We take a look the plight of American Indians living in southeast Louisiana weeks after hurricane Katrina hit the gulf coast. Tribal leaders say they have been overlooked by the media, relief organizations and the federal government. [includes rush transcript]
Though there has been massive attention to the devastation brought by Hurricane Katrina, some victims have been overlooked. An estimated 4,500 American Indians living along the southeast Louisiana coast lost everything to Hurricane Katrina according to state officials and tribal leaders. Hurricane Rita, which hit four weeks after Katrina, dealt another blow to the tribes. Officials estimate that 5,000-6,000 American Indians lost their homes or possessions in that storm. The Louisiana tribes most affected by the back-to-back hurricanes are the United Houma Nation, the Pointe-au-Chien Tribe, the Isle de Jean Charles Indian Band of Biloxi-Chitimasha, the Grand Caillou-Dulac Band and the Biloxi-Chitimasha Confederation of Muskogees.
Tribal leaders have complained that they are being overlooked by the media, by relief organizations and by the federal government. Houma Nation Chief Brenda Dardar-Robichaux said in an article published in the Houma Nation newspaper last week, "We are an Indian tribe here that is falling through the cracks. Nobody has made contact with us except the native media. Everything we are doing has been a grassroots effort, and it’s taken weeks to get this far with the help of many volunteers and private donations. We’re basically doing it on our own." The problem is made worse for the Houma nation and some of the smaller tribes because they lack federal recognition from the government and the accompanying money that comes with such official acknowledgement.
- Brenda Dardar-Robichaux, Principal Chief of United Houma Nation.
- Charles Verdin, Chairman of the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe.
For information on sending donations to Native American tribes in need that have been affected by Hurricans Katrina and Rita.
AMY GOODMAN: We are joined on the phone now by Brenda Dardar-Robichaux, the Principal Chief of the United Houma Nation. We are also joined by Charles Verdin, the Chair of the Pointe-au-Chien Indian tribe. We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Brenda Dardar-Robichaux, can you describe where in Louisiana the tribe is and what has happened?
BRENDA DARDAR-ROBICHAUX: I’ll begin by giving a brief history. We were once in the area of Baton Rouge, that’s our state capital. Baton Rouge stands for Red Stick, which was a boundary marker between us and a neighboring tribe. We migrated south and were once in the area of New Orleans. If you were to visit Louis Armstrong Park, you would see a commemorative plaque that states it was our ceremonial grounds and our hunting grounds, and we played the traditional game of stickball there.
We continued to migrate south and our largest population lives along the bayous of Terrebonne Parish and Plaquemines Parish, all along the eastern coast. In the mid-30s and -40s there were no educational opportunities for our children, so some tribal members moved back to the New Orleans area, because they could attend school there. And it’s those isolated settlements and communities that was destroyed with Hurricane Katrina.
And then we forward a few weeks and Hurricane Rita came, and the people who live along the bayous of southeast Louisiana were devastated by Hurricane Rita. If you know anything about storms, Rita came to us and was on our eastern side, which brings a tremendous amount of flooding. And that’s what happened to our bayou communities.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about right now, the kind of aid that you are getting?
BRENDA DARDAR-ROBICHAUX: The aid we have gotten has been from people who are upset with the administration, from people who feel that they did not act quickly enough and properly, and people who want to come out and make a difference. And we are humbled and blessed that they have come to our rescue. They have been providing us with much needed services to be able to recover from the storm, and it has been Indian tribes and Indian organizations throughout the United States that has come to our aid, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe what federal recognition has to do with it or not having federal recognition that you have been fighting for for several decades?
BRENDA DARDAR-ROBICHAUX: Right. We have been in the federal recognition process now for 21 years, and we still have not received what is called the final determination from the federal government. And that has hindered our relief efforts, as well, because we’re not qualifying for certain money, certain funding, certain relief aid that would be out there if we were a federally recognized tribe. And so we are having to do this on our own. And as I said earlier, we are blessed that Indian tribes and Indian communities and people from throughout the United States have come to help us in our relief efforts. If you were to look at my yard right now, there’s probably about 20 tents that are set up, people from all over the United States who are coming in and helping us to provide services, everything from outreach, bringing much needed food and cleaning supplies and medical needs to our Indian communities, as well as a group of construction workers who’s trying to do roof repair and just cleaning, just basic cleaning. With our flooding came a lot of sludge and mud that went into the homes. And it really takes a major effort to be able to clean all that out. And so they are in there, lending a hand, helping some of our tribal elders clean their homes, as well.
We had a group with the Eagles Organization who came down and provided much needed medical assistance. They were administering tetanus shots, as well as flu shots, and providing just basic general first aid and medical needs. Because when our tribal members are in the middle of all of this, trying to clean and recover, they are really not taking care of themselves. They are not addressing their medical needs. They are not taking their medications. They are not eating properly. And so we have been able to do outreach and make sure that they are getting the proper nourishment and that they are receiving medical attention.
AMY GOODMAN: We are also joined by Charles Verdin, Chair of the Pointe-au-Chien Indian tribe. Did I pronounce that right?
CHARLES VERDIN: Yes, ma’am.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about where your tribe is and how it has been affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita?
CHARLES VERDIN: We are located about 60 miles southwest of New Orleans, and we are right on the coast, about 15 miles from the Barrier Islands from the Gulf of Mexico. We are a small community. We have been there since the earliest time, you know. We are basically from the Chitimachas, and then we have other Indian tribes that’s come over history to live with us as the Indians were being moved around from one end to the other.
