It was early morning in the northern reaches of the Terrebonne Bay Estuary. I turned off the road leading to the community of Pointe aux Chênes, headed south, and followed the appropriately named 'Island Road;' after about 12 miles, I arrived at Îsle de Jean Charles. This small hamlet is, for all practical purposes, an island whose surface is just inches above the marsh, straddling a narrow ridge of land between bayous Terrebonne to the west and Pointe aux Chêne to the east. Its alternative French name could fittingly have been their word for peninsula - "Presqu'île" (literally, 'almost island'). On this bright, blue-sky day, patches of salt grass rustled in the wind, and the ever encroaching water lapped against the roadway's edge. I learned from a savez resident that the Island Road often floods during heavy rain. So it was no surprise that several signs along the route proclaimed 'Road under Water' and appeared to be permanent.
I believed I had entered a "time warp." This was a journey deep into our past - easing into an area that long ago was perceived by many potential settlers to be inhospitable swampland, but it did become home to Native American trappers and fishermen. In the late 19th Century, when the Louisiana legislature first authorized land purchases in this area, the ancestors of the Billots, Chaissons, Naquins, Dardars, and others put down roots and settled in this hauntingly beautiful and inaccessible place. It is and has always been known as a Native American community. Every resident of the 'island,' of roughly 220 people, is a member of the Île de Jean Charles band of the Biloxi-Chitimachas tribe of the Muskogee Confederation. I struggled to reconcile the joy that must have accompanied legal recognition of the tribe in 2001 with the likely bleak future facing its people.
I thought about the hardships of living at a site, where there is only one road in and out. I learned that before 1953, when the 'Island Road' was built, people did all traveling by boat. Before the road was opened even the most motivated individuals struggled to become educated while living in this remote place. They traveled in twos and threes by pirogue to attend a small school in Pointe aux Chênes that was funded in this heavily Catholic region by the generosity of Atlanta Baptists and the Live Oak Baptist Church. The daily trip to school meant paddling/push poling four miles each way. Difficulty in pursuing extensive education was compounded because the Pointe aux Chênes school went to only the eighth grade. Children who wanted to continue their education had to make a 50-mile round trip to the first 'Indian' high school in Louisiana at Daigleville, just east of Houma, beyond the Intracoastal Waterway. Then, when public schools in Terrebonne Parish were finally integrated in the 1960s, Indian children were allowed to enter those schools with other pupils. My husband, as a child, can recall listening to many heated adult debates about the pros and cons of school integration C something that seems so right and obvious to us now.
As I explored the island, it was easy to see the destruction to what was once high and dry terrain. What wasn't easy to come to grips with was the devastation of an ancient and important way of life wrought by continuing land loss. My artist friends who live in nearby Chauvin told me of the time when large herds of cattle were raised on high ground that has now disappeared. Today, there is no longer enough of it to raise livestock herds of consequence. Gardens are virtually impossible because of saltwater intrusion. Furthermore, houses, built on piers in hopes of escaping the effect of wind and high water, are all at great risk. I understand that many long-time residents have had to abandon the only place they ever called home under a government resettlement offer because its new hurricane protection plan leaves them out of its defense.
Once majestic live oaks C now "dead" oaks C stand near many of these houses as aging sentinels that remind all of what once was. As I passed many vacant places that were obviously once home sites, I wondered about the people who used to live there C who they were, what they did, and when and why they left. In the distant marsh I saw huge oil platforms with giant storage tanks - the only seemingly permanent things left around.
Finally, toward 10 am I found a boat launch site at the only local marina, operated by Theo Chaisson, who caters to numerous avid fishermen and hunters. I spent the next several hours afloat in the marsh and scouted for promising painting vistas. Meanwhile, it was difficult not to think about the island's shaky, uncertain future. After I was done, I headed up the bayou to the haven of higher ground.