Bienvenue, Aiokpanchi, Welcome to Isle de Jean Charles.
Isle de Jean Charles is a narrow island, Chenier, deep in the bayous of South Louisiana. A place of immense physical beauty and great biodiversity, it is most importantly home to our Native American community, The Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians. Our language is French and our way of life is simple but abundant.
For the people of Isle de Jean Charles, the island is more than simply a place to live. It is the epicenter of our people and traditions. It is where our ancestors cultivated what has become a unique part of Louisiana culture. Today, the land that has sustained us for generations is vanishing before our eyes. Our tribal lands are plagued with a host of environmental problems — coastal erosion, lack of soil renewal, oil company and government canals, and a rising sea level — which are threatening our way of life, our culture and our identity on what has become our gradually shrinking island.
Isle de Jean Charles is located in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana, situated between Bayou Terrebonne and Pointe-aux-Chene, the Island is split down the middle by Bayou Jean Charles. Pointe-aux-Chene is the boundary between Terrebonne and Lafourche Parish. Before the establishment of Terrebonne parish in 1822, Terrebonne Parish was once part of Lafourche Interior Parish.
The growth and development of the community of Isle de Jean Charles started when Jean Marie Naquin, a Frenchman, married Pauline Verdin, a Native American. Jean Marie was disowned by his family for marrying an Indian, so he and Pauline moved to the land where Jean Marie’s father, Jean Charles Naquin (whom the Island is named after), had travelled many times to service the pirate Jean Lafitte—the land which is now known as Isle de Jean Charles.
All of Jean Marie and Pauline’s children, except their oldest daughter, married Indians. The Island’s first people were Naquin’s, and then Dardar and Chaisson families also moved on the Island as a result of intermarriage between these families. No one knows the actual date this occurred, but according to the oral history that has been handed down, it was in the early 1800s. Isle de Jean Charles was considered “uninhabitable swamp land” until 1876, when the State of Louisiana began selling the land to private individuals. Before this time it was illegal for a Native American to purchase land. The 1880 Terrebonne Parish Census listed the first land buyers as residents and included just four families, all related by marriage, that of Jean Baptise Narcisse Naquin, Antoine Livaudais Dardar, Marcelin Duchils Naquin, and Walker Lovell. Their nationality often times erroneously reported on early census documents as Mulatto or Negro, they have and continue to be Native Americans.
By the census of 1910, the area was officially called “Isle á Jean Charles” and had grown to sixteen families, all descendants of the first four families; a total of 77 people. The occupations of the men were fishermen, oystermen, or trappers. They lived off the land and the waters, maintaining their self-subtenant lifestyle, a tradition that continues today.
Isle de Jean Charles is the only community in the surrounding area which has had designated Chiefs from their historic time of settlement. The Chief ran the grocery store, was responsible for the mail, arbitrated disputes, represented the people of the island with outsiders, and gathered the residents for group work in the community. Each Chief named his successor, being the person he thought best qualified to fulfill the duties.
Jean Baptiste Narcisse Naquin, born in 1841 and died after 1910, was said to be the first Chief of the Indians on Isle de Jean Charles. Although no time period was given for this appointment, one would assume he was at least of middle age, which would be around the 1880's.
Jean Baptiste Narcisse Naquin passed the Chieftainship to his son, Jean Victor Naquin, before his death. Jean Victor Naquin was born in 1869 and died in 1956 at the age of 86 on Isle de Jean Charles. He is buried in Holy Rosary Cemetery, located in Houma LA.
Before his death, Victor passed the Chieftainship to his nephew, Antoine Martin Naquin who was also commissioned by Sheriff Prejean to keep law and order. Antoine was born 31 January 1896 and died at the age of 82 on 24 April 1978. He is buried in Bisland Cemetery at Bourg, LA.
Deme Naquin was Antoine’s assistant and apprentice. He became Chief upon appointment by Antoine. Governor Edwin Edwards appointed Deme as Representative to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for the State of Louisiana. Upon his retirement in 1997 he appointed his brother, Albert Paul Naquin, the present Chief. Chief Albert is a strong advocate with a great passion for his people. He is constantly seeking ways to maintain the culture, traditions and the way of life his Tribe has enjoyed for generations, all the while very aware of the issues the Tribe faces today.
