegetation necessary to maintain the coast. Most native American Louisianians’ vocations lie within hunting, fishing, or trapping. They make their living off the land, so when a spill occurs that harms the wildlife, their survival is also threatened. The oil spills also affect the vegetation vital to the wetlands. Oil can become trapped in plant roots and contaminate the plants for the wildlife that utilize the flora for shelter and food (Center for Biological Diversity).

The influence of man on hydrological systems in combination with the oil industry’s role in Louisiana has drastically escalated the rate of coastal erosion, or the deterioration of coastal land. The wetlands are vital to preserving the coast, especially preventing damages during storms. When a hurricane arrives from the Gulf of Mexico, a large portion of water is pushed onto the land, called a storm surge. While the wetlands of Louisiana vary from being completely saltwater or freshwater, or brackish, which is a mixture of the two, the storm surge pushes saltwater into the land. If the salt water from a storm surge pushes into a freshwater system, the plants and animals are at risk. The wetlands also weaken hurricanes by dampening the storm surge. The deterioration of the wetlands also makes hurricanes in south Louisiana stay stronger for longer. When what was once marshy land is overcome with salt water, the hurricane can fuel itself more as it makes landfall, leading to stronger hurricanes inland. The winds and destruction that come with these strong hurricanes have wiped out native communities along the south Louisiana coast.

Global warming is also playing its part in the destruction of the Louisiana coastal wetlands. With warmer waters, the gulf states are seeing a larger number of hurricanes yearly and much stronger hurricanes. The rising sea levels due to global warming are also contributing to the burial of the coast and significant native spaces. As the lands of Louisiana are sinking, rising sea levels are overcoming communities.

But, in the past 100 years, 40% of Louisiana’s barrier islands have washed away and some islands have lost more than 75% of their land. Louisiana has lost over 1,900 square miles since 1932 (NOLA Ready). The rate at which Louisiana loses its coast is equivalent to about an entire football field every 100 minutes (Swenson, 2021). This loss of land is disrupting the lives and sacred lands of native Americans in Louisiana, especially for those living on the very coast of the state.

In an interview by Ty Baniewicz of Southerly Magazine, Theresa Dardar, a member of the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe, describes how her communities’ sacred mounds are being washed away in Terrebonne Parish. Some of these 15-foot tall earthworks were used for burial or ceremonial purposes and some of them provided elevation to escape the flooding waters of the Louisiana coast. Dardar describes how a ditch that once spanned only three feet now measures more than thirty feet and is beginning to wash away one of the Pointe-au-Chien’s sacred Indian mounds. Shirell Parfait-Dardar, chief of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw described how some of her peoples’ sacred spaces are completely washed away and their identity is being washed away with the land in South Louisiana (Baniewicz, 2020).

The Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe, residing on the coast of Terrebonne Parish, faces their entire island being wiped away by coastal erosion. The land where their ancestors have lived since the Indian Removal Act is vanishing. The island was once 11 miles long and 5 miles across in the 1950s. Today, the island is only 2 miles long and ¼ mile across (PBS NewsHour, 2012). Before 1953, the only way to reach the island was by boat. Island Road was built to connect the island to the parish mainland, but the construction of the road has only added to the environmental problems that plague the island. Even so, on days of high tide the road may be impassable due to rising waters, leaving the community isolated in emergency situations (Isle de Jean Charles).
The Isle de Jean Charles Band has also been directly affected by oil spills along the coast. Specifically, the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010 has created issues for the health of the people of the community due to combinations of oil in the water and the dispersant used to sink the oil. The people of Isle de Jean Charles make their living off catching, fishing, and trapping, and the influence of the oil field have damaged their wildlife necessary for their survival. The Tribe once used herbs for medicines, but the damage to the flora of the island has diminished their crops and they must resort to manufactured medicines (Isle de Jean Charles).

The United States Army Corps of Engineers realigned the Morganza to the Gulf Hurricane Protection Levee in 2001 to protect communities along the coast of Southern Louisiana but elected to pass north of the Isle de Jean Charles because it was determined to not be cost effective. Only 30 homes are left on the island, and a resettlement is being planned by tribal elders, but many feel that their identity lies within the land. Many members of the Isle de Jean Charles Band have already moved inland, separating their community. Many of the elders feel that without their land or their people, their existence as a Tribe is diminishing (Isle de Jean Charles).

