A community center might sound like a pretty common neighborhood amenity. But then there’s the Dulac Community Center, a nonprofit with a long history and an indelible impact on the lives of Native American Houma people living around the edges of Terrebonne Parish. The center is a hub of Houma Indian life for many in these small, isolated towns arrayed in the deepest of Louisiana bayou country, including Louise Billiot.
“So the Dulac Community Center, whenever you’re talking about the Dulac Community Center, as far as I’m concerned, and as my family is concerned, it was our lifesaver,” she says. “It was our way to able to function, as everybody else would.”
Louise first came to the center 50 years ago to attend kindergarten and begin an education her parents could not have taken for granted. Through the first half of the 20th century, Native Americans in this area were denied a public education. In response, United Methodist missionaries provided their own formal classes for Houma children through the center, beginning back in 1932. Education is still a focus for the Dulac Community Center, especially tutoring, GED courses and computer classes, but services have also evolved with the local needs. And lately, this has meant dealing with life on the front lines of Louisiana’s coastal erosion crisis.
“You look at the last 25 years, we’ve had seven major hurricanes that have come through our community,” says John Silver, executive director of the center. “We’re only about 12 miles from the Gulf and the land has changed so much. A lot of where we had land is actually now open water, and so the fabric of the community is changing.”
Census data shows that Dulac alone lost 40 percent of its population between 2000 and 2010. The center has been helping those who chose to stay build their homes back higher and stronger, part of an effort to make the community more resilient to future storms. At the same time, the center is working toward a different sort of resiliency, one rooted in the culture of the Houma people.
“The same way that the Dulac Community Center goes out and builds people’s homes and rebuilds from the bottom up, we do the same thing with the children,” says Betty Billiot.
She’s the youth coordinator for the Bayou Eagles Native American Dance Group. This multi-generation group was formed to pass on tribal customs and it performs at powwows and events around the country.
“It’s not only about teaching dance and singing and things like that, it’s about teaching strength and how to be confident in who you are, in your culture, in your community,” she says. “It’s our life, it’s our heritage, it’s our tradition, it’s something to keep with us. This is ours, you know.”
The Bayou Eagles Dance Group is just one cultural expression for young Houma people now, but Betty’s aunt, Louise, says it’s a powerful example of what keeps her community together as the tribe’s homeland continues to change around them.
“I have the confidence and I’m very optimistic about the fact that our Indian people are proud, we’re strong and we have our community center to turn to,” she says.
Written by Ian McNulty for the Community IMPACT Series and produced by WWNO in partnership with the Greater New Orleans Foundation. To learn more about the Dulac Community Center, click here.