By Andrew Winston
“One of the things people think about is, well if you let Pointe-Au-Chien go, who’s next right?” said Patty Ferguson-Bohnee with a bit of uneasiness in her voice. It is pronounce “PON-A-SHAN” I soon learned after speaking with Patty, who is a member of the Pointe-Au-Chien Indian tribe.
What still remains of the tribal grounds is located in the southern most part of Louisiana nestled in what is now more water than land. Southeast of Houma down Highway 665 within the swamps and marshes of the Lafourche and Terrebonne parishes lies a 1.5-mile-long road that is split in two by Bayou Pointe-Au-Chien. That territory is still home to the nearly 700 tribal members. If you fight the unidentifiable bugs latching on to you in the thick sticky air and make your way down the road past the community center, past the church, to the dead end where the marina is located, you are confronted face to face with the mighty Gulf on all sides.
If you had ventured to Pointe-Au-Chien 100 years ago you would have had to go at least 6 miles further south into the gulf. There you would have been immersed in a luscious wetland filled with prime farming grounds, historic palmetto houses, and a self-sufficient tribe who heavily relied on their location and abundance natural resources for survival. Today, these lands no longer exist due to climate change, coastal erosion, and lack of effort of the state of Louisiana to help preserve one of Louisiana’s oldest Indian tribes’ native grounds. Instead of palmetto houses, huts made of palm leaves; today you’ll find houses elevated on stilts anywhere from 8 to 16 feet above the ground to keep from flooding. In front of each house stand wooden docks extending out of the oyster filled soil and into the Bayou, each with a boat or two tied up. Bundled near the small docks are crab traps, barrels filled with oyster shells, fishing nets, and various equipment and tools; that might seem foreign to someone who is just over an hour northeast in the French Quarter.
Pointe-Au-Chien or point of the oak is comprised of tribal members dating back to Louisiana’s earliest history. The Indians living there now trace their lineage back to the Chitimacha, Acolapissa, Atakapas, and Biloxi Indians that once settled around the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Mississippi. Throughout the 100 years of settling this tribe has depended on the fish filled lakes and fertile lands of green for their survival. Today almost no land is suitable for farming or growing the herbal plants they have relied on for medicinal purposes.
Patty Ferguson is the Faculty Director of the Indian Legal Program, the Director of the Indian Legal Clinic, Clinical Professor of Law at Arizona State University, and serves as Native Vote Election Protection Coordinator of the state of Arizona. But if you ask her who she is, she will quickly respond Pointe-Au-Chien Indian. There is passion in her voice when she speaks of her tribe. Patty currently is working daily to help the Pointe-Au-Chien Indian tribe gain federal recognition after already helping four tribes in Louisiana acquire state recognition. When asked where the tribe’s current stance is Patty responded, “We are still working on putting together our evidence under the new rig that was issued in 2015. There are 7 criteria you must meet and we have met 5, there are two areas we are currently working on. We hope to have the petition done and ready to submit in the fall.”
This new regulation Patty is referring to, is the United States’ most recent update on a set of regulations established in 1978. The original rig was a tedious and exhausting application process for tribes attempting to gain federal recognition. This rig required unnecessary documentation that many tribes were unable to produce. Under this set of regulations, the United States government recognized 17 tribes across the states. They rejected 34.
This new set regulations and process seems be much more attainable for tribes desperately seeking federal recognition. However the regulations are still not considerably easy. Pointe-Au-Chien is struggling to collect presentable primary documents. Patty explained, “There hasn’t been a lot of primary research done on Louisiana Indians. Most of the work that has been done is secondary sources about the history of Louisiana tribes.” She went on to point out that because Louisiana has such a dense history and specifically multiple changes of rule, primary documents are difficult to come by. Despite the challenging demands needed for the regulations, Pointe-Au-Chien is optimistic moving forward with 5 of the 7 criteria already met to gain federal recognition. Kevin Freking of the Associated Press best described what federal recognition can do for tribes like Pointe-Au-Chien. “Federal acknowledgment means a tribe is treated as a nation within a nation, able to set up its own government, legal system, and taxes and fees. Recognition also brings critical federal investments in medical care, housing and education.”
More importantly for Pointe-Au-Chien, federal recognition would give them a louder voice to express the need to preserve their land and heritage. In Patty’s own words, “If we had federal recognition it would be much easier to preserve the cultural heritage of the tribe, but because of where we are located on the coast in our traditional homeland there has been a lot of destruction through manmade sources, the rerouting of the Mississippi, oil and gas exploration, and now sea level rise which is attributed to the climate change.” In Patty’s published journal High Water and High Stakes: Cultural Resources and Climate Change, she states a few astonishing facts such as “During the past 100 years, Louisiana has lost more than one million acres of coastal land and wetlands, and is losing approximately 25–40 square miles per year.” Along with that Patty also writes “Ninety percent of the coastal wetlands loss in the United States is in Louisiana. Pointe-au-Chien is located in the Terrebonne Basin, one of the fastest eroding areas in the United States.” Through her research, Patty has discovered these facts that are alarming to Louisiana residents especially the Pointe-Au-Chien tribe.
