Gulf of Mexico
Kezia Setyawan/Houma Courier-Thibodaux Daily Comet

LA - Without federal recognition, coastal tribes struggle to access FEMA aid after Ida

According to a June 2020 FEMA policy, state-recognized tribes should be treated as local governments rather than tribal governments, with a nation-to-nation relationship with the federal government. Without federal recognition, many of Louisiana’s coastal tribes are left navigating a complex bureaucracy in a moment of crisis. Tribal leaders said that since Ida — one of the most powerful hurricanes to hit the state in recorded history — they have had to bounce among parish, state and federal agencies in attempts to get crucial recovery resources. Coastal Louisiana tribal leaders are calling for that to change.

On a Saturday afternoon in October in Dulac, residents drove through the Anchor Foursquare Church parking lot to pick up supplies for Hurricane Ida recovery. At the end of the line, Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar and Loyola University of New Orleans law student Emily Torrey handed out items, including hurricane coping kits for kids and an aid application for residents.

Debris lingered everywhere: toppled trailers, downed trees, boats sunk in the bayou. Below the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway in Terrebonne Parish, an estimated 60% or more of the homes were destroyed by Ida. Many Native American residents who reside down the bayou said it looked like a bomb went off.

Parfait-Dardar’s unfinished home was destroyed; the foundation shifted and the roof and walls blew off. She understood the challenges of applying for aid, so she wanted to spend time checking with tribal members and other residents nearby about navigating Federal Emergency Management Agency processes.

More: Vulnerable students still hitting obstacles three months after Hurricane Ida

The goal was to collect information from residents to use for coordinating volunteer crews who are coming to help with mucking, gutting and rebuilding in lieu of substantial government assistance.

“It’s hard, but I knew what I was getting into," Parfait-Dardar said. "My elders did the same, you know? Resiliency comes from them.”

The Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw is a state-recognized tribe, so they don’t have a direct relationship with FEMA. Federally recognized tribes — self-governed, sovereign nations — can request a presidential emergency or major disaster declaration independently from states, apply for public assistance for recovery directly, and access grants repairs or projects that help prevent future damage.

Without federal recognition, many of Louisiana’s coastal tribes are left navigating a complex bureaucracy in a moment of crisis. Tribal leaders said that since Ida — one of the most powerful hurricanes to hit the state in recorded history — they have had to bounce among parish, state and federal agencies in attempts to get crucial recovery resources.

They described issues accessing both major types of FEMA aid:

  • Individual assistance for tribal members, which provides money to households for rebuilding and personal property loss.
  • Public assistance that reimburses tribes for services such as debris removal and infrastructure repair.

According to a June 2020 FEMA policy, state-recognized tribes should be treated as local governments rather than tribal governments, with a nation-to-nation relationship with the federal government.

Coastal Louisiana tribal leaders are calling for that to change.

“We need direct interaction with FEMA as community leaders, as tribal leaders,” Parfait-Dardar said. “Our people and community as a whole are not getting all of the information that they need to be able to do the repairs and do the rebuilding and heal the community so that we can become contributing parts of society again.”

Long fight for federal recognition

Indigenous peoples in coastal Louisiana have sought federal recognition for their tribes since the 1970s, at first as one larger unit and later separately. The United Houma Nation, the Biloxi-Chitimacha Confederation of Muskogees and the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe all have active petitions with the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Federal Acknowledgement.

The federal recognition process requires tribes to essentially prove their history — their ancestry and political authority, among other factors — to the U.S. government. They often have to produce written accounts from white historians and anthropologists, themselves involved in the subjugation and erasure of Indigenous communities, if they exist at all.

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