Jean Charles

University of Louisiana at Lafayette associate professor Heather Stone, Ph.D., is cataloging the history and culture of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe of the shrinking Isle de Jean Charles to use their experiences to demonstrate the necessity of knowing the coast in decision making and planning for relocation.

Stone said changes that have been made on the Mississippi River or the levee system, which were made without thinking about what was going to happen downstream, has affected the tribe to the point where they now have to relocate.

“We need to think about the long-term effects and not just from the viewpoint of engineers, but from the community perspectives,” Stone said. “Doing fieldwork is when you realize how much local people know and can help when you're making big decisions like that.”

An example of a lack of community perspective is in the one road to and from the island, according to Stone. The road was constructed on marshland, causing it to continually sink.

“There's one way off the island, and it floods frequently, so for access to medical (care) and education and work it’s really hard to live there,” Stone said. “If they had been advised by people who live on the island, it would have gone a different way.”

Because of natural and mostly man-made coastal erosion, Isle de Jean Charles has lost 2,000 square miles of land in the past century, according to Residents of the island have been given a $48 million grant to relocate, the first of its kind to move an entire community struggling with climate change. The New York Times has dubbed the residents the world’s first climate refugees.

“I do know that they have been given that distinction from the New York Times and other people, but it's not just about climate,” said Stone. “It's erosion.

“Also they’re not refugees,” she distinguished. “They’re from here.”

According to Stone, the tribe became self-sufficient with livestock and trees on the island, unaware of even the Great Depression, after being forcibly relocated to the island during the Indian Removal Act. Since the erosion, saltwater incursion killed their trees and made water undrinkable for the animals, making it a challenge to stay.

“It's not like they can pick everything up and move. Native Americans have a tie to the earth, a strong connection to it,” Stone said. “They were indigenous to this land. They're going to have to adapt. They have some ideas on how. The goal is to put the community back together.”

The move wasn’t just about relocating the small number of people that still live on the island, Stone said, but about bringing back the whole tribe of people who have had to move to a place where they can create a makeshift version the paradise they have lost on Isle de Jean Charles.

“They're not going to be the only ones that have to relocate,” said Stone. “What makes them special, though, is that they are a tribe, trying to relocate as a community not just individuals moving somewhere inland.

“I really believe that to save the coast, we have to know the coast,” she continued. “After speaking with the tribe, they wanted to be able to use their experiences to teach others about the decisions we make about the environment and how that’s going to affect our futures.”

Oral histories have been Stone’s preferred method of research, now using a 360-degree camera and putting those videos into virtual reality for students in some eighth grade classrooms. Students can see the community through Stone’s eyes while she is interviewing someone who has seen his island decimated over the last 90 years.

“To teach students about something that's authentic and happening right down an hour away from them in Lafayette is really critical,” Stone said.

“The last one we did was on erosion and I asked a young lady when she finished watching it, I said, ‘What was your favorite part?’ and she goes, ‘Oh my gosh. We've been studying erosion for a week and a half and it didn't really sink in until I heard from the people who are going through it, what they were really going through,’” she said. “And that's what this is all about.”

Stone says her work is a cooperation not possible without the help from the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe and Chief Albert Naquin and the access that he's allowed.

“They've been through so much but they're still trusting and welcoming and I mean I've been around two years so everyone's gotten to know me down there in the tribe, but they're just a lovely group of people and they just want to share their story in hopes that it helps others and they welcome people to come down there and talk to them and hear about what's going on,” Stone said.

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