For Patty and other members of the Pointe-Au-Chien tribe mother nature and the lack of concern from the government threaten their way of life. The tribe’s survival is dependent on decisions that need to be made as soon as possible. Mother nature knows no mercy, and if a storm the size of Katrina comes into the gulf, there is no telling what will happen to Pointe-Au-Chien. Amongst Pointe –Au-Chien’s tribal council is the Second Chairman, Donald Dardar. Donald is a 61-year-old fisherman who was born into the Pointe-Au-Chien tribe and has been living there his entire life. For Donald, life has changed drastically in the recent years. “The past 10 years I’ve seen a lot of erosion for sure, losing our land. Our way of life has changed, we losing what use to be lakes, now is all open water, and that’s where we work, you know.” Donald’s lifestyle like his ancestors before him depends on his ability to safely catch fish, crabs, and farm oysters on the daily. With the recent land loss, Donald’s way of life has become more difficult. “We use to have lakes before, now we ain’t got no protection. Whenever we go work out in the lakes we way out in the open, we use to work in smaller boats years back and well 15 years ago I had to get me a bigger boat and it’s still not big enough. Thinking about getting a bigger one if I wanna keep shrimpin’ in the lakes, well I can’t call em lakes no more, but where there use to be lakes before. Now it’s just all-open water.“ With this in mind, it’s no surprise that the Pointe-Au-Chien tribal community uses boats more than cars.
The most urgent issues at hand are preventing any more damage to Pointe-Au-Chien’s community land and scarred tribal landmarks. “We got a mound that is starting to wash away. Eventually it’s going to wash away until it’s gone” said Donald. The mound he is referring is an historic tribal landmark that has been with the community since it’s earliest years. Donald, Patty, and other members of the tribe are continuing to preserve what they can, but there is no stopping the continuing erosion without aid. “All of these are manmade problems and there isn’t a lot of focus from the state of Louisiana or the Feds on protecting cultural heritage on not only our tribe, but other cultures who are impacted by these changes and the changes are happening now more quickly, the land is eroding faster, our lives are situated to this place and I think it would be a shame to not recognize that tribes need to do something to not only preserve the place, but the people” said Patty.
Just before reaching the 1.5 miles stretch of the Pointe-Au-Chien Tribal Community, you will see Island Rd., a two lane road with water washing up the sides onto the cement like calm waves on beach. The road extends down to the village of Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians, another native community that recently was forced to relocate due to the extreme dangerous flooding conditions and loss of land. This community is now the officially the first climate refugees in the United States.
The Pointe-Au-Chien tribe culture and way of life has kept them sustaining themselves for over 100 years and is filled with community members that are the truest form of Louisiana. Many tribal members such as Donald still speak French. “I had to learn English in school.” said Donald. “We are one of the few communities that actually still speaks French. Not only are we native, we are maintaining a French language. We don’t call it Cajun French because it’s not Cajun French, we were speaking French before the Cajuns came it’s an older French,” said Patty clear and confidently.
Pointe-Au-Chien members like Donald are use to adapting and will continue to do so given their nature, but as coastal erosion continues and the tribe receives no aid from the government, who knows how far that will get them. Patty expressed her view of the current situation by saying “The whole way of life is at a crossroads because of the coastal erosion and sea level rise. Our goal as a tribe has been to adapt, so we can continue to live and succeed and thrive. And to do that as a people and to support each other which I think is very challenging given the climate.” For Donald Pointe-Au-Chien is his life and where he want to be, “Our community is just everybody knows everybody, everybody is related. Every morning when I go to my work, I cross the road and get in my boat. I don’t think you can find any place better.” Relocation is a last resort for Pointe-Au-Chien and with federal recognition and aid from the government; it wouldn’t even have to be an option.
This crossroads Patty refers to highlights the importance of this moment in the history of Louisiana — a crossroad with many directions for the future of Pointe-Au-Chien. Just as the weather doesn’t slow down, neither does Patty. Her efforts to preserve what to her is true Louisiana heritage and culture continue to speak for the tribe members like Donald who often have no voice. “I think we are representative of Louisiana right? We are true Louisiana. We were here before anyone else and that history and knowledge — the potential to lose that at a faster pace should concern everyone, not just the Indians.”