There are many projects in Louisiana working to save the wetlands. The Lowlander Center in combination with Louisiana State University is the only group directly helping the Indigenous coastal tribes. With support from the National Estuary Program, canals that are no longer in use and threaten to erode sacred sites will be backfilled or plugged (Louisiana State University Media Center). The many other projects focused on repairing the wetlands do not prioritize the losses that Indigenous communities in Louisiana face.

Coastal erosion is disproportionately affecting the Indigenous people of south Louisiana and their sacred land. With many man-made influences such as the oil industry, control of waterways and global warming, the land that is sacred to Louisiana’s Native Tribes are vanishing very quickly. Though there is work being done to save the wetlands, the interests of native communities in Louisiana have not been respected and are not urgent for legislators. The native culture that has influenced what Louisiana is today is being washed away, and native voices are not being heard by those making changes to the coast.

Works Cited

Atchafalaya National Heritage Area (n.d.) The Atchafalaya Basin.
http://www.atchafalaya.org/atchafalaya-basin

Baniewicz, Ty. (2020, September 2). Coastal Louisiana Tribes Team Up with Biologist to
Protect Sacred Sites from Rising Seas. http://southerlymag.org/2020/09/02/coastal-louisiana-tribes-team-up-with-biologist-to-protect-sacred-sites-from-rising-seas/

Center for Biological Diversity. (n.d.) A Deadly Toll: The Devastating Wildlife Effects of
Deepwater Horizon– and the Next Catastrophic Oil Spill. http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/public_lands/energy/dirty_energy_development/oil_and_gas/gulf_oil_spill/a_deadly_toll.html

Coastal Wetlands Planning, Protection and Restoration Act. (n.d.) The Atchafalaya Basin.
http://lacoast.gov/new/about/basin_data/at/default.aspx

Isle de Jean Charles. (n.d.) The Island. http://www.isledejeancharles.com/the-environment

Ko J., Day J., Barras J., Morton R., Johnston J., Steyer G., Kemp P., Clairain E., Theriot R.,
(n.d.) Impacts of Oil and Gas Activities on Coastal Wetland Loss in the Mississippi Delta

Lafayette Louisiana (n.d.) The Atchafalaya.
http://www.lafayettetravel.com/things-to-do/outdoor-adventure/the-atchafalaya/

Louisiana Public Broadcasting. (2011, March 22). Native Waters: A Chitimacha Recollection.
Public Broadcasting Service.

Louisiana Oil Spill Coordinator’s Office. (n.d.) Acts, Regulations, Guidelines, & Plans.
http://www.losco.state.la.us/acts.html

Louisiana State University Media Center. (2021, February 2). Restoring Wetlands around Sacred
Sites. http://www.lsu.edu/mediacenter/news/2021/02/02cce_turner_natlestuary.php

Louisiana State University School of Library and Information Science (n.d.) Land
Acknowledgement. htttp://www.lsu.edu/chse/slis/about_us/land_acknowledgement.php

National Park Service (2021, November 6). American Indians in Louisiana.
http://www.nps.gov/jela/learn/historyculture/native-americans-in-louisiana.htm

NOLA Ready. (n.d.) Coastal Erosion.
http://ready.nola.gov/hazard-mitigation/hazards/coastal-erosion/

PBS NewsHour. (2012, June 1). In Louisiana, Rising Seas Threaten Native Americans’ Land.
Public Broadcasting Service.

Sovereign Nation of the Chitimacha (n.d.) Tribal History.
http://www.chitimacha.gov/history-culture/tribal-history

Swenson, Dan. (2021, May 31). These Six Factors Explain why Louisiana is Rapidly Losing
Land; See Graphics.
http://www.nola.com/news/article_59675b8c-bfbe-11eb-9602-47cf4c0429dc.html

Szydlowski, Mike. (2021, September 1). New Orleans was Built Above Sea Level, but the
Sinking City Tries to Weather Hurricane Ida. http://www.columbiatribune.com/story/lifestyle/2021/09/01/sinking-new-orleans-tries-weather-hurricane-ida/8254812002/

U.S. Energy Information Administration. (2021, April 15). Louisiana State Energy Profile.
http://www.eia.gov/state/print.php?sid=LA

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