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From Paris: Houma Chief Seeks Support For Tribe

From right, United Houma Nation first lady Noreen Dardar and principle chief Thomas Dardar with other members of the Gulf South Rising delegation from Louisiana. Dardar is in Paris seeking support for his coastal Louisiana tribe.
Monique Verdin
From right, United Houma Nation first lady Noreen Dardar and principle chief Thomas Dardar with other members of the Gulf South Rising delegation from Louisiana. Dardar is in Paris seeking support for his coastal Louisiana tribe.

International leaders continue negotiations Monday at the climate talks in Paris, and some Louisianans are there to advocate for their communities. One of those is principle chief of the United Houma Nation, Thomas Dardar.

The Houma have long inhabited south Louisiana but are not federally recognized as a Native American tribe, partly because the government requires that tribes have a central base, but the Houma population is very spread out.

But France recognizes the tribe’s sovereignty. The French first encountered Houma natives in coastal Louisiana in the late 1600's and formally issued a statement recognizing the tribe in the 1990's.

Dardar says the Houma are vulnerable to climate change because they live on a disappearing coast. WWNO’sTeganWendland asked him what his goals are at COP21. 


Credit Monique Verdin / http://moniquemverdin.com
Principle chief of the United Houma Nation, Thomas Dardar, outside the COP21 climate talks in Le Bourget, France.

Dardar: To learn what all of the other people are facing and to learn about some of the solutions that they’re coming up. I want to learn and hear how they’re tackling it. Because back home everybody identifies a problem but no one really has a solution, where some of these countries here are putting together great solutions to the problem and trying to minimize the damage and hurt to these communities.

Wendland: What have you learned so far in your few days here?

Dardar: The few days that I’ve been here the takeaway is that it’s always indigenous people that live along the coastlines – and they’re always having to meet what nature has to give us first. But now with climate change and the temperature rise and the polar caps melting, which rises the seas, these people on the coastlines are having to move out, the same as we are. And they are having to relocate and find another way of living, and what that does is changes their dietary habit -- not only changes their way of making a living but it also impacts their day-to-day livelihood.

Wendland: What do you think all indigenous communities share in common?

Dardar: The common thing that I see that all of us share is that we’re on the edge of society where we live and exist. The sea level rise will start to drive these people along the coastlines further in where they’ll start to lose their identity and the areas that they’ll move into – they’ll just start to melt into the stream and the fabric of that society and they’ll lose some of their own identity if we’re not careful.

Wendland: Tell me more about what it means to be on the margins of society, as you say – in your case, your nation is not recognized by the United States. Can you tell me a little about that and how it feels to be here in France where it is recognized?

Dardar: Yeah, and that’s the funny thing, we’re over here in Paris, France for the COP21 and to have Paris, that recognizes the United Houma Nation as a tribe, and back in the United States our own federal government for the last 30 years has denied us our federal recognition – and what the federal recognition would do for us is that we’d be able to build our communities to be more resilient and be able to tackle some of these problems and come up... instead of relying on someone else in that effort. Where we could be the voice and bring the change that would be necessary to sustain our way of living.

Wendland: So it seems like for you the symbolism of being recognized as sovereign is really important over here – can you give us any examples of what that looks like?

Dardar: Sure. We were at the United States, USDA presentation and after the meeting was done I went to the front to talk to the people that were doing the presentation and a person was up there, a gentleman, and he and I exchanged cards. And when he looked at my card -- you now how you give people cards, they look at it – then he took a second look and he started to turn away, but then he came back and he grabbed my hand and he said, ‘Oh, the chief of the United Houma Nation, it’s an honor to meet you, to see you and greet you here,’ and it was a person of color. So that made me feel good. Not really waiting to be recognized like that by another individual, and then he told me what nation he was from and we exchanged a few words. And that felt, in all actuality, it felt good. It really made me enjoy that time and moment to realize that when we do become federally recognized that when you go places, if not myself then the next person that will become Principle Chief of the United Houma Nation, that when they walk into a place they will say, ‘Here’s the Principle Chief of the United Houma Nation.’ And that in itself will be a welcome change from a lot of places that we go.

Wendland: Thank you chief Dardar of the United Houma Nation.

Dardar: Thank you.

Support for the coastal desk’s reporting from Paris is provided by the Foundation for Louisiana.

Support also comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Coypu Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.

Tegan has reported on the coast for WWNO since 2015. In this role she has covered a wide range of issues and subjects related to coastal land loss, coastal restoration, and the culture and economy of Louisiana’s coastal zone, with a focus on solutions and the human dimensions of climate change. Her reporting has been aired nationally on Planet Money, Reveal, All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace, BBC, CBC and other outlets. She’s a recipient of the Pulitzer Connected Coastlines grant, CUNY Resilience Fellowship, Metcalf Fellowship, and countless national and regional awards.

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