Bayous, A Refuge At Risk - The Margin

October 5, 2022

Bayous, A Refuge At Risk

How a Decades-long Battle for Federal Recognition May Be the United Houma Nation’s Last Chance at Survival

Lois Salinas in front of her family's restaurant, Annie's, in Dulac, Louisiana.  Virginia Hanusik for The Margin

29.5958° N, 90.7195° W / Houma, Louisiana

By Ottavia Spaggiari

20 min read

On August 28, 2021, as Hurricane Ida barreled toward her hometown, Lois Salinas, an elder of the United Houma Nation remained unfazed. When her daughter called from her house in Houma, urging her to evacuate, she managed to improvise a reassuring tone: “I'm getting ready to leave right now,” Lois told her. In reality, she hadn’t packed anything yet. “I wasn’t really ready to leave,” she remembers with a mischievous smile. She wasn’t scared.

Like many of her Houma ancestors, 82-year-old Lois had spent most of her life in Dulac, a small community on Bayou Grand Caillou, 70 miles south of New Orleans near the Gulf of Mexico. While she was growing up, her father, a passionate tribal leader and activist, owned a small net shop where he sold and repaired fishing nets, and in 1955, her mother opened Annie’s, a cozy waterfront shack, located next to the home of Lois’s grandparents. Lois left Dulac only for a few years, when she got married and followed her husband to Texas but, after the marriage fell apart, she returned to her hometown with her five children to raise them near the water, surrounded by her siblings, nieces, and nephews. She went on to inherit her grandparents’ crumbling house and take over her mother’s restaurant.

For years, Lois stoically considered hurricanes and flooding as among the costly inconveniences of living in Louisiana, almost as a price to pay for the beauty of the bayous. Even after Katrina devastated the state in 2005, and she had to elevate her house 11 feet above ground to protect it from rising waters, she found a silver lining: she now had a yard and a place to sit in the shade. She paved the area underneath the house and placed a bench with vases of flowers. “I was so glad,” she remembers, “I got a lot of room.” From there, she could admire the bayou life – shrimp boats floating on the water and the occasional alligator – while also keeping an eye on her business. Her restaurant and her home were her pride. Lois had invested everything she had in the two buildings. In the early 1970s, she obtained a loan from the bank that allowed her to renovate the house and restaurant – quite an achievement for an Indigenous single mother who had lived most of her life in the Jim Crow South, where, as a Native American, she was considered non-white. She also went on to transform her mother’s shack into a culinary institution. For over 50 years, her home-cooked meals attracted customers from all over the state.

Lois’s sister still lived on the other side of the road, and when things calmed down at the restaurant, they loved sitting together on the back deck, chatting and catching some fish. Her niece, Brandy, also lived across the street, in an old house built by Lois’ parents.

Lois’s entire world was enshrined in these few square miles on the bayou. Only the urgency in her daughter’s voice convinced her to throw a few clothes in a bag and drive to Houma, the closest inland city. Unlike the other times Lois had to evacuate, however, she didn’t take any photos nor her children’s old report cards which she held so dear, certain that everything would still be there after the storm.

Fishing boat in Lois's community of Dulac, Louisiana.    Virginia Hanusik for The Margin

Despite being classified as “flood zones,” with their tight-knit community and soothing water, the lower bayous have always inspired a sense of safety among Houma elders.

As they had welcomed Lois back after her divorce, providing comfort and shelter, the bayous had served as a reliable refuge for generations of Houma people. Over the centuries, their thick marshes and intricate waterways protected tribal citizens first from white settlers and then from the most violent consequences of racial segregation.

Before European colonization, the Houma had adapted their lives to the floods of the Mississippi River Delta, dividing their time between their agricultural villages in the north of modern Louisiana, where they usually spent the summer, and their villages in the south, where they spent the winter, hunting, trapping, and fishing.

Soon after French colonizers noted the existence of the Houma in 1682, they sought trade and military alliances with the tribe, but this wasn’t enough to protect the Houma from land dispossession and forced migration. The French took some of Louisiana’s most appealing territories, displacing the tribe and bringing a series of devastating epidemics. In 1700, the Houma people were decimated by an epidemic that recorded a 50% mortality rate. But as warfare between the English and the French for control over today’s Louisiana exacerbated tribal conflicts, with different tribes supporting opposite sides, relationships between the Houma and the French solidified.

