Louisiana tribe renews fight for federal recognition in the face of sinking lands, environmental disasters
On the fifth anniversary of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the United Houma Nation (UHN) of southern Louisiana is taking yet another stand in its 30-year campaign to win recognition, launching a petition this week calling on the Obama administration to support the tribe's fight for federal recognition.
The UHN is an indigenous tribe with 17,000 members residing in a six-parish area along the Gulf Coast where the land is literally slipping away from under them. Due to coastal erosion, southern Louisiana is losing over 16 square miles of land per year, or the equivalent of one football field every hour.
"The United Houma Nation is severely affected by coastal erosion, sea-level rise, and the lack of corporate and government accountability around the pollution of their traditional lands and waters," the petition states. "A lack of federal recognition limits how the Houma people can protect the delicate marsh, swamp and bayou ecosystems to sustain their food subsistence, cultural practices and economic livelihood."
The Gulf Coast has been eroding for decades due to levee building, oil pipelines that cut through coastal marshland and sea-level rise, but the BP oil disaster of 2010 exacerbated the situation, tribal members say. When the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and released over 3 million barrels of crude into the Gulf, the oil flowed into coastal wetlands, hurting fisheries critical to the local economy and culture and further contributing to erosion.
"The Gulf drilling disaster is an absolute threat to who we are as Houma people and our way of life," Principal Chief Thomas Dardar said in a statement. "Our homeland and the health of our people are at risk as we deal with the long-term effects of this catastrophe."
But despite being ground zero for past disasters and future threats in the Gulf Coast, the UHN has had difficulty accessing relief and recovery funds due to its lack of federal recognition. For example, following the BP disaster the tribe requested funding from BP for a case manager to assist members with their claims, but that request was denied due to the tribe's lack of status. That denial echoed the tribe's post-Hurricane Katrina experience when it didn't receive a single recovery grant from the federal government, again due to its lack of formal recognition.
"We got nothing at all from the federal government," then-Principal Chief Brenda Dardar-Robichaux told the Institute for Southern Studies in 2007. "Nothing."
Officially recognized by the state of Louisiana, the UHN has been petitioning for federal recognition since 1985. The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs rejected the tribe's request in 1994, and the UHN filed a rebuttal in 1996. The review process has been stalled since then, in part due to the series of disasters in the Gulf and more recently the BIA's revision of recognition requirements.
Oil interests are also obstructing the UHN's recognition because they want access to its lands, which could become protected if the tribe receives federal status, according to an NAACP report documenting the BP oil spill's impacts. Meanwhile, the Louisiana Land and Exploration Co., which operates as a subsidiary of oil giant ConocoPhillips, and other oil interests are working in Washington to cast doubt on the Houma's claim and lobbying key officials, reports the public affairs radio program Making Contact.
For years, the Houma people have been working to build support for recognition, which would provide greater opportunities not only for disaster relief but also for education, housing and health care. The UHN has partnered with groups like the Gulf South Rising initiative, with which it organized the Bayou Rising event last December to highlight the work and struggles of Gulf communities directly affected by climate change and other disasters.
The context now is very different from what it was nearly 35 years ago when the tribe first made its petition to the federal government, Chief Dardar told Facing South. He's hopeful that renewed efforts will help the tribe win federal recognition and thereby better support its citizens and build sustainability and resiliency in the community.
"It would make a world of difference," he said.
Allie is a research fellow at the Institute for Southern Studies and is currently studying at the Yale School of Management. Her research focuses on demographic change, immigration, voting and civic engagement.