July 10, 2007
Houma women feel they must be the strong ones. I had to tell people they had a right to feel bad.—Brenda Dardar Robichaux, principal chief of the United Houma Nation and founder of the United Houma Nation Relief Fund, Lower Plaquemines, St. Bernard, Jefferson Parishes, Louisiana
Where Brenda Dardar Robichaux grew up in Southeast Louisiana, 46 miles from New Orleans, “up the bayou, down the bayou, across the bayou,” replaces North, South, East, and West. The town of Golden Meadow and its surroundings have been home to the United Houma Nation for generations.
Robichaux’s father was an oyster and shrimp fisherman; her grandfather, a “traiteur,” or healer. Her father left school after 7th grade, because that was as far as Native Americans were allowed to go. Hers was the first generation to integrate regular public schools and then graduate from high school. Robichaux’s mother served on the tribal council of this matriarchal tribe—a preview of Robichaux’s own tireless service to the United Houma Nation in her non-paying job as principal chief. Professionally, she works for the school board, helping meet the academic and cultural needs of Native students.
“I remember growing up and thinking, I’m never getting involved in tribal politics,” Robichaux said. “And then I ran for principal chief and won with 74 percent of the vote. Four years later, I ran unopposed and won. It is a labor of love.” In the wake of Katrina, she started the United Houma Nation Relief Fund to help thousands of tribe members return home and rebuild.
The United Houma Nation—whose 18,000 members make it the largest tribe in Louisiana—live at what became the intersection of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. First, Katrina left 1,000 members homeless in the tribe’s small settlements in lower Plaquemines, lower St. Bernard and lower Jefferson parishes. Then, as the tribe began to marshal their resources to recover, Hurricane Rita pushed a massive storm surge into the bayous further west of New Orleans, devastating the homes of 4,000 more tribe members in Dulac, Grand Caillou, Montegut, Pointe-aux-Chene, and Isle de Jean Charles, all in Terrebonne Parish.
When Katrina hit, Robichaux and her husband were on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota attending a tribal conference. By the time they returned to Louisiana, people were already stranded at the airport. Robichaux organized the tribe to begin searching for members and addressing basic needs.
To help gather resources, Robichaux’s husband cleared out his grandfather’s general store. Closed for 50 years, the store with its tin roof and faded American flags painted on the shutters was soon overflowing with donated clothes, food, water, cleaning supplies, and plastic containers. “The attitude in the store was comforting,” said Robichaux. “People only took what they needed. That’s the spirit in our people.” When the story of Robichaux’s good works was picked up by Native radio and the mainstream press, people from other tribes, from churches and from across the United States responded. With their help, the United Houma Nation Relief Fund would eventually provide assistance to some 8,000 Houma families.
Immediately after the storms hit, however, the situation was dire. Robichaux remembers flying over Plaquemines Parish and becoming “physically ill. The village of thirty families had nothing left—people’s homes were simply gone. They are all fisherman, and their boats were ashore, somewhere inland.”
Robichaux traveled down the bayou in her husband’s truck. Reaching a point where water still covered the road, they loaded the food and drinking water into pirous, dugout canoes made from cypress. One day at 11:30 they got a call informing them that people had to leave the local shelter by noon. The tribe members were in total despair. People saw everything they owned on the side of the highways, with black sludge everywhere. Robichaux had never seen her people depressed in this way. “We like to think Houma women are very strong—they feel they must be the strong ones. I had to tell people that they had the right to feel bad.” For months afterwards Brenda would sit on her porch with her face in her hands and cry, wondering, “How much can people endure?”
Yet it was in individuals that she found hope. “The overwhelming response from all walks of life was astounding.” So many volunteers showed up, the police had to be called to direct traffic.” Robichaux paired them with tribe members and sent the teams out to locate people and deliver supplies. Robichaux opened her home to these volunteers, some of whom slept on her front lawn in tents. “I learned how to cook big pots of lots of things that weren’t expensive. And, at dinner, I learned about the volunteers’ days. They were my eyes and ears in the community.” Robichaux is clear that the presence of the volunteers made all the difference in the world: “They were a blessing. At night we held workshops on tribal history, basket weaving, so they could go back and educate people about the Houma.”
Robichaux’s greatest challenge, however, came from the federal government. The tribe was already fighting for federal recognition status through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. (The United Houma Nation was recognized by the State of Louisiana in 1979.) Now no one could get through to FEMA or the Red Cross. “They were incompetent and ineffective,” said Robichaux. “I don’t know where we would be without the volunteers. Our people have language barriers and education barriers,” with 47% of adults with less than a high school education. She described how a group of schoolchildren in California helped: “They had a ‘break the rule day’ [where] the kids could wear hats, temporary tattoos and break other rules, all for a dollar. We donated that money to a local school.”
Robichaux remained focused on her overall goal: to bring her people home. “I don’t want it to be under my watch that we lose our community,” she said. “People just want to go home. It is not just land—we have lived here for generations.”
Robichaux’s home became part office for the United Houma Nation Relief Fund. A bookshelf displays the traditions of her tribe: woven baskets, dolls, turtles and alligators crafted from the Spanish moss that hangs from the Oak trees. She and her staff are still caring for people’s basic needs, but they have begun to transform the general store from relief center to museum to honor their heritage and provide the tribe with a library and gift shop. The building must be moved, and scholars from Iowa State University are helping with three-dimensional imaging techniques.
At the same time that they move ahead, Robichaux continues to search for displaced tribe members and to helping them resettle once they are found. A New Orleans Times-Picayune profile of her work helped her find another 20 members who were evacuated to Texas; now re-connected, she will work to bring them home along with others in Mississippi. The fund has raised money to help people rebuild. Members of the tribe can apply for $1,000 grants to fix their homes or to repair fishing boats and replace nets.
According to Robichaux, the storms affected just about everything. “Life as we knew it changed,” she said. For months, her family had people camped out in their home—and then, in the middle of it all, both of her parents were diagnosed with cancer. (Though as she recalls it, her father the fisherman “was more worried about missing shrimping” than he was about his diagnosis.)
Robichaux is very conscious of taking care of “her elders,” and she brings her 10-year-old daughter Felicite along on visits. Her greatest pleasure and connection to home and community came from fixing up Miss Marie Dean’s home. A nonegenarian who had been a Smithsonian resident artist, Miss Marie lost everything in the storm. While volunteers cleaned her home, Miss Marie made moss dolls and baskets. In the end she said, “I raised my six kids here and my home has never been so pretty.” Robichaux attended to every detail as though it was her own home. She deeply appreciates how the volunteers took great care to find and clean the remnants of her people’s lives—the photos, the altars, the shelf someone’s father carved—all to preserve community.
In the Beginning
Women Under Siege
Women's Media Awards