Inside of his new home, Chris Brunet, left, talks with Jean Charles Choctaw Nation Chief Albert Naquin. Brunet asked Naquin to perform a sage smudging ceremony inside the house, which is part of the New Isle community of relocated inhabitants of Isle de Jean Charles in Terrebonne Parish. (Photo: Greg LaRose)
GRAY – The smell of burning sage is strong walking through the door of Chris Brunet’s brand new house. He was insistent a Native American smudging ceremony take place before he, his niece and nephew move in, so he called his tribe’s traditional chief, Albert Naquin, to perform it.
“We have something that’s survived, and the only way that that can be preserved is if it is practiced,” Brunet said.
Brunet is among the first members of the local Choctaw tribe to move from Isle de Jean Charles in Terrebonne Parish into an enclave of about two dozen homes – so far – about 40 miles away in Gray. Gov. John Bel Edwards was there Wednesday to mark the first closings on the development, which put house keys into the hands of new homeowners.
The federal government provided $48 million to move residents off Isle de Jean Charles, the island community that has become the textbook example of climate change in coastal Louisiana. Once covering an area that spanned 22,000 acres, sea level rise and hurricane storm surge have eaten away all but about 300 acres, on which a dwindling number of holdouts refuse to move.
The island is also the burial site for the tribe, which received official state recognition in February as the Jean Charles Choctaw Nation.
According to the governor’s office, 12 homeowners are part of New Isle’s first phase. It will ultimately consist of 37 houses for just shy of 100 residents by year’s end. Future plans call for an event space, market and community center.
Just up the street from Brunet, Bert Naquin, the chief’s niece, is finalizing plans to move into her new house. Her brother will move into the house next door, and her granddaughter has already asked to celebrate her birthday, Sept. 1, at New Isle. Naquin’s daughter, Crystal Williams, was with her Wednesday “for moral support.”
“I have a new house but my home will always be down the bayou,” Naquin said, adding that she has no intention to sell her family’s land on Isle de Jean Charles. She’s heard talk of interest from buyers who want to build fishing camps on the land that’s left, but neither she nor Brunet have gotten any offers.
An official relocation project for Isle de Jean Charles gained momentum in 2012 after Hurricane Issac pummeled the community and displaced long-time residents. While current efforts have targeted those inhabitants, anyone who lived on the island before Issac is eligible to build a home on a free lot in New Isle.
Officials with the state and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funded the relocation, met with tribe members for feedback on the community’s layout and home design. The structures were built to withstand a once-in-500-year flood, which Edwards half-jokingly said could happen tomorrow. A sidewalk, non-existent on the island and a rarity in rural Terrebonne, connects homes completed on one side of New Isle’s main drag, Pelican Lane.
Another member of the Naquin clan is among the first New Isle settlers. The Rev. Roch Naquin, a Catholic priest for 60 years, closed on his new home Wednesday. He followed remarks from the governor and other officials with a blessing for the families moving into the neighborhood.
“The family is especially important to the church and to civil society, for it is the primary life-giving community,” the priest said. He shared that he would adhere to the tradition of bringing a box of salt into his new home. According to folklore, salt is a symbol of permanence because it never spoils, and it is said to ward off bad spirits in some cultures.
Brunet’s family traces its lineage back five generations on the island. His 19-year-old niece, Juliette Brunet, and her brother, 20-year-old Howard, will move in with their uncle. Both were present for the smudging ceremony.
Juliette has organized a moving truck for everyone and stays on top of the stacks of paperwork involved with taking ownership of a new house. It’s a bit overwhelming to her uncle, who grew up accustomed to the do-it-yourself process on the island.
I'm grateful for it. But it's gonna be a while before I really feel like it's home.
– Chris Brunet, relocated resident of Isle de Jean Charles
“Less than 100 years ago, whenever you would build a house, you built a house and you started living in it. It was just the person who built the house and two or three (family members). They built the house, and then it was good,” Chris Brunet said.
Once surrounded by water and shrinking wetlands, the relocated Choctaw now have a mix of residential and light industrial properties fronting their homes a few hundred yards away on Highway 24. St. Louis Bayou, more of a drainage feature than navigable waterway, runs next to an undeveloped parcel behind the community. Edwards referenced the land in his remarks, indicating it would be part of future development.
While they appreciate all that went into their new homes, some Choctaw members interviewed expressed lingering resentment that more wasn’t done to save Isle de Jean Charles before it was necessary to relocate. Seemingly isolated from the outside world, they speak knowledgeably of the impact of global climate changes and measures that could have been taken to preserve what was their ancestral land for at least two centuries.
“Since nothing was done to save the island from coastal erosion more than it had suffered, I was forced to make a decision to relocate or not,” Brunet said. “So this house, yes, I’m grateful for it. But it’s gonna be a while before I really feel like it’s home.”
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