Later, as colonizers began to recognize the Houma with a certain degree of autonomy, allowing them to keep their settlements, the tribe acquired elements of French culture. Houma women entered relationships with French men, giving their children French last names and French became the main language spoken by the tribe. This relative stability did not last long. When Louisiana passed under Spanish control in 1763, an inflow of new settlers, plantation owners, and new colonial officials pushed the Houma further south. Things took a turn for the worse after the U.S. government purchased the state in 1803.

While the Americans acknowledged the presence of the tribe in southern Louisiana by naming the largest city in the area Houma, they refused to officially recognize the tribal nation.
Mural in Downtown Houma, Louisiana.    Virginia Hanusik for The Margin

The tribe filed a claim to twelve sections of land on Bayou Black (also called Bayou Boeuf), an area west of Houma which, according to Houma oral history, had been assigned to the tribal Nation by the Spanish, but the federal government rejected it in 1816.

After the Houma were left with no federal recognition and no sovereignty over their lands, they resorted in greater numbers to the lower bayous of southern Louisiana, an isolated, low-lying area near the Gulf of Mexico that was only accessible by boat. This land, which was considered undesirable by white settlers, became a safe haven for the Houma people and their culture.

Segregation in Jim Crow Louisiana further isolated tribal citizens. The parishes of Lafourche and Terrebonne, where Dulac is located, established a three-way segregation system: white, Black, and Indian, which remained in place until 1964. Because the first public Indian schools were only opened in the 1940s, generations of Houma people were de-facto denied an education.

Tribal citizens who only spoke French and were often illiterate became particularly vulnerable to exploitation. In 1928, the Louisiana Land and Exploration Company (LL&E) – which had purchased hundreds of thousands of acres in southern Louisiana – leased its land to the Texas Company, today known as Texaco, for oil exploration. Soon, oil was found in the area, both onshore and offshore.

Natural Gas Pipeline near Isle de Jean Charles.    Virginia Hanusik for The Margin

After decades of peace, the isolated southern bayous suddenly became irresistible and the Houma were, once again, exposed to dispossession. Oil companies’ emissaries and independent land speculators showed up in Houma communities, asking tribal citizens to lease their lands but, instead, made them sign quitclaim deeds, legal documents used to transfer property ownership.

Speculators also obtained oil-rich land by targeting tribal citizens who had not paid their taxes and by exploiting Louisiana laws that severely restricted  children of interracial marriages from inheriting their white parents’ property, or that only allowed inheritance if the parents were married in a civil ceremony – something that was extremely rare for the Houma.

Uncounted families lost their properties, including the descendants of Rosalie Courteau, the Houma matriarchal leader, whose land, according to Houma citizen who has served as tribal historian Michael Dardar, accommodated Lirette Field, one of the largest gas producing wells in the world in the early 1930s. “That's the amount of resources that the tribe lost,” Dardar said.

As a nonfederally recognized tribe without a reservation, the Houma could not make a collective land claim over the oil-rich land they had inhabited for centuries. Like other tribal leaders, Lois’s father, Tom Dion, tried to organize individual land claim efforts, and in the 1960s he was the lead plaintiff in an individual land claim against Humble Oil, one of the companies that had taken over the area. His attempts led nowhere.

While the marshes became a key energy source for the entire nation – Louisiana’s oil production peaked in 1967, when 16.99% of US oil originated in the state – and LL&E became one of the largest independent oil and gas companies in the country, tribal citizens couldn’t reap the benefits of the booming oil industry. Instead, they began to bear the brunt of its environmental impact.

Eroded marshland near Montegut, Terrebonne Parish.    Virginia Hanusik for The Margin

As her life unfolded, Lois observed the environment change around her. Through the decades, energy companies dredged thousands of miles of oil canals allowing salt water to infiltrate the marshes and eat away the vegetation. The wetlands had always served as a natural barrier against seasonal storms, and losing them meant that the lower bayous became disproportionately exposed to hurricanes and further coastal erosion. While the creeks grew wider, farming fields and fishing ponds were lost to the ocean.

In the 1970s, with other tribal leaders, Lois’ father began to petition for federal recognition – a status only considered after a convoluted bureaucratic process, which has been called “broken” by several members of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. The tribe filed their petition with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in 1985. Today, nearly 40 years later, the United Houma Nation is still fighting to obtain recognition.

