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Dr. Heather Stone, an assistant professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, has spent a lot of time on Isle de Jean Charles lately.
In April, she began a project to archive the history of the island. The tiny spit of land in Terrebonne Parish is home to many members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe of Native Americans.
It’s also a place that’s literally being wiped out by coastal erosion. In 1955, the island was about 22,000 acres. Today, it’s about 320 acres.
Disappearing with the land is the bucolic home of generations of residents, who fished, hunted, trapped, and were nourished by homegrown crops and vegetables. “The island was once amazingly vibrant,” Stone explained during a recent visit there. “There were livestock and gardens. Residents were self-sufficient.”
Those bountiful days are gone and so are many inhabitants. Hundreds of people once lived on Isle de Jean Charles. Today, only about 25 families – ¬about 70 people –are left. That number includes some residents who aren’t members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe.
While the community has splintered, the spirits of members of the tribe remain unbroken.
Many are planning to relocate, thanks to a $48 million grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development earlier this year. The grant is the first in the lower 48 states allocated for “climate refugees,” or communities displaced by environmental factors, such as natural disasters and habitat loss. Isle de Jean Charles has been ravaged by years of saltwater intrusion from hurricanes, floods, and dredging for oil and gas pipelines and canals.
The resettlement effort, which aims to reunite all members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, is in its infancy. Details as fundamental as where the new community will be established are still being decided.
In the meantime, Stone has begun gathering oral histories from tribal residents and other members of the tribe who live nearby. She’s recording and cataloguing the memories, customs, and traditions that provide a framework for the tribe’s identity, yet which exist, in many cases, only in the minds of individuals.
The work is the first step in organizing as much information about Isle de Jean Charles as possible. Stone intends to give the tribe a voice, and provide insight into a global issue.
“Isle de Jean Charles could become a model for communities nationwide confronted with habitat loss and that are being forced to relocate,” explained Stone, who recently received an Oral History Association grant to support her work.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She also completed oral history and archival research projects while earning a doctoral degree in curriculum and instruction at LSU.
Upon hearing about Isle de Jean Charles, Stone was immediately intrigued. She approached Tribal Chief Albert Naquin with her proposal to document its history. He readily agreed. It didn’t hurt Stone’s cause that she brought sandwiches to one of the pair’s early meetings, which they shared near a tractor Naquin was repairing when she showed up.
Making new friends is a skill that Stone, a native of Indiana, honed as a child. Her father’s work as an electrical engineer in the oil and gas industry required frequent family moves, including to Saudi Arabia, where it lived for several years.
Naquin said Stone earned his trust because she seems to possess the perseverance that will be necessary to tell the tribe’s story. “I think Heather is going to do a good job because she’s hardheaded,” Naquin recently quipped with an affectionate nod to Stone.
Stone told Naquin she anticipates that the project will take four or five years to complete. “It’s a story that has never been told, so there are many threads to untangle, including the story of how the three tribes came together,” she said.
Naquin, who is a direct descendant of the tribe’s first chief, Jean Baptiste Narcisse Naquin, said such a project is long overdue. To illustrate his point, he recounts a story from his childhood. He and several friends came across jars of tribal pottery that had been unearthed during a cleanup project, and peppered the artifacts with rocks fired from their slingshots.
“We didn’t think anything of it, breaking that pottery. As children, it wasn’t important to us. The same can be said about history. It doesn’t become meaningful until we get older. I think it’s crucial to record as much as we can for our younger generation,” Naquin said.
Stone eagerly dove into the effort. She rented a house near the community, where she can work and host visitors. She also recently toured the island via a rented Cessna airplane. The flight provided a bird’s-eye view of the damage caused by saltwater intrusion.
“Until you see it from the air, the amount of land loss is incomprehensible,” she said.
This summer, Stone is teaching several courses at Duke University. She will return to Isle de Jean Charles in August. Stone hasn’t, however, abandoned the project while she is away. In coming weeks, she will visit Bureau of Indian Affairs offices in Washington, D.C., to make copies of oral histories of Isle de Jean Charles residents, recorded years ago by Naquin, that are housed there. She also plans to hunt there for any other information about the tribe.
“The tribe’s history is all pretty scattered, so I’m not really sure what’s there yet,” she said. “I just want to make sure that tribal members have access to as much information as possible.”
Photo: Chris Brunet, 50, a lifelong resident of Isle de Jean Charles, and Dr. Heather Stone, an assistant professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, sift through stacks of photographs of houses that remain on the island, which is being wiped out by coastal erosion. Doug Dugas/University of Louisiana at Lafayette