Native Americans in Louisiana swamps seek tribal recognition

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Posted: Nov 25, 2015 5:35 PM
Native Americans in Louisiana swamps seek tribal recognition

LAFITTE, La. (AP) — Giovanni R. Santini has done just about all he could to prove he's an American Indian over the decades he's lived in his Louisiana bayou town — even fighting with his fists to defend his bloodline with the Houma tribe.

"Every day at school they'd beat me up, bloody me up, for being Indian," recalled the 80-year-old Santini, who's worked on tugboats, laid pipelines and built homes. "We became good fighters because they beat us up so much. Even teachers didn't like me ... We earned our respect with fights!"

Today the folks in Lafitte, this town of fishermen and oilfield workers, don't doubt he's a proud member of the 17,000-strong tribe of Houma Indians scattered over south Louisiana's bayou communities.

Not so for the federal government.

For decades, efforts by the Houma to become a federally recognized native American tribe have failed. It's a story common across the nation for dozens of groups that have come up short while trying to prove they should be treated as sovereign nations.

But this could change.

In June, the Obama administration hit the reset button on how a tribe becomes recognized by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, or BIA. It's a sea change that's expected make it much less difficult for many tribes — including the Houma — to achieve tribal status.

The biggest difference is that a tribe now will have to prove its existence and cohesion starting only in 1900. Until now, tribes had to prove they'd been intact tribes — with unique identities, cultures and governance — dating to historical times. For the Houma, that meant tracing a history stretching back to 1682 when French explorers first wrote about them.

Besides the Houma, there are four other tribes alone in coastal Louisiana seeking sovereignty. And much is at stake: water rights, land rights, fishing rights, mineral rights and millions of dollars in federal aid. Sovereignty also brings taxation and law-making powers.

For south Louisiana's native Americans, obtaining federal recognition could be a major step for impoverished American-Indian communities in their struggle to survive and hold onto ancestral lands disappearing along the Gulf. Traditionally, these communities lived off the riches of the marshes — fishing, trapping and foraging.

Places like Lafitte have been battered by coastal erosion, loss of fisheries and environmental assaults such as the catastrophic 2010 Gulf oil spill.

"It's definitely a fight for survival," said Thomas Dardar, chief of the United Houma Nation. "The coast is being washed out. We just go from one disaster after another."

Facing such difficulties, the Houma tribe — which has been recognized as a tribe by the state — seeks to maintain its cohesion. It has a tribal council, sponsors cultural events, such as summer camps and pow wows, and has a cultural center in Golden Meadow.

It's far from clear what federal recognition would do for tribes pursuing claims over coastal lands rich in oil and gas. Most of south Louisiana is in private hands. But legal experts agreed that it was unlikely that Louisiana's coastal tribes suddenly would be given any large tracts.

"I don't think ConocoPhillips will have to turn all its lands over to the American Indians," said Mark Davis, a Tulane University law professor and expert on Louisiana's coastal issues.

Lawyer Patty Ferguson, a member of the Pointe-Au-Chien tribe, hopes her tribe can at the least have more power to save Indian mounds, burial sites and other tribal areas eroding into the Gulf.

"With federal recognition, we'll have more voice," Ferguson said.

The federal government presently recognizes four tribes in Louisiana — the Chitimacha, Choctaw, Chousatta and Tunica-Biloxi tribes, though these were historically larger and intact tribes living farther inland.

The Houma tribe pushed for federal recognition starting before World War II. Rejected by the BIA in 1994, the tribe has been appealing since. In the 90s, Louisiana politicians even sought tribal recognition through Congress but failed.

It wasn't that the Houma tribe couldn't prove they had native American ancestry. A Houma tribe was mentioned in French documents as early as 1682. The French said the Houma — with a red crawfish as their symbol — were living roughly where Baton Rouge is today and marked their territory with a "Baton Rouge," French for "Red Stick." Priests historically described the Houma as a rich culture with male and female leaders.

But the BIA argued the tribe eventually went extinct amid intermarriage and disease. It also rejected claims the Houma were an organized tribe, calling them an amalgamation of native American groups.

Many experts disagreed.

"They had a pretty strong case," said Mark Miller, a Southern Utah University history professor who wrote about the Houma petition in a book, "Forgotten Tribes."

Miller argues the Houma case revealed flaws in the tribal recognition process. He said the BIA relied too much on written records, of which none exist for the Houma. The group's isolation in Southern swamps also hurt its chances.

Greatly disappointed, Houma leaders said they've been discriminated against by a federal government more keen to protect Louisiana oil and gas development than defend tribes.

"There's too much involved," Santini said, interviewed in a small wooden home he built. "Too much land involved. They don't want to give the land back."

His front room exudes his native American spirit: Indian art is on display, a handmade spear graces the corner, and framed tribal documents and albums with ancestors' photos abound.

Like many native Americans, he claims his family was illegally forced off their land decades ago.

"The oil companies are the biggest ones to take our land," he said. With pride he added: "We're still Indian. They can't take that from me."