The oil industry not only contributed to land dispossession and coastal erosion but also, by burning fossil fuels, played a key role in fueling climate change, ultimately producing increasingly more aggressive hurricanes. Between 2005 and 2008, four storms, Katrina, Rita, Gustav, and Ike wiped out 300 square miles of marshes. According to the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, at the current rate, the state will lose an area the size of Rhode Island by 2050.

Wetland deterioration from 1984-2021

Oil companies also posed unprecedented environmental hazards to the tribe. In 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana, releasing more than 130 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the Houma were disproportionately affected. The explosion ravaged the marshes, the wildlife, and the seafood industry which so many Houma families depended upon.

The destruction was unspeakable. “It was like a bomb was dropped in the middle of Houma,” said Corine Paulk, an elder of the Nation. “Every business was affected and so many homes.”

BP argued that, because the United Houma Nation is not a federally recognized tribe, tribal citizens were not eligible to file for compensation under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

With no federal funding and resources, after every environmental disaster and after every major storm, more tribal citizens are forced to leave and relocate. But many, like Lois and her family, have tried to adapt and stay.

“There’s nothing like lying in bed at night in Dulac and hearing the shrimp boat pass,” a Houma elder told me, explaining why she doesn’t want to leave the bayou.

Storm shelter, Isle de Jean Charles.    Virginia Hanusik for The Margin

Utter, unquestionable devastation

Born and raised on Bayou Grand Caillou like her aunt, Lois’ niece, Brandy Solet, had lived through so many seasonal storms that she mastered a well-oiled evacuation routine. A 45-year-old pragmatic mother of three young men, watching the weather forecast announcing Ida’s arrival, Brandy had immediately worried about her children’s safety. She booked an Airbnb near Galveston, Texas, and called her oldest son. He had a five-year-old child, and his wife had just given birth to another baby. The young couple was trying to save and thought about postponing their evacuation. “Do not worry about money at this time,” Brandy told her son. “We have a place to stay, get in the car, pack up the kids and come with us.”

Before leaving, Brandy followed her usual hurricane checklist, doing what she always did before a storm: prepare for rising water. She tied down furniture and objects that might have floated away but, as she locked the door behind her, she was not too worried. Like Lois, she didn’t bring much with her and only packed few clothes. She trusted the roof and foundations of her house. Her grandparents had built it in the early 1950s, when Lois and her mother – Lois’s sister – were young. Brandy’s grandparents had raised their seventeen children under that roof. So many storms had tested the house, which had never let them down. Brandy believed this time would not be any different.

In recent years, hurricane warnings had intensified so much that the frequency of the evacuations had started to wear Brandy and Lois out.

In 2020, the Atlantic hurricane season was so active that the World Meteorological Organization exhausted the regular list of storm names and had to resort to the Greek alphabet for only the second time on record. That year, Brandy and her family had to evacuate nearly every week, so often that she had to start setting money aside for their constant evacuations. Every time, it was a near miss. They would only need to leave their house for a day and then they could go back. The summer of 2021 was similar. Once again, the season had run through the list of its 21 names. Dulac had dealt with several warnings but no major events in the area. Brandy thought that Ida would just be another false alarm. It was not.

Lanor Curole outside the United Houma Nation Headquarters.    Virginia Hanusik for The Margin

When tribal administrator Lanor Curole heard that Hurricane Ida was headed to southern Louisiana, she switched on the TV in her office at the United Houma Nation Tribal headquarters in Houma, less than 20 miles east of Lois’s and Brandy’s houses. At nearly 50 years old, Curole has dedicated most of her life to the tribe. A no-nonsense native of southern Louisiana who had handled recovery efforts after several hurricanes hit her tribe, she watched the speed at which Ida was intensifying with concern.

“I instantly go into the mode of planning,” she told me. With little time and fewer resources, Curole jumped on the phone, making sure that the staff and the most vulnerable members of her tribe had a place to go to and a ride to get there. After hearing that some people were considering staying put in their homes and trailers, she talked with the principal chief: “What do you think if we offer them to stay at the office?” The chief agreed.

It was a first: the building – a former nursing home – had been donated to the tribe a year earlier and was still undergoing a partial renovation. At the dedication ceremony, in June 2021, two months before Ida, elders broke down in tears watching the flag of the United Houma Nation being raised in the yard. They now had an official place their tribe could call home in a parish where, until a few decades earlier, they weren’t even allowed to receive a public education. But it was not equipped to serve as a storm shelter. “It wasn’t the hurricane we wanted to cut our teeth on by trying to stay in the building,” Curole explained.

