Natives in Need
By Tegan Billiot
Tiger Times Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 13, 2012
For 15 long and challenging years, the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe has attempted to gain tribal federal recognition. This group of more than 300 natives lives in a community south, or down the bayou, of Houma, Louisiana.
Their ancestors worked and lived off the land by farming, hunting, shrimping, crabbing, and fishing. To this day, about 80% of the tribe continues to live in this fashion though quite a few of the people have had to move outside of the community. The biggest reason for the move has been the crowding of the tribe’s diminishing land.
Not only are the Pointe-au-Chien Indians faced with no reservation set aside for themselves but the surrounding water is slowly closing in on the land.
Barrier islands are disappearing. Cemeteries filled with the tribe’s ancestors are sinking. Houses are being raised; though, many have already succumbed to the water of the bayou and the bay.
Oil companies digging up land are just helping to wash away the soil. If the tribe was federally recognized, it could receive enforced protection of its land and landmarks and money from federal grants to help rebuild.
Saying the tribe is not working to receive that recognition or protect its community would be completely wrong. In fact, after the BP Oil Spill of 2010, the majority of the community joined the Coast Guard and BP to clean the coast and prevent oil leakage from reaching the community.
These native workers put their efforts into this job in order to protect the land and provide food for their families who would have to go without seafood, their main source of food and income, for an indefinite amount of time.
To this day, some families still don’t trust the seafood they have to rely so heavily on for monetary support. Yet, they are faced with no choice since they are stuck in a situation where the federal government will not put up enough money without the tribe fully proving its Native American identity.
The tribe has continuously worked for federal recognition. Fortunately, the Pointe-au-Chien Indians have already gained recognition on a local and state level. Unfortunately, the tribe has met only three of the seven criteria it needs for the federal government to accept them.
The biggest obstacle in their way has continued to be the rejection of the federal government, who says the research these natives have sent in for review has not been enough in amount or has not been reliable enough. One area which is lacking in proof is lineage. What larger and older tribes did this tribe descend from? Another is leadership; though the tribe can prove their councils and chiefs before the mid-1900s and after the late 1900s till today, they have been unable to prove who their leaders were from about 1940 to around 1980. Having both areas of evidence is crucial to the federal government’s acceptance.
Members of the tribe researched their ancestry throughout the entire recognition process. Some go to Lafayette and Baton Rouge to search old documents, film, and other sources of information for any connections to their tribe.
The hardest part of this research is translating. Many of the older documents are written in Spanish or French and cannot be interpreted by those members alone. Instead, those tribal members have to look for a list of keywords that can help them in their search.
A class from Tulane University also assists with this research. In the past, it has created genealogy charts about the members of the tribe. Doing research about the tribe’s past is something that anyone can help them with, Native American or not.
Awareness is also an issue that both insiders and outsiders may help with. During the BP Oil Spill, popular newspapers, such as The Washington Post from Washington, D.C. and The Gainesville Sun from Florida, and even the researchers for National Geographic visited the lower Pointe-au-Chien area, took boat rides with Chief Charles Verdin, and took note of the stories of the people that live there. Such simple awareness has helped the Point-au-Chien Indian Tribe to receive more volunteers, more research, more funding, and more support.
This awareness is provided necessary by the warm welcome the tribe gives to those who are willing to enter the community and understand the tragedy facing the tribe. Without the federal recognition it needs, the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe will be forced to suffer more decomposition of culture and land.
Many tribal members have realized that they need to improve more than their culture for their tribe even though they do not believe federal recognition will benefit them individually. Theresa Dardar, a member and council representative of the tribe, said, “For me personally, it wouldn’t matter if the tribe was federally recognized, because I know who I am and what tribe I belong to.”
She also expressed her concern that on the other hand from federal recognition seeming to be a matter of pride was the fact that the tribe needed federal recognition to be able to financially support its elders with medical assistance and its children with educational assistance.
To help preserve its own culture and bring that sense of pride to its children, the tribe has come up with new ways to involve its youth. For example, the tribe will hold a culture week beginning July 16. The object will be to bring the knowledge of the powwows, drumming, dancing, beading, basket-weaving, and heritage to the youth through fun and fresh ideas.
Hopefully, this week will strengthen the culture that has been fading since the white men for a time banned the Pointe-au-Chien people to practice their culture through ceremonies and sent them to separate schools to learn to speak English. With effort, the youth will help to bring back the culture and language and act upon saving their culture instead of only identifying themselves with their tribe.
The community is in the process of saving its culture, language, and economy against the odds of not being federally recognized which would greatly help the strength of the tribal government, the ability to receive land grants, and increase the survival rate of the tribe’s overall culture. In order to grow, the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe needs recognition from the United States Federal Government.