Meet the Atakapa-Ishak

October 10, 2012

Grand Bayou Village is a tiny settlement in Plaquemines Parish. It’s the traditional home of a Native American people, the Atakapa-Ishak, who today mostly make their living as commercial fishermen. There are no roads in this village, just water and marsh. But lately, scientists, policymakers and community leaders from around the world have been finding their way to its watery doorstep.

“We’ve had international groups come out from Ecuador and Holland and Taiwan, Mexico, Canada,” explains Grand Bayou Village representative Rosina Phillipe. “We’ve actually become a teaching community through our efforts to share what life is like here in Louisiana, on the coast and facing the many issues that we have.”

Standing at the front line of Louisiana’s land loss crisis, increasingly exposed to hurricanes and man-made perils, those issues are daunting. Yet Grand Bayou Village has emerged as a focal point for strategies to overcome them, from building techniques to recovery tactics. And the village is committed to sharing its example with other communities facing similar issues. Its ally in this effort is the Center for Hazards Assessment, Response and Technology, a research center at the University of New Orleans known as UNO-CHART.

“The community has taken a stand to educate folks,” says Kristina Peterson, senior research associate with UNO-CHART. “And that’s happening across the coast, where the communities want to be a teaching instrument for others to learn, not just about the issues but about ways in which they can be powerfully part of the solutions.”

Peterson says coastal Louisiana communities like this have long been isolated. But, in part because of that isolation, they share traditions of self-sufficiency, adaptability and mutual aid. And these can be potent tools when connected with other communities and with the decisions makers shaping the future of the coast. Part of UNO-CHART’s work is to make those connections, says Shirley Laska, the UNO professor who founded the center.

“What we find is it’s amazing the voice that they have, they simply needed to have people support their having an opportunity to have a voice,” Laska says. “We support the communities to achieve that which they hope to achieve. We don’t take a political position and we’re not opposed to either position, to stay and struggle or to go. But we want to assist them with knowing what we can contribute as applied academics to their knowledge base.”

Phillipe says that sort of knowledge is rooted in countless generations who have lived in a coastal area where change is a constant and adaptability is a must. Changes are much more rapid and dramatic now, but with help from UNO-CHART Grand Bayou Village has forged a more powerful network of resources to contend.

“We’re combining our traditional ecological knowledge with the science and seeing where they match up to the benefit of everyone,” she says. “And that’s why people from around the globe have come to our small village, to see and to have these conversations and to take away the knowledge we’re sharing with them about how to move forward and how we maintain. So that’s why we still have hope. We still have something to contribute.”

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 UNO-CHART, click here.