Renovations are still underway in the interior of United Houma Nation Headquarters.    Virginia Hanusik for The Margin

On August 29, 2021, on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Ida made landfall in Louisiana with 150 m.p.h. winds, matching the two other strongest Category 4 hurricanes to hit the state. The storm caught many by surprise, as it rapidly intensified in the Gulf of Mexico, gaining power quickly, before stalling over southern Louisiana for hours.

Ida offered a grim example of the increasingly destructive force of hurricanes fueled by climate change, because its rapid intensification and slower movement were considered a result of warming ocean temperatures. Not only are they more difficult to predict, but rapidly intensifying storms also tend to cause a disproportionate amount of human and financial loss. Stripped of its protective marshes, southern Louisiana remained defenseless against Ida. 14,000 people were displaced by the hurricane, 26 died in the storm and as many as 75% of the buildings in Lafourche Parish, one of the worst affected areas, were damaged or destroyed.

With nowhere to go, 30 people rode out the hurricane at the tribal headquarters, sleeping in the hospital beds still spread out from its nursing home days. As the winds grew stronger, blowing off shingles from the roof, parts of the ceiling began collapsing. Curole and her colleagues kept transferring people to areas that seemed safer.

At dawn, the following morning when Ida had finally passed, Curole stepped outside. “We’ve been lucky,” she said to herself. Some days phones and internet connection were down. “Enjoy this downtime,” she told the staff. “Because as soon as we have communication, it’s going to be rolling.”


For the United Houma Nation, Ida was even worse than Katrina: it hit areas with the highest concentration of tribal citizens. According to August “Cocoa” Creppel, the principal chief at the time, at least 14,000 tribal citizens were affected. An indefinite number lost their homes and their livelihoods. “This is the biggest devastation our tribe has gone through,” Chief Creppel said.

Chief August Creppel outside his home in Bayou Blue, Louisiana.    Virginia Hanusik for The Margin

After Ida had passed, Lois’s neighbor called to tell her that her roof was gone, which meant that her entire house and all her possessions were gone too, destroyed by the raging rains. For a week, she felt even more helpless than desperate, and the roads in her neighborhood were inaccessible. She had to wait days before she could finally drive there and see the destruction for herself. “I just really can't say how I felt,” she told me, describing the moment she saw her home. “Because it was such a tragedy to see.”

The brutal winds had also blown off Brandy’s roof and shifted the foundations of her house. Brandy’s nephew delivered the news. While she was still in Texas, she’d asked him to check on her home. When he finally managed to drive down the bayou, it was dark and, with no electricity, he couldn’t really see the extent of the destruction. He remained vague and Brandy remained hopeful. The following day, a friend finally managed to enter the house and sent her some pictures. It was utter, unquestionable devastation. “You could see the sky in the house,” Brandy explained. Her first thought went to the one irreplaceable thing in her house: her family photos. She gave her friend instructions to look for them. Miraculously stored in a plastic container, they’d survived the destruction.

Lois, too, managed to salvage a precious memento from her kids’ childhood. It was a decades-old mold of her daughter’s hand from when she was in kindergarten. “I will grow and go,” it read. “But this little hand will stay and stay.”


As Curole predicted, relief efforts took over her life and that of her staff. Feeling responsible for the tribal citizens who had lost their homes and who were temporarily staying at the headquarters, Curole ended up sleeping in her office for two months. During the day she spent hours on the phone with the six different parish governments, trying to facilitate requests and services on behalf of the Houma people.

As sovereign nations, federally recognized tribes can declare a state of emergency on their land and access Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) assistance through the state. Nine years ago, an amendment to the Stafford Act also allowed federally recognized tribes to request a presidential emergency or major disaster declaration themselves, without having to go through the state. This mechanism, for example, allowed the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to receive over $2.4 million for emergency work, recovery, and mitigation measures in 2013, after a series of storms had triggered landslides and flooding. With no federal recognition, the United Houma Nation relied largely on volunteer work and charity donations for its recovery efforts.

Lanor Curole inside the United Houma Nation Headquarters undergoing renovations.    Virginia Hanusik for The Margin

After lda, many tribal citizens in the lower bayous remained without water for days. “They [local governments] don't go far enough down into some of the communities that are more tribal specific,” Curole explained. Federal recognition would have allowed the Houma to plan ahead and then hire the experts necessary to fill in the gaps between the local governments and tribal citizens.

