Their ancestors fled the Trail of Tears and found refuge nearly 200 years ago on an island on Louisiana's Gulf Coast. But now that home on Isle de Jean Charles is slipping into the sea, a consequence of coastal erosion, subsidence and climate change. Frequent floods and increasingly ferocious storms have washed away heirlooms, destroyed houses, scattered families.
Once more, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians face displacement. This time, though, they aim to confront it on their own terms.
A key to their success may lie amid a collection of ancient artifacts and faded photos nearly 1,200 miles away. There, at a Smithsonian Institution facility in Suitland, Md., three generations of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaws just spent a week painstakingly sifting through materials from their tribe's past. They were looking for evidence to supplement their petition for official “acknowledgment” from the federal government — a decades-old effort that has gained new urgency as the state of Louisiana moves to resettle the last island residents.
“We are searching to reclaim what was lost,” said Chantel Comardelle, a 35-year-old Terrebonne Parish employee who dreams of running a tribal museum.
The artifacts are proof of where her people have been and how they have endured — the kind of details the government requires to establish connection to a historic tribe.
But the Smithsonian’s collections also contain a century-old mistake that has hindered their bid for recognition. To take control of their future, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw must not only resurrect the past — they must correct it.
Comardelle, the tribe’s executive secretary; her father, Deputy Chief Boyo Billiot; and her great-uncle, Chief Albert Naquin, arrived at the Smithsonian as part of its Recovering Voices community research program. The initiative invites native scholars to learn from and contribute to the collections of the National Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of the American Indian.
“We want to trace our roots,” the 71-year-old Naquin told the staff who greeted them.
Naquin charts his heritage back to members of the Choctaw tribe who lived in what is now Alabama and Mississippi. In the 1830s, they were among the tens of thousands of Native Americans who were brutally uprooted from the southeastern United States and marched to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. Thousands died from cold, starvation and cholera during what one Choctaw chief called “a trail of tears and death.”
Somehow, somewhere in Louisiana, a few Choctaws escaped and traveled south, mingling with white settlers and members of other tribes, mixing their traditions with new practices picked up on the coast. One native woman married a Frenchman, and together they settled Isle de Jean Charles — a lush, low-lying sliver of land that for more than 100 years was reachable only by boat.
Isolated on their island, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw were mostly protected from the forces that devastated other native communities: land seizures, racial violence, the forced placement of children in often abusive boarding schools. Naquin was 7 when the first road was built connecting Isle de Jean Charles to the mainland. “If you see a car coming,” his mother used to warn him, “go hide.”
“We hid for a long time,” he said.
Most of the Smithsonian artifacts were gathered by early-20th-century researchers conducting “salvage anthropology,” as Recovering Voices program assistant Judith Andrews terms it. Convinced that Native Americans were destined to die out, these scientists chronicled cultures with a clumsy “graveyard mentality.”
That is part of why the Smithsonian so values visits like the one made by Naquin's group, Andrews said. The tribe members’ insights will help improve records — adding context and nuance that anthropologists overlooked when they visited communities generations ago.
Though most of the materials predate Naquin and Billiot, the version of the Louisiana coast they represent is not so different from the place where both grew up. A broad Choctaw basket collected in Mississippi resembles the sifters that Naquin’s family used when catching shrimp. A 122-year-old dugout canoe, hewed from the dark wood of a cypress tree, looks just like the ones in which Billiot's uncle plied the waters of their bayou. Two squinting men in a yellowed photograph reminded Comardelle of a family who once lived up the road.
Holding these objects, Billiot said, “feels like coming back home.”
The connection to such anthropological artifacts offers “an identity trajectory that can be proven,” explained Gwyneira Isaac, director of the Recovering Voices program. “It allows them to say, ‘These materials, these techniques, this way of life is our way of life.’”
Yet the collections also offer stark reminders of how much the trio's memories have fragmented and the land that sheltered and sustained their people has changed. Naquin and Billiot examined a basket woven from cypress splints. “We used to have one just like that,” the chief said, gently lifting it with two gloved hands.
“Do you still make them?” a curator asked.
No, responded Billiot, who is 65. Cypress no longer grows on Isle de Jean Charles. The encroaching saltwater has choked all the trees, rendering them skeletal and gray.
Since 1955, 98 percent of the island’s land mass has been lost to the sea. High tides and strong winds routinely submerge the lone road to the mainland. Naquin was forced to leave in 1974, after Hurricane Carmen destroyed his home and made it impossible for him to drive to work. Billiot followed in 1985, the year two storms struck in rapid succession, producing mold so bad that Comardelle, then 4 years old, developed breathing problems.
Not long after Naquin became chief in 1996, the Army Corps of Engineers offered to help move his community someplace less vulnerable. Naquin initially reacted with alarm, fearing that “it would be a modern-day Trail of Tears.” But then he considered how his life had changed since he had moved off the island; he hadn’t lost a piece of furniture in two decades. So many others had also fled — why not build a home they could all flee toward?
After two failed attempts, last year the tribe was awarded a grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development: $48 million to relocate the 25 remaining families — including Naquin’s sister and Billiot’s nonagenarian parents. A location for the new community has not been selected; the state is considering several sites about an hour’s drive inland.
In their application for HUD funding, Naquin, Billiot and Comardelle laid out an idyllic vision: hurricane-proof houses arranged in the same pattern as the buildings on the island, and not just for tribe members leaving the island but for more than 200 other families who have long been scattered across the state. There would be a grocery store where the community could gather for gossip and coffee and beignets. Comardelle, who is taking online classes for a certificate in museum studies, would direct a tribal museum preserving the culture and ecology of the island they left behind.
It’s unclear how much of that vision will become reality. The resettlement grant is being administered by Louisiana’s Office of Community Development, and not always according to the tribe’s preferences. In September, officials hired an architecture firm to design the new community — a move that Naquin and Comardelle said replicates work the tribe has already done and needlessly spends precious resources.
The desire to have more say in the resettlement process has raised the stakes of the tribe’s bid for federal acknowledgment. In 2015, the Bureau of Indian Affairs found that the group hadn’t sufficiently demonstrated a link to a historic tribe. The rejection noted that “they do not claim descent from the Houma tribe, although . . . members and ancestors have been called ‘Houma’ Indians since at least 1907.”
That mix-up was spawned by Smithsonian anthropologist John Swanton, who visited southeast Louisiana at the turn of the 20th century and misidentified many of the people he encountered.
Sitting in the archives, looking at a photo Swanton appeared to have mislabeled, Naquin grimaced. “Swanton just tore us up,” he lamented. “He created a monster we can’t fix.”
But reference archivist Caitlin Haynes handed the group a correction form.
“Just write down what you know,” she said, and the museum will amend the record. “We want you guys to be the authorities.”