Native American schools on Louisiana Gulf Coast struggle to reopen in wake of Hurricane Ida

Grand Caillou Elementary School
Grand Caillou Elementary School in Houma, Louisiana, was heavily damaged by the impact of Hurricane Ida, and its students have been temporarily moved to Elysian Fields Middle School. (Apps Mandar Bichu/Medill)

By Apps Mandar Bichu
Medill Reports

HOUMA, La.— “Honestly, I don’t understand why they would want to shut schools down. It’s confusing,” the second deputy-chief of the Grand Caillou/Dulac tribe said, as she sat in the RV she calls home for the time being, with her children joyfully playing around her. (The deputy chief asked her name not be used in the article because she prefers to stay out of the media.)

The Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw is one among 11 state-recognized tribes, such as the Pointe-au-Chien and the United Houma Nation, that call the Louisiana Gulf Coast home. These communities have lived through years of segregation, colonization, hurricanes, land loss and educational discrimination.

Hurricane Ida, which made landfall in late August 2021, has compounded these problems in a way the tribes are still trying to come back from. Education has been adversely impacted over the past year, with many schools destroyed and some shut down — such as in the cases of Grand Caillou Elementary and Upper Little Caillou Elementary schools. The hurricane also exacerbated issues that led to the permanent closure of Pointe-Aux-Chenes Elementary School.

The Terrebonne Parish School Board voted 6-3 in April 2021 to shut down Pointe-Aux-Chenes Elementary School, due to a cited lack of enrollment, and the school was officially shut down in June.

“They just closed our school last year. They claimed that there weren’t enough students there,” said Theresa Dardar, a tribal member of the Pointe-Au-Chien.

Pointe au Chien Indian Tribe Community Center
Theresa Dardar is an active part of the Pointe-Au-Chien Indian Tribe Community Center, which has resources to learn more about the tribe and is currently stocked with multiple hurricane relief donation boxes. (Apps Mandar Bichu/Medill)

In response to the closure, 12 parents of the students at PAC Elementary filed a federal lawsuit, Billiot. v. Terrebonne Parish School Board, which alleged the closure of the school was a result of discrimination toward Native Americans, since 70% of the students were Louisiana Native Americans.

In efforts to preserve their native language, the tribe had also petitioned for a French immersion program in 2018 and 2020. The plaintiffs alleged the school board refused to respond to these petitions for discriminatory reasons.

According to the lawsuit, the unexpected closure of the school in April 2021 “denied the Tribe and its members of the opportunity to establish a culturally appropriate charter school in time for the Fall 2021 semester.”

The court ruled in favor of the school board, and the suit was dismissed with prejudice on Nov. 2, despite a unanimous resolution by the Louisiana House of Representatives, which urged the school board not to close PAC Elementary, with a warning that the House would “consider withholding COVID-19 relief funding from the school board if it continues to close schools unnecessarily.”

Dardar was among several members of the tribe who protested the decision to close the school.

“We went to protest at the school board, and some of (the tribe) went and talked at the school board meeting,” she said. “We stayed outside with our signs.”

The students of PAC Elementary currently go to Montegut Elementary School, which is “a majority white school that has no relationship with the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe,” according to the lawsuit.

Dardar said not only is Montegut not meeting students’ cultural needs, but the facilities also aren’t comparable to PAC Elementary. 

“Our school was better, because it had more bathrooms and they had a kitchen,” Dardar said. “This school where they’re going, they have to bring food to the school.”

Along with a decrease in the amenities the children are used to, the Montegut schools are also not accommodative of disabilities, she said.

“They had to separate siblings, because one of them was… in a wheelchair. So, he can’t go to Montegut Middle because they have up-steps, and he can’t go up-steps.” Dardar said. “So, he has to go to a completely different school from his friends. That was what got a lot of people mad.”

The Grand Caillou/Dulac schools also have suffered since Grand Caillou Elementary in Houma and Upper Little Caillou Elementary in Chauvin were significantly damaged during Hurricane Ida, leading to temporary closures for repairs, according to the tribe’s second deputy chief, who said she harbors fears the schools might suffer the same fate as PAC Elementary.

