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Jean Charles Choctaw Nation challenges state resettlement plan in legal complaint to HUD

Aerial view of the Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana.
Wayan Barre
/
Le Louisianais
The Jean Charles Choctaw Nation has filed a federal civil rights complaint against the State of Louisiana over how it has executed a resettlement plan for Indigenous residents of the island.

This story was originally published by Le Louisianais.

ISLE DE JEAN CHARLES — The Jean Charles Choctaw Nation (JCCN), represented by EarthRights International, submitted Dec. 21 a formal federal civil rights complaint against the State of Louisiana and its Office of Community Development (OCD) for alleged discriminatory actions taken in the inception and administration of the Isle de Jean Charles Resettlement Program, which has received international coverage as a first-of-its-kind climate adaptation project.

“We put our hopes in the resettlement as a way to reunify our Tribe in a safe new home where we can pass on our culture,” said Démé (Jr.) Naquin, Chief of the Jean Charles Choctaw Nation. “Instead, they disrespected us, violated our sovereign rights, and made it harder to steward our ancestral lands. OCD and HUD have to make it right for our Tribal community to be whole, as originally planned.”

The complaint to the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) details a variety of violations by OCD under the federal civil rights law Title VI, which prohibits actions that have the intent or effect of discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin in government programs supported by federal funds.

Since 2014, HUD has provided the critical funding to support the ambitious resettlement project administered by OCD to resettle residents of Isle de Jean Charles, which has lost the majority of its land mass in recent decades to coastal erosion. The residents who signed up for the program have been moved about an hour north to a new development in the town of Schriever, baptized by OCD as the “New Isle.”

The complaint, filed by JCCN Chief Naquin and EarthRights lawyer Maryum Jordan, details how the Tribe initially developed a resettlement plan and applied for HUD funding to support it in collaboration with the Lowlander Center in 2013 after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers excluded the Island from the Morganza-to-the-Gulf levee protection system.

Upon HUD’s approval of the funds, the complaint argues that OCD and the State took a series of actions that had the intent and impact of discriminating against the Indigenous members of the JCCN by excluding the Tribe from decision making, allegedly thwarting Tribal members’ vision for the resettlement community, negatively impacting their futures in the New Isle, and undermining their property rights on the Island itself.

“OCD’s discriminatory actions violate Title VI and HUD’s Title VI implementing regulations,” said Jordan, climate justice attorney for EarthRights. “The agency took advantage of the Tribe’s resettlement design and then imposed unprecedented, draconian restrictions on Tribal members’ use of their Island properties once HUD awarded millions of dollars to OCD.”

According to the complaint, OCD took full control of administering the HUD funds, “downgrad[ing] the Jean Charles Choctaw National from a beneficiary of the grant to a mere stakeholder.” Subsequently, the complaint argues that OCD failed to consult Tribal leadership on nearly all the key decisions, reversing numerous aspects of the Tribe’s initial plan.

Specifically, the Tribe argues that OCD chose a flood-prone location and built structurally unsound homes in the “New Isle” resettlement community, rendering Tribal members once again vulnerable to flooding and hurricane damage. Additionally, OCD developed eligibility requirements that excluded Tribal members displaced from the Island before 2012 from participation in the relocation program.

“Forty-eight million dollars, 512 acres, and they built 32 homes with mediocre construction? This has been a failure,” said JCCN Chief Naquin.

The complaint argues that this exclusion of dozens of Tribal members native to Isle de Jean Charles from being able to join their relatives in the New Isle was particularly pernicious to the initial goal of the resettlement plan as developed by the Tribe: reuniting all of the original inhabitants of Isle de Jean Charles so the Tribe can maintain its community, culture, Indian French language, and way of life. The complaint argues that OCD further undermined this goal by removing cultural components of the resettlement plan, notably failing to complete construction on a community center for the New Isle.

OCD has previously argued that it was necessary to exclude the Tribe from a core role in the resettlement program due to the fact that a handful of Island residents were confused about Tribal identification or did not necessarily identify as members of the Jean Charles Choctaw Nation.

In addition to criticizing the process behind the development of the New Isle, the complaint also takes aim at a variety of recent infrastructure investments made by the State and Terrebonne Parish to fortify Isle de Jean Charles after most of its initial residents have been displaced. The entire resettlement plan was of course based on the assumption that the State would have to abandon Isle de Jean Charles, making it impossible for residents to remain.

Contrary to this assumption affirmed publicly by OCD and other entities of the State, the complaint points to over $50 million of infrastructure investments made in recent years to protect the Island, including a ring levee, a rock levee protecting Island Road, a marsh creation project, and new fishing piers and parking lots.

The complaint portrays these investments as part of a discriminatory scheme by the State to displace the original Native American residents of Isle de Jean Charles while subsequently facilitating the touristic development of the Island for non-Natives. To further support this claim, the complaint points to extreme property use restrictions that OCD imposed on Island residents who agreed to relocate, which effectively prohibit them from repairing, living in, leasing, or selling their Island homes. These restrictions notably do not apply to new residents of the Island.

Pat Forbes, Executive Director of OCD, previously told Le Louisianais and Télé-Louisiane that “allowing somebody to keep their land and their home on the land is unheard of. It’s never been done with federal funds before, and HUD recognized the importance of that place to this community and culture.”

According to Jordan of EarthRights, “OCD’s [administration] has been calamitous for tribal members, forcing some to live in unsafe, subpar housing, while others have fled the area altogether, causing them to lose their sense of community. With the effects of climate change pummeling coastal Louisiana, this situation is only expected to further devolve, which is why we are urging HUD to investigate OCD.”

To correct the discrimination alleged in the complaint, the Tribe and EarthRights have requested that HUD require the State to provide a transparent accounting of the program’s expenditures, implement the Tribe’s original resettlement plan including Tribal members displaced from the Island, provide direct funding to the Tribe to implement aspects of the resettlement, fortify homes in the New Isle to be able to withstand flooding and hurricanes, and finally remove the contractual provisions restricting Tribal members’ property rights over their homes on Isle de Jean Charles.

HUD will now review the complaint and determine whether to initiate an investigation of OCD and/or refer the complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice for a formal fair housing enforcement action against the State. Tribal leaders know that the path forward is unclear but say it was important to formally lodge their people’s complaints with the federal government.

Particularly important to Tribal members is maintaining Tribal ownership and stewardship of Isle de Jean Charles.

“I hope that the government gives the land on the Island back to the Indians who come from there instead of letting outsiders go there and take the land,” said Naquin. “It’s not for them; it’s for the people of Isle de Jean Charles.”