Saturday, December 27, 2008

Klamath Tribes set to regain 90,000 acres of homeland

By Terri C. Hansen
Environment and Science Writer

CHILOQUIN, Ore. – It’s a new chapter in the history of the landless Klamath Tribes in southern Oregon. They’re buying back part of their lost reservation – and with that returns their tradition of caring for and being nurtured by their native land.

The Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin peoples who make up the Klamath Tribes, entered into an option agreement Dec. 18 to purchase the 90,000-acre Mazama Forest in south central Oregon near their tribal home of Chiloquin.

The forest was part of 1.2 million acres reserved for them in an 1864 treaty, but liquidated by Congress in 1954 during the now repudiated policies of the Termination Era. The tribe regained federal recognition in 1968 – but not their reservation.

"People have asked me, what will you do to get the land back? And I’ve told them, ‘whatever it takes,’" said Klamath tribal chairman Joe Kirk. "And now I’m excited." Two years ago the tribe asked the national conservation organization Trust for Public Lands for help in buying their land back. "They really beat the streets for us," said Kirk.

"The land is important to this wrongly terminated tribal nation," said Charles F. Sams, III, director of TPL’s Tribal and Native Lands Program. "It’s a major achievement in their long struggle back to cultural independence and economic self-reliance." The tribe plans to take ownership of the land this fall.

Not only will land provide the tribe with financial stability, "it’s a significant part of our spiritual and cultural identity," Kirk said. "There are culturally sensitive areas to take care of, that hopefully have not been lost to past activities."

The federal government will pay $21 million to cover part of the cost of the land, as part of the $1 billion Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, which includes the agreement last summer to remove four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River, blamed for destroying salmon runs in the river and in the Pacific Ocean.

A handful of locals in the rural communities of the Klamath Basin don’t much like the plan. "Why should the taxpayers foot the bill to buy land to establish a separate country for the Klamath Tribes? Isn’t this fostering separatism, apartheid and racism?" asked a letter to the editor signed "we in the Basin Alliance."

And last August the group, who calls itself the Klamath Basin Alliance, Inc., placed a display ad in the local paper asking readers to sign a form that would reject the land agreement. The ad, which didn’t list any groups or people who make up the "Alliance," argued that the Klamath Tribes sold their reservation as "willing sellers," and they’ll get 92,000 acres of land bought with "taxpayer money."

But the ad was deceiving. The federal government is paying about two-thirds the cost of the yet to be appraised land. The Klamath Tribes is responsible for the rest.

In treaties with the United States, the Klamath peoples ceded 18 million acres of prime timber and farmland for guarantees in perpetuity of their sovereignty, a 2.2 million acre reservation, the protection of their natural resources, and social services that included health care, education, and housing.

By 1953, the tribe was nearly at an economic par with mainstream society. Tribal members didn’t receive land payments when they were terminated; instead they were paid for the value of the ponderosa pine on the land. The loss of land and social services for the tribe following termination is estimated well in excess of $200 million.

Racism and bigotry is hard for Kirk to understand. "I think we should maintain our identities, and emphasize our commonalties," he said. The tribe is looking to foster good will among the tribes’ non-supporters. "The tribe is the fourth largest employer in the county. It has a rippling effect. Say if our casino closed, folks working for the Pepsi plant would lose their jobs."

The tribe has developed a forest restoration and management plan for the Mazama Forest that will be a cornerstone for their economic development. Improving the health of the forest is a priority.

"Portions of the land have been over-harvested, and some hasn’t been managed well at all," Kirk said. The tribe plans to manage the forest in an environmentally sound manner to provide a steady supply of timber to their tribal enterprises planned at the tribes’ Giiwas Green Enterprise Park, 25 miles from Chiloquin.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

First deaths from Ike in La.'s Terrebonne Parish Native communities

by Terri C. Hansen, Environment and Science Writer

News from Indian Country

Terrebonne Parish, La. -- Floodwaters produced by Hurricane Ike have proven devastating to the Franco-influenced Native American communities in southern Louisiana.

The first deaths caused by the hurricane were in the predominantly Native populated Terrebonne Parish. A 16-year-old Houma tribal citizen drowned on Saturday, September 13 in his Bayou Dularge home. The youth was found by his 24-year-old brother with his foot caught in a porch that apparently gave way, face down into the floodwaters. Authorities have not released his name.

Another Terrebonne resident, 52-year-old Donald Celestine was found Saturday morning with a broken neck from being blown into a pole by heavy winds.