“Like, there’s legitimately no reason for why they shut that school down. So, if they can do it with them … they can do it with us too,” she said.

The second deputy chief also pointed out the pattern exhibited by the school board in cramming kids randomly in other schools, which has led to worries about where her preschool-aged son might end up going if Upper Little Caillou Elementary doesn’t open in time.

“If that school doesn’t open by the time August gets here, I don’t know where my son is going to go to school because they’ll place him,” she said.

According to a school board Buildings Committee meeting held on Jan. 18, the decision was made to shift all Grand Caillou Elementary students to Elysian Fields Middle School as of Jan. 10, while students of Upper Little Caillou Elementary school were moved to East Houma School on Jan. 24.

According to reports by local news outlet Houma Today, many parents have cited worries about the long commute to East Houma School since the driving distance between the school and Upper Little Caillou is 11 miles one way, which, given the small winding roads in the bayou, makes for a long and difficult commute.

The lack of communication between the school board and the tribe doesn’t help the situation.

“The school board, basically, would be the ones to tell us what was up? Yeah. They need a whole new staff there,” the second deputy chief said. “They’re not really good with communication.”

According to reports by Houma Today, the school board plans to sell $200 million in bonds to help repair schools damaged by Hurricane Ida, including Grand Caillou Elementary and Upper Little Caillou Elementary, but so far no clear timeline has been provided.

Boxes at the tribal community center
A box of school supplies stocked at the Pointe-Au-Chien Indian Tribe Community Center. (Apps Mandar Bichu/Medill)

The Pointe-Au-Chien and the Grand Caillou/Dulac are no strangers to facing barriers when it comes to education, as both tribes have faced a history of educational segregation. Before the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which included a provision that prohibited racial and other forms of discrimination in public schools and higher educational institutions, students in many Native American schools were only allowed to study up until the seventh grade, according to Dardar. 

“I know my parents … they only went up to seventh grade,” the second deputy chief said, referring to the history of education among the Grand Caillou.  “So, education is important now. We’re all about education now.”

Document detailing Indian ancestries
A document at the Pointe Au Chien Tribe Community Center traces the American Indian ancestry of the Verdun family through the generations. (Apps Mandar Bichu/Medill)

Dardar went to a segregated school in Houma during the ’60s and has unpleasant memories of her time there.

“In ’67, I went to a segregated school. And so, that wasn’t good for me,” Dardar said. “In fact, I ended up quitting school, because they would call us names and I would get into a fight and get suspended.”

Dardar eventually went back to night school and got her GED after getting married, but the memory of the prejudice she faced still sticks with her.

“Yeah, it was rough being Indian. Well, I mean… it’s just easier now,” she said. “And people disguise the prejudice, or they try to, you know, but it’s still there.”

Dardar said she believes the negative preconceived notions against Native Americans is a big factor that contributed to the closure of PAC Elementary.

“I do believe that, because we had 70% Indian kids down there,” she said. “But then, it’s mostly white in Montegut. So, you know, they aren’t diverse either so … I don’t get it if (the closure) doesn’t have anything to do with the kids being almost all Indians here at the school.”

Dardar said the tribe was never given a proper reason as to why the school board was opposing the school. The tribe’s plan now is to open a charter or French immersion school in place of PAC Elementary.

“We’re trying to get either a French immersion or charter school open, and we’re asking the school board … to donate the school building,” Dardar said. “It got damaged in Ida, but we would be able to fix it.”

Louisiana state Rep. Tanner Magee introduced a new education bill this year for a new French immersion program and create “École Pointe-au-Chien, a public French immersion school for students in grades prekindergarten through four,” and “to provide for a board of directors and a school director.”

The bill proposes the school be independent of control by the local and state school board, and instead be under the jurisdiction of a preselected board of directors.

Despite the history of educational disparity among the Gulf Coast tribes, which was made worse by Ida, the state of education among Louisiana’s Native American communities shows signs of hope through community organizing, as the bill was reported favorably by the state’s Education Committee last week with no objections and is now scheduled for a vote in the state House on April 5.

Apps Mandar Bichu is a social justice graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @ApoorvaaBichu.