WASHINGTON – As Hurricane Rita ravaged the Gulf Coast just weeks after Katrina,neither storm pitied nine American Indian tribes entwined throughout the region.
While only a few tribal members died,intense floods ruined homes,and storm surges toppled fishing boats,leaving families devastated.
Meanwhile across Indian Country,the National Congress of American Indians,the National Indian Gaming Association,the First Nations Development Institute and others raised awareness,leading to an outpouring of support and $5 million in aid from more than 40 tribes. Wal-Mart contributed supplies for shelters,according to the NCAI.
“Indian Country can be proud,” said Robert Holden of the NCAI. “It shows that native people don't hesitate to help each other out in the time of need.”
Narrowly escaping Katrina but faring poorly during Rita,leaders of Louisiana's United Houma Nation,a state-recognized tribe dispersed on Louisiana's bayous and in Terrebonne Parish south of New Orleans,say they've been disappointed with federal and state support.
The Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana and the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe – both federally recognized – received mobile homes for displaced families and other supplies from Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross. But the Houmas,who aren't recognized as a tribe by the federal government,said they were left to fend for themselves.
“We've had nothing from them,” said Brenda Dardar Robichaux,United Houma Nation principal chief. “They've told us to fill out forms and go through the system.”
Robichaux said FEMA officials came to the Houma tribal center office to help individual tribal members apply for disaster assistance,but since then,nothing has been done.
FEMA Tribal Liaison Joseph Hesbrook said teams responded to the needs of federally recognized tribes,but tribes recognized by the state,to his knowledge,were treated like any other community.
“We treat the federally recognized tribes with public assistance directly through the tribal governments … on a government-to-government basis,” he said. “The Houma Nation would have gotten a little more direct help if they had federal status.”
Federal recognition might have given the tribe assistance with public buildings,roads and bridges as well as temporary shelters,Hesbrook said.
The United Houma have been applying for federal recognition since 1984. But the tribe did not qualify on three of the seven mandatory criteria that the Bureau of Indian Affairs needed to grant federal acknowledgment. The tribe was told in 1993 it lacked a distinct community,a leader and records of descendants. The tribe has continued to seek recognition from BIA.
Robichaux said the 16,000-member tribe is spread throughout Louisiana and is not defined by boundaries.
“If this isn't a community,I don't know what is,” she said.
With federal recognition,federal help would have been a phone call away,Robichaux added. “It would give us the status to have government-to-government relations,” she said.
Immediately after the storms,many Houmas who lived in New Orleans took shelter in the East Park Recreation Center in Terrebonne Parish,which took in nearly 400 people after Katrina hit,but was suddenly forced to close.
“There was a wedding reception planned at the center the following week,so the facility operator notified us that they wanted everybody out,” said Susan Felio Price,47,who directed much of the volunteer work at the shelter.
Barry Bonvillain,facility manager at East Park said that,after hosting evacuees for about nine days,the facility was needed for contractual rentals – a sportsman's league meeting and a couple of weddings.
“I told the Louisiana Office of Emergency Preparedness that our facility would be available until Sept. 10,which would've given those in need six more days of shelter,” Bonvillain said.
The building is non-profit and owned by the community and stays open only because of rental fees,Bonvillain said.
“The Office of Emergency Preparedness moved everybody a week before the deadline I gave them,” he said.
East Park was one of three facilities in the area that were consolidated to the nearby Houma-Terrebonne Civic Center. Evacuees could not take pets to the new shelter,which was crowded.
Price,who spent a week at East Park,said the shelter had everything from medical care to veterinary facilities and was based on “godly principals” rather than government regulations.
The move struck some Houma people hard. “Some natives opted to head back to their homes,even if unlivable,” Robichaux said.
“We're talking about communities that are extremely disadvantaged from the outset,” said Michael Roberts,vice president of First Nations Development Institute. “We need to look at economic development that needs to take place in those communities.”
Even with the $5 million in donations,Roberts said,“That's less than $1,000 per person. … That's not going to make a big economic difference.”
With some of the legislation brewing in Congress,including the Louisiana Katrina Reconstruction Act,which would allocate $250 billion to revitalize the area,tribes like the Houma don't want to be left out.
Holden and Robichaux said they see nothing in the bill for tribal communities and tribal governments affected by the storms.
“It's disappointing but not surprising that we're being left out again,” Robichaux said. Tribal members need to contact their representatives and remind them “we're an important part of Louisiana history and it's important that it is considered.”