Today, a year later, an indefinite amount of Houma remain homeless, while many still live in trailers and campers, unsure of whether they’ll ever be able to rebuild their homes. The inability to help his citizens took a toll on Chief Creppel: “It hurt me to know that I was the chief and so many of my people were affected in such a little bit of time and there’s nothing I could do.”


A bureaucratic maze

Nearly 400 Native tribes in the US are unrecognized by the federal government. Many of them live in areas that are most affected by extreme weather. Research published by Science in 2021 revealed that land dispossession and forced migration led to today’s tribes inhabiting areas that are disproportionally exposed to climate change. According to the study, 42.1% of these tribes do not have federally or state recognized tribal land.

Throughout the 19th century, Native American tribes were pushed by white settlers to marginal lands that were often considered more precarious and less desirable. Because of forced displacement and land-grabbing, Native tribes lost 99% of their lands and, two centuries later, their descendants are still bearing the brunt of history.

“The Indigenous populations were not needed at all by the Americans,” explained Houma tribal historian Michael Dardar. “And so, they were pushed to the margins.”

Michael Dardar in his home in Raceland, Louisiana.    Virginia Hanusik for The Margin

After the American Revolution, the United States began recognizing tribes through statutes and treaties that were the result of warfare and painful negotiations. In its first 100 years, the U.S. government signed nearly 400 treaties with Native tribes, but in 1871, Congress adopted a resolution prohibiting further treaties – a political move aimed at developing forced assimilation policies. The Houma and hundreds of other tribes that were denied recognition during that first period lost a key opportunity to obtain sovereignty over their territories. This status remained uncertain even for federally recognized tribes.

Less than a century later, in the 1950s, to cut federal funds to tribes and “Americanize” tribal nations, the U.S. government launched a federal termination policy that ended recognition for over 100 tribes. The decision had devastating consequences on Native Americans. In Louisiana, for example, where non-Indians believed the state had no Native tribes, Native citizens were considered mentally ill for speaking their tribal language and therefore institutionalized. The termination policy was reversed in 1970, but the recognition process remained incredibly difficult.

Since the 1970s, Native tribes have obtained recognition through two main routes: congressional legislation and petitions to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), a federal agency that used to be under the War Department. According to Adam Crepelle, a Houma citizen and the director of the Tribal Law & Economics Program at George Mason University, the application can cost tribes millions of dollars in historical research as well as anthropological and legal analyses. Tribal nations have spent an average of 30 years in the process, which requires documents that are often impossible to obtain.

It took the Houma over six years to gather the documentation necessary for the petition and, after the tribe filed it, it took the BIA six more years to begin considering their case, in 1991. Finally, three years later in 1994, the BIA issued a negative proposed finding, claiming that the tribe had failed to meet three of the seven criteria that were necessary to achieve the status: that Houma people descended from a historic tribe, that they maintained a community to present day and that the tribe maintained political authority over its citizens.

The BIA’s preliminary rejection was widely criticized by academics and tribal citizens. To many, the decision was the reflection of a system that is still based on the Western stereotypical perception of what a Native tribe should look like. For example, according to Adam Crepelle, the BIA’s claim that the tribe failed to exercise political authority over its citizens “misses the reality of indigenous society,” because most tribes didn’t have centralized governing bodies until modern times. Crepelle noted that the very fact that the Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes segregated tribal citizens was evidence that they were “legally required to be a distinct community.”

After the BIA issued its preliminary rejection, the tribe remained hopeful. Together with other council members and Houma citizens, Michael Dardar, who was vice principal chief at the time, took it upon himself to challenge the decision.

A soft-spoken man in his early sixties, Dardar has spent nearly half of his life researching and reconstructing the history of his tribe. During the day, he worked as a diesel mechanic for a boat company, while he spent nights and weekends studying and working his way through an associate degree in history from the American Public University System. He then went on to write several books, becoming an expert in Houma history.

I got to the point where I was a little frustrated that everybody else was telling our story. It wasn't that I thought I was any more special than anybody else,” he told me, “But I just felt like we needed to tell the story from our perspective."
Michael Dardar

With a panel of historians and anthropologists, Dardar began to gather historical documentation to file a rebuttal. It was not an easy task. While the tribe solely relied on oral history, the BIA privileges firsthand accounts or official, written records. This meant that, to provide evidence of their existence, the Houma had to rely on documents filed by European and American settlers. “Colonizers don't pay a whole lot of attention to the people they are colonizing,” explained Dardar. “So, the records concerning indigenous tribes, as well as slaves, are very sparse and they're keyed towards the interest of the colonizer.”

Michael Dardar outside his home in Raceland, Louisiana.    Virginia Hanusik for The Margin

Houma oral history provided essential missing links to trace the details of the tribe’s history and its citizens’ geographic movements across Louisiana. “For me, it becomes a fascinating process of how these puzzle pieces fit together,” Dardar told me. “But then you try to inject that back into the process and they [the BIA] say, well, do you have documentation of that? Well, I have the stories that my grandfather taught me.”

The tribe filed the rebuttal in 1996 and, for nearly 20 years, waited for a decision. In 2015, the Department of the Interior revised the federal acknowledgement process rules and the United Houma Nation decided to have their case evaluated according to the new rules, which meant that the Houma had to resubmit their petition. While the revised regulations removed an important obstacle, allowing the tribes to prove their existence starting only in 1900, they still required to provide evidence that tribal nations descend from a historical Indian tribe, once again emphasizing the importance of centuries-old written documents.


According to academics and tribal citizens, oil companies played a key role in stalling the recognition process.

In 1993, despite objections from the tribe’s leaders, six tribal citizens filed a federal lawsuit against the Louisiana Land and Exploration Company (LL&E), claiming rights over the company’s property.

The timing could not have been worse. Although the lawsuit was dismissed, it made the oil company nervous. As the BIA was entering the final phases of their evaluation, the LL&E unleashed its lobbying power against the Houma’s federal recognition. In a 1994 letter to the Secretary of the Interior, LL&E’s lawyers strongly argued that many of the people who claimed to be Houma were not and asked the BIA to share information about the nation’s petition for federal recognition. Later that year, the petition was rejected.

“If we were federally recognized and we went to court for land claims, it would not be beneficial for the oil companies,” Dardar explained.

The oil and gas industry brought irretrievable environmental damage, exposing tribal citizens to heightened hurricanes, but it also fought against federal recognition – the only tool the tribe has to protect its citizens against climate change and industrial disasters.

Projected sea level rise from 2030-2100

Surviving the recognition process

Seeing what remained of her home was overwhelming to Lois. “All you could do was put your hand on your face and cry,” Lois said. “Until you can start accepting it. Rebuilding is all you can do.”

From the start it was clear that rebuilding would be a challenge. Like many living on the bayous, Lois did not have homeowners insurance. With every hurricane season, the cost of her coverage had spiked until she could no longer afford it and was forced to drop it. She had hoped that elevating her house would be enough to protect it from flooding, but elevation ended up exposing the roof to the raging winds of increasingly stronger storms. Her home did not stand a chance against Ida.

Even for those with insurance, rebuilding remains difficult. Brandy bought insurance a couple of months before Ida, but the coverage was not enough to cover an entire reconstruction. With no place to go, about a week after the hurricane she bought an RV and, like many others, she placed it on her property, right next to her crumbling house. Then, she faced the dilemma that many other Houma citizens have been grappling with: leaving their community and their land or remaining and coming to terms with the idea that she might live in an RV indefinitely – an arrangement that has taken a toll on her. “It seems like we're always on survival mode,” she said. “And hurricane season is here again.”

Ida worsened the insurance market in Louisiana. The destruction brought by the storm led seven private insurance companies to go bankrupt or cancel their policies. More insurance companies are expected to pull out from the state, further threatening the survival of local communities.

On this street in Dulac, Louisiana, many families never rebuilt after Hurricane Ida.    Virginia Hanusik for The Margin

If Brandy and Lois moved, another piece of the Houma culture in Dulac would disappear. Coast Guard Road, a strip of land resting between two bayous only two miles south of Brandy’s home, offers a preview of what their street might look like one day. With its community center, a grocery shop and a church, Coast Guard Road was once the beating heart of Dulac. The street was filled with children biking along the bayou and adults barbecuing in their yards, playing music. Sherry Parfait, a Houma citizen who grew up there was ten when Hurricane Juan ravaged the area in 1985. She remembers that, at first, she was devastated over losing all her toys in the storm – her precious Easy-Bake Oven and the cheerleading kit her parents had given her for Christmas. But as months went by, she realized she’d lost much more. Juan triggered an exodus. The friends she’d spent all her time with, playing on the large swings hanging from the giant willow tree outside her house, were gone. “It suddenly changed the life as everyone knew it in Dulac,” she said. Her family left seven years later, after Hurricane Andrew, once again, wiped away the community.