The Terrebonne Parish, on the edge of the Louisiana delta is home to United Houma Nation, Pointe-au-Chien and Beloxi-Chitimacha tribal communities. Flooding was widely reported in coastal towns with largely Native populations. The National Guard has 150 guardsmen and a high water rescue vehicle in the parish. With the assistance of the U.S. Coast Guard they responded to “a lot of calls” from citizens stranded in houses and rooftops in the towns of Dulac, Montegut, Chauvin and Theriot. 22 people were rescued.

Calls to Houma Nation sources Saturday and Sunday were unsuccessful. Houma Principal Chief Brenda Robichaux, who stayed during both Gustav and Ike, is blogging with a generator. On Saturday she wrote, “I don’t need news reports to tell me what is happening. We find ourselves with many of our communities totally covered with flood waters.” She said tribal citizens who remained in their homes told her that the flooding was worse than Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. The degree of damage cannot be known until the flood waters recede. Wal-Mart has provided their community food and goods.

On Sunday, Robichaux wrote, "I am emtionally drained and look to Creator for strength and guidance to get through these difficult times."

Charles Verdin, chief of the Pointe-au-Chien tribe in Montegut was surprised when his telephone rang. “We’ve had service off and on,” he said. Their community was completely flooded. “Gustav hit us bad. Now we have a whole new set of problems.”

Verdin said at least half of their 80 or so homes were damaged or destroyed, and their roads are flooded so the people who stayed can’t get into Houma for food and other relief help, though “most of my people evacuated to Houma. “Most of our people are fishermen, and their fishing areas are flooded.” But they won’t relocate, he said. “They’ll stay with nearby relatives, and rebuild their homes to put their families back in to.”

Just off the Pointe-au-Chien Bayou live the Beloxi-Chitimacha, on a narrow ridge of land called the Isle de Jean Charles. “Hurricane Gustav hit us with a left hook, and Ike got us with a right hook,” Chief Albert Naquin said. “We’re totally under water.” Ike was the worst hurricane they have experienced, he said, with 18 homes destroyed. All island residents evacuated to shelters in Houma, except for a 69-year-old man, “who survived the ordeal.”

Naquin’s attention now is focused on getting temporary housing from FEMA. He fears their response might be no.

The Governor’s office reported that the parish of St. Mary where the Chitimacha Tribe is located has 40 National Guardsmen and a high water rescue vehicle in the parish. The guardsmen conducted door-to-door searches and rescued 18 people, and 12 Military Police are assisting the local sheriff with security efforts.

Sherry Parfait, a Houma tribal member who grew up in Terrebonne Parish, said over the past 20 years the hurricanes had caused many of the Houmas to move inland but for some families, like her mom’s family in Dulac, “It’s just the laid-back, close-knit family lifestyle and their jobs in the seafood industry that keeps them where they are.”

Naquin used to agree. “Everything here is tied to the water,” he said. “The older ones are fishermen. Others work on boats or in the shipyard.” In 2000 the Army Corp of Engineers offered to relocate the community as a whole and move them into new homes, and provide a new community center. “That was before Katrina or Rita,” he said, “and only 80 percent of the community agreed.” The Corp required that 100 percent of the residents agree. “Now,” he says, “we need to strongly consider it if the Corp proposes it again.”

Coastal Terrebonne Parish is disappearing into the Gulf of Mexico, its waters lapping closer and closer to these communities over the years. It used to be that vast marshes and swamps blocked all but the worst storm surge coming off the Gulf of Mexico. Every two miles of healthy wetlands a storm travels though knocks down the storm surge by a foot. But the levees on the Mississippi River have gradually eroded the wetlands and to save and rebuild them, the river would have to be directed back into the delta.

A gap between levees in the Pointe-au-Chenes area has left these communities unprotected from floodwaters. When a plan to build a hurricane-protection system was stymied the Terrebonne levee district began building portions of the levee themselves, only to be stopped by a $24 million dollar lawsuit filed last May by the environmental group Save Our Wetlands, who claims their lawsuit could save more than 160,000 acres of wetlands.

They allege much of those wetlands would end up behind the levees and later be developed into subdivisions eventually destroyed by storms, similar to the levees that failed New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. In a letter to then Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a group of scientists said the project "will not only destroy wetlands, acting as a hurricane tidal-surge buffer," but would "promote development into low-lying areas extremely susceptible to hurricane tidal surges."

The United Houma Nation Relief Fund, set up after Katrina, is still active. To donate visit their website

Monday, September 15, 2008

United Houma Nation communities bear brunt of Gustav

By Terri Hansen, Today correspondent

Chitimacha Chief Lonnie Martin said Sept. 3 that some power to the reservation was returning, and most of the residents who evacuated had returned. “A lot of trees are down and there are some roofs damaged but, thankfully, no flooding,” Martin said. The BIA provided federal relief with bottled water and “meals ready to eat,” or MREs, “which our police officers are distributing to the residents as we speak.”