But we are just a small fishing community. Most of our tribe who lives in our community are all fishermen, either from shrimping, crabbing, and oystering; all others do work for the oil field. But we were — our community was covered with water. We had anywhere from eight to nine feet of water. And some of the homes that were high on [inaudible], that were pulled up before, you know, we are doing okay, but those who were not able to pick their homes up, you know, we have about 40 homes that were taken over from water.
AMY GOODMAN: What presence is there of FEMA, of the federal government in your area?
CHARLES VERDIN: FEMA has visited a couple of families, and a couple of families have received some help. But most of our members have received nothing and have not even seen FEMA.
AMY GOODMAN: What do people understand they have to do to get help?
CHARLES VERDIN: It’s just a long process with paperwork, and a lot of our members are older members who do not have no education. So if somebody comes there and gives them forms, you know, they have — they don’t know what to do with it. So, we try to get people out there to help them fill out these forms. And it just takes some time.
AMY GOODMAN: Brenda Dardar-Robichaux, what about you, in terms of the presence of FEMA? When we were down in the New Orleans–Baton Rouge area right after Katrina, as we drove between the two cities, there was always that exit for Houma, and we understood that there was a mass evacuation site or infirmary there of about 1,000 people who were in Houma. How does that relate to the Houma Nation?
BRENDA DARDAR-ROBICHAUX: We have — we did have quite a few of our tribal members that did have to evacuate to one of the local shelters. And right after Hurricane Rita hit I was able to go down and visit the bayou. I wanted to see firsthand the devastation that our tribal members would be facing. And when I got to visit, you could not even see the line in the highway. So I went over to the shelter later that afternoon after our site visit and visited with about 35 families who were in one of the local shelters and told them that we were there to help them to try to provide relief effort by way of clothing that had been donated to us by Wal-Mart, as well as some food supplies, because a lot of them left with just a couple of changes of clothing, never imagining that they would lose everything in their homes.
And so, in visiting with them, I invited them to come to our relief center the following day, which they did. But while they were there, they received a call from the shelter that stated that they had to get out. It was 11:30 in the morning, and they had to be out by noon because, as the lady put it, they were being thrown out, and I can’t tell you the sadness that overtook the shelter and just tears from parents and children asking their mothers, "But where are we going to go." Because they knew that they could not go back into their homes that were still flooded, and at the same time they had to leave that shelter, and what they ended up doing was moving them to the larger shelter that still had people from the New Orleans area that had been evacuated there.
But some of them chose to go back into their homes, even though they were in no condition for them to return to. They chose to go back into their homes. And so we do have some tribal members who are living 30, 20 people, family members, in one home, maybe three bedrooms, one bath. And so, we are just trying to take each other in, community to community, friend to family, just trying to recover from this. But we do have some of our tribal members that are still in shelters. And when we contact FEMA and tell them about some of the struggles we are facing — I have a family, for instance, in the New Orleans area, and it’s a lady raising her grandchildren, and we visited the community in Lafitte. Her trailer, her home had no floor to it. Her floor was an area rug that she had put down. She had Visqueen strapped to the top of her ceiling. And that’s what she was living in. So we contacted FEMA and said what does it take to get one of these mobile homes here, because if a person like this does not qualify, then tell me who does. And we’ve really had problems getting FEMA’s attention. And we are not asking for a lot, but if there’s a need, then these needs should be addressed.
And our tribal members do understand that they have got to fill out an application in order to be serviced. We understand that. But a lot of our tribal members have a very limited education. So what we were asking FEMA was to allow us to help them to help our tribal members in this process, because they don’t know enough, you know, they are not formally educated enough to understand the paperwork. So we would want to be there with them, because a lot of them speak only our native language of French and they just cannot communicate well because of language barriers, because of cultural barriers and so we would want to assist them in this paperwork process. And that has not happened, as of yet. FEMA has not come to allow us to help them help our tribal members.
AMY GOODMAN: Charles Verdin of Pointe-au-Chien Indian tribe, what is the spirit of the people of your tribe right now?
CHARLES VERDIN: We still have lot of them that got their spirits up. A lot of them, you know, just have been through this ordeal already. And, you know, we rebuild. You have some of our older people that’s just tired. They’re getting to old to do this cleanup job like this, and some of their spirits are down. And some of them talk about getting out, you know. But we tried to get some kind of relief to help them rebuild higher. And when I talked to them about this, they were all for it. And some older members again are — they don’t like the idea of going too high up. The home would have to be picked up about 10-12 foot high, and it would be hard for them to go up and down. So we are trying to get some process to where we could fix them up. It would be kind of hard, but with this we have no help from FEMA. We’re trying to do this with a local group and a couple other Indian tribes who came in the area to help us.
AMY GOODMAN: Who came in to help, which tribes?
CHARLES VERDIN: We have a group from the Poarch Creek out of Alabama, and with the Mennonites. They have made no promise yet but they’re in our area, you know, looking and talking with people and see what kind of help they could give us. And I guess within the next month or so we ought to know. But they did send some mattress down to our area, because we still had some people that were sleeping on the floors and some of us were sleeping in their cars and staying by their home, where they could do some cleaning up during the daytime, and nighttime it either smelled too bad or just plain too hot. So —
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Charles Verdin, Chair of the Pointe-au-Chien Indian tribe, and Brenda Dardar-Robichaux of the United Houma Nation, Principal Chief, I want to ask you to stay with us. We’re going to go to break, and when we come back, I want to talk about the significance of this day, of what is recognized as "Columbus Day," what others call "Indigenous Peoples Day," and what this means to you.