Indigenous residents of Jean Charles Island move into new homes but mourn the loss of their home

GRAY — The smell of burnt sage is strong as you walk through the door of Chris Brunet’s brand new home. He insisted that a Native American smudging ceremony be held before he, his niece, and nephew moved in, so he called in his tribe’s traditional chief, Albert Naquin, to perform it.

“We have something that has survived, and the only way to preserve it is to practice it,” Brunet said.

Brunet is among the first members of the local Choctaw tribe to move from Isle de Jean Charles in the parish of Terrebonne to an enclave of about two dozen homes – so far – about 40 miles in Gray. Governor John Bel Edwards was there Wednesday to mark the development’s first closings, which put the keys to the house in the hands of the new owners.

The federal government provided $48 million to relocate residents of Jean Charles Island, the island community that has become the epitome of climate change on the Louisiana coast. Once covering an area that spanned 22,000 acres, rising sea levels and hurricane storm surge have eaten away all but about 300 acres, on which a dwindling number of recalcitrant refuse to move.

The island is also the burial site of the tribe, which received official state recognition in February as the Jean Charles Choctaw Nation.

Albert Naquin, traditional chief of the Jean Charles Choctaw Nation. (Photo: Greg LaRose)

According to the governor’s office, 12 homeowners are part of New Isle’s first phase. It will finally consist of 37 houses for just under 100 inhabitants by the end of the year. Future plans include event space, a market and a community center.

Just up rue Brunet, Bert Naquin, the chef’s niece, is finalizing his project to move into his new home. Her brother will be moving into the house next door and her granddaughter has already asked to celebrate her birthday on September 1 in New Isle. Naquin’s daughter, Crystal Williams, was with her on Wednesday “for moral support”.

“I have a new house but my house will always be in the bayou,” Naquin said, adding that she had no intention of selling her family’s land on the Isle of Jean Charles. She has heard of interest from buyers who want to build fishing camps on the remaining land, but neither she nor Brunet have received any offers.

An official relocation project for Jean Charles Island gained momentum in 2012 after Hurricane Issac hit the community and displaced longtime residents. While current efforts have targeted these residents, anyone who lived on the island before Issac is eligible to build a house on free land in New Isle.

Bert Naquin, right, pictured with his daughter, Crystal Williams. Naquin is one of the original owners of New Isle, a community created for the inhabitants of the Choctaw Nation relocated from the Isle of Jean Charles in the parish of Terrebonne. (Photo: Greg LaRose)

Officials from the state and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funded the move, met with tribesmen to get feedback on the community layout and home design. The structures were built to withstand a flood that happens once every 500 years, which Edwards half-jokingly said could happen tomorrow. A sidewalk, non-existent on the island and a rarity in rural Terrebonne, connects the completed homes on one side of New Isle’s main thoroughfare, Pelican Street.

Another member of the Naquin clan is among the first settlers of New Isle. Reverend Roch Naquin, a Catholic priest for 60 years, closed his new home on Wednesday. He followed the governor’s and other officials’ remarks with a blessing for families moving into the neighborhood.

Reverend Roch Naquin (Photo: Greg LaRose)

“The family is especially important for the church and for civil society, because it is the main community that gives life,” said the priest. He shared that he would adhere to the tradition of bringing a box of salt to his new home. According to folklore, salt is a symbol of permanence as it never spoils and it is said to ward off evil spirits in some cultures.

The Brunet family traces its lineage back five generations on the island. His 19-year-old niece, Juliette Brunet, and her brother, Howard, 20, will move in with their uncle. Both were present for the purification ceremony.

Juliette has organized a moving truck for everyone and stays on top of the piles of paperwork related to taking possession of a new home. It’s a bit overwhelming for his uncle, who has grown accustomed to the DIY process on the island.

I’m grateful for that. But it’s going to take a while before I really feel at home.

– Chris Brunet, relocated resident of Isle de Jean Charles

“Less than 100 years ago, every time you built 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,” said Chris Brunet.

Once surrounded by water and declining wetlands, the displaced Choctaw now have a mix of residential and light industrial properties in front of their homes a few hundred yards down Highway 24. St. Louis Bayou, plus a drainage feature that a waterway, passes next to an undeveloped parcel behind the community. Edwards referenced the terrain in his remarks, indicating that it would be part of future development.

Newly built homes line the main street of New Isle,
Newly built houses line the main street of New Isle, a development in the parish of Terrebonne where residents of Isle de Jean Charles are relocated. (Photo: Greg LaRose)

While appreciative of all that has happened in their new homes, some Choctaw members interviewed expressed lingering resentment that more had not been done to save the Isle of Jean Charles before it was necessary to to relocate. Seemingly isolated from the outside world, they speak knowingly about the impact of global climate change and the steps 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 the decision whether or not to move,” Brunet said. “So this house, yes, I am grateful to him. But it’s going to take a while before I really feel at home.