More hurricanes arrived soon after: Katrina and Rita in 2005, Gustav and Ike in 2008, Harvey in 2017 and then Ida in 2021. Today, many of the remaining houses on Coast Guard Road are missing their roofs and fronts. In some cases, only their shells are left.


Over the years, the tribe has tried several times and without success to seek recognition by getting a bill passed through Congress. Chief Creppel said he went to Washington several times, trying to advocate for the tribe, but last June he lost his second bid for reelection.

The new chief, Lora Ann Chaisson, believes the Houma’s best chance to obtain federal acknowledgement is to resubmit the petition with the BIA. The daughter of an active tribal citizen, Chief Chaisson remembers when her mother was working on the petition in the 1970s. “It’s not fair,” she says. “We’re the only people in this country that must prove who we are. And we’re the native, we’re the Indigenous people of this country.” Despite her frustration, Chief Chaisson remains hopeful.  She is creating a new task force of anthropologists, historians, and legal experts to restructure their case, hoping to submit the revised documents as soon as possible.

And yet, Chaisson emphasizes that the lack of federal recognition doesn’t undermine the tribe’s identity. “I always tell people that the government doesn't make us who we are,” she explains.

While recognition would be key to protect the tribe from climate change, climate disasters are also creating new obstacles to the acknowledgment process. “We've had multiple severe hurricanes,” Crepelle explains. “So, every time that happens, the tribe has to stop and regroup.”

While climate change and environmental catastrophes are forcing tribal citizens to move, without recognition and without land, they do not have the ability to move as a tribe. “We're moving individually,” Dardar explains, “and we're losing that community cohesion.”

According to Crepelle, in the long term, this could also have negative consequences on the federal recognition process. “It’s really tough to prove that you’re a community when people are moving away and the land's literally disappearing.”

Lois on her porch in Dulac, Louisiana.    Virginia Hanusik for The Margin

Brandy has asked herself whether it’s time to leave, but moving would mean abandoning the place where her family has lived for generations. “I love it down here,” she said. “I do. I really, really do.” While she believes that obtaining recognition would make it easier for her to rebuild, she doesn’t want to be discouraged by the lack of it. Her sense of belonging to her tribe and to her land transcends the status. “My grandfather fought for recognition for years and years,” she said. “But I’m hopeful, I mean, this tribe has been sustaining itself all these years, without federal recognition.”

After Ida, Lois’ children asked their mother to leave the bayou, but she refused. Instead, like Brandy, she moved into a trailer parked next to her home and falls asleep to the calming sounds of the bayou. From her trailer she can still keep an eye on her restaurant, which she only opens for takeaway orders for her most loyal customers. Recently, a home renovation reality show chose her for one of its episodes. They’ll help her rebuild and furnish her home. Lois can’t wait. She says she will hang the old mold of her daughter’s hand from when she was in kindergarten, one of the few things she salvaged from the hurricane. She wanted to show the TV crew photos of her life before Ida, but she lost them to the storm. “I had pictures of everything, and they got lost,” she says. “But you know, it’ll come back. Maybe not those [pictures], but we’ll make new memories.”

Credits to:
  • Written by Ottavia Spaggiari
  • Produced and Edited by Bryce Cracknell
  • Photography by Virginia Hanusik
  • Data Storytelling by EJ Fox
  • Art Direction by Stephen Downs
  • Fact-checking by Samantha Schuyler

Additional contributions by Megan Ahearn, Ed Boyda, Maria Edwards, Kacper Faligowski, Martyna Gołębiewska, Mason Grimshaw, Magdalena Kęsik, Łukasz Knasiecki, Ada Makowska, Scott Quill, Arek Romański, Mikołaj Szczepkowski, Jose Valenzuela, Michał Zagojski

Data + Resources

Wetland deterioration from USGS / NASA Landsat / Earthrise.

Sea Level Rise from https://coastal.climatecentral.org. Maps were generated for 2030 and 2100 with the assumption of global heating of 2.0 C by year 2100.


See also

Rebuilding the Homestead

How Black Landowners in Eastern North Carolina Are Recovering Generational Wealth Lost to Industry Encroachment

35.8038° N, 76.8283° W Piney Woods, NC
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