The original dwellings on Isle de Jean Charles were built from a mixture of mud and moss (bousillage). The walls were about six inches thick, and covered on the outside with palmetto. “Dirt” floors (clay which after drying was as hard as concrete) were made higher than the ground level to keep out moisture. Floor mats were made of palmetto, and some say they were also used for sleeping. The homes had dome shaped roofs covered with palmetto. A smoke hole was left in the very center and could be closed in rainy weather. The houses were called “mud houses” and were in use up until the early 1900s. Constant repairs were needed for their upkeep. They provided little protection in hurricanes and none during flooding.
The early years on Isle de Jean Charles left the Native Americans to maintain their traditions and culture, there was no education except for that taught by Tribal members until the 1930’s.In the 1930s, a missionary school was built on the mainland at Pointe-aux-Chene. The children went by pirogue to school, traveling four miles each way by paddle or push pole. The school was run by the Live Oak Baptist Church and funded by donations from Baptists in Atlanta, GA.
Mr. Wenceslaus Billiot, a Tribal Elder of the Isle, was one of those students and said the school went up to the seventh or eighth grade. He was taught in English by Burton De Ville, whose son also attended the school with the Indian children. When the Superintendent of Education for Terrebonne Parish (Henry Louis Bourgeois) visited the school and saw the white child among the Indians, he refused to allow the boy to continue at that school and forced him to attend the white public school. Later, the Baptist Mission built a church on the island in the 1940s and it was used as a one-room school for the Indian children, called the “Mission School.”
After a public school was built on lower Pointe-aux-Chene for Indian children, the students from the Island began going by boat to attend that school in 1952. This school went to the eighth grade. Beyond that grade level, any child wanting to continue his education had to go to Daigleville Indian High School in Houma, LA, which began in 1959 and had its first graduating class in 1962.
This was the first Indian high school in the state, about 25 miles from Isle de Jean Charles and Pointe-aux-Chene. When the public schools were integrated in 1967, Indians were finally allowed to attend public schools with the other races. Before this many Tribal Member’s decided to relocate to other nearby community bayous and disguise their race so that their children could attend the white schools.
The Island Road
Until the “Island Road” was built in 1953, the only sure method of transportation to and from the Island was by boat. Previously, there had been a wagon path along a narrow ridge going to Point Farm and Bayou Terrebonne, but it was impassable at times of high water, which came in when the wind blew from the south or southeast.
In 1953, a road connecting Isle de Jean Charles to Pointe-aux-Chene was built through the marshland. In the past several decades, the marshland has eroded and turned into the open water, leaving the road vulnerable to erosion and flooding. Tribal elders today believe that the location of the road was not only an unwise one but the construction has added to erosion of the Isle. During high winds, the road frequently became submerged by water and impassable. During times of emergency, vehicles and help could not reach the island residents and school children had to be transported to Pointe-aux-Chene by boat or remain absent from school until the school bus could again travel the road. High winds and frequent flooding eroded large portions of cement turning the two-lane road into a single lane. After years of pleading to have the road repaired and built higher, the parish finally completed a $6.24 million restoration and elevation of the road in June 2011. Even today, after such a victory, many of the Island residents say if you do not get out before storm surges and hurricanes that there is no getting out. This proved to be true during Hurricane Isaac, a Category 1 Storm of 2012.
A levee system is being built to protect communities along Coastal Louisiana, but will bypass Isle de Jean Charles because the Army Corps of Engineers, as well as the State Restoration Plan has determined it is not cost-effective to extend it to include the island. This leaves our Tribal community even more vulnerable to the encroaching Gulf waters. We, as a barrier island, are first to face these issues which will surely become commonplace for many areas now well inland. Leaving our people, our traditions, and, our ethnicity in jeopardy. In essence, we are fast becoming climate refugees.