Martin said the Houma tribal communities in Terrebonne received the brunt of the storm with high winds, tornado activity and flooding. Hurricane Gustav has been declared a “major disaster,” meaning those residents are eligible for federal funding for housing and recovery through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

That funding could include money for home repair, temporary housing and other recovery costs, although it was reported after hurricanes Katrina and Rita that they had difficulties accessing those funds.

Houma Principal Chief Brenda Dardar Robichaux blogged Sept. 3 that they were without power, but a generator enabled their communication by Internet.

Robichaux traveled to every Houma community that was accessible by car, reporting extensive damage with power lines and trees down. The most extensive damages were to the community of Dulac, where, she wrote, “we witnessed everything from minor wind damage to total loss of use, with most homes in need of major repairs.”

“It is unknown when the people will be allowed back home. The unavailability of re-entry causes a financial burden, which has great cause for concern – compared to an unplanned vacation with lodging, gas and eating expenses. It’s heartbreaking to see the Houma Nation community going through this again just three years after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.” Immediately after those storms hit, the Houmas’ situation was dreadful enough that the National Congress of American Indians rented a plane to fly local leaders over their communities ... and what they saw was nothing. At the time, Robichaux said, “people’s homes looked like they never existed; their homes were simply gone. They are all fishermen, and their boats were ashore, somewhere inland.”

The United Houma Nation Relief Fund, set up after Katrina, is still active. To donate, visit

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Gustav hits Louisiana tribes

By Terri Hansen
Environment and Science Writer
Indian Country Today

Gulf Coast, La. - The eye of Hurricane Gustav slammed into Morgan City on the Louisiana Gulf coast about 30 miles southeast from Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana just after noon yesterday, causing heavy damage. The center of the storm then moved northwest directly into the Chitimacha Reservation at near 15 mph, with top winds of 105 mph. Damages to the reservation in Chareton, St. Mary Parish, have not been reported but early Monday morning power outages were reported throughout the parish. Tuesday morning telephone calls to their tribal police department were not answered nor was there voice mail, indicating a power outage there.

The National Weather Service in New Orleans upgraded a Flash Flood Watch to a critical Flood Warning for the entire parish of St. Mary in a bulletin issued at 9:30 p.m. Monday night. Marked Immediate Broadcast Requested, it warns residents, ;'Do not drive through flooded areas. Two feet of rushing water can carry away most vehicles. Turn around and don't drown.'' Residents who stayed should stay tuned to NOAA Weather Radio, and local TV and radio stations.

Gustav made landfall as a Category 2 hurricane, with hurricane-force winds extending outward up to 70 miles from the center, and tropical storm force winds extending out 200 miles. A tropical storm warning with possible hurricane conditions was still in effect for the area as of 4:30 p.m. Monday, with winds of 45 to 55 mph with gusts to around 75 mph, decreasing to 30 to 40 mph with gusts to 50 mph after midnight. The storm is forecast to weaken as it moves inland.

The Chitimacha tribe is in the bayous on the Gulf Coast in South Louisiana, 100 miles southeast of New Orleans. About 350 of their 900 tribal members live on the reservation. The tribal council ordered a mandatory evacuation Sunday morning, and buses were provided to evacuate those with no transportation, tribal police Officer Ellen Hebert said. About 60 to 70 percent left and of those who stayed, ''They're on their own. We have no shelters open.'' Tribal members who refused to leave were told to ''bunk down; you're on your own. We will get to you as soon as it's safe to get back on the streets, after we assess damage and make evaluations.''

The tribal police force of 22 officers stayed, as did the fire department. ''We've secured the casino, and boarded up the government buildings,'' tribal firefighter Earl Tyler said Sunday, who had ''strongly'' suggested tribal members leave. The school and an assisted living center were potential shelters after the hurricane passed, though the extent of the damages is not yet known. Nor is it known when residents can safely return.

The hurricane wind warning was downgraded to a tropical storm warning as of Monday night, but a Flash Flood Warning for the inland Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana is in effect until 3 p.m. Tuesday, and a Flash Flood Watch is in effect for the further inland Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana until Tuesday afternoon. Heavy rainfall and thunderstorms are expected over the central Gulf coast, with tornados still possible. Gustav is expected to slow significantly, causing major flooding Tuesday and Wednesday across inland Louisiana, parts of Texas, and southern Arkansas.