Preserving Their Place

Chantel Comardelle of Houma works against time to document her tribe's home


Art 02

Crab Traps, Isle de Jean Charles

Chantel Comardelle of Houma is on a personal mission to document the history and culture of her people — the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Native American tribe that once inhabited the rapidly disappearing Isle de Jean Charles in Terrebonne Parish south of Houma. It is a land of memories and vanishing hope that has almost disappeared into the Gulf of Mexico.

Comardelle, who was born in 1982 in Houma but spent her childhood on the Isle de Jean Charles, has taken to the camera to document what she describes as her “memories” of the island and the spirit of her people. To that end, she and the tribal council are doing more than simply recording their history and culture. They are preserving, as she says, “our place in time” and “our tribe’s existence in the wake of all the environmental and life changes” around them. As an example of those changes, she talks about a little grocery store that once stood on the island.

“I want to make sure that we document things we take for granted now but may not be there in the future,” she says. “That’s our only way of showing our kids where the old grocery store use to be. The last part of the old store was destroyed by Hurricane Ida. I’m so glad I have pictures of it before it was destroyed. Now, there’s not even a shed left there. Seeing that, I know how important it is to capture as many photos of our community and culture as possible.”

Isle de John Charles has been home to these Native Americans since the 1830 Indian Removal Act forced many tribes to resettle west of the Mississippi River. The often deadly trek became known as the Trail of Tears. Rather than go to Oklahoma, many of the Biloxi and Choctaws who lived along the Mississippi Gulf Coast fled across the river into the marshes of Terrebonne Parish where they have lived ever since — that is until now.

According to Comardelle, who is the executive secretary of the Isle de Jean Charles tribe, approximately 98 percent of the island land has been lost to erosion, more frequent hurricanes, rising sea levels, land subsidence and saltwater intrusion caused by intrusive canals dug by oil exploration companies. The island was once home to 75 families, but the numbers dwindled to 33 by 2016. Only three families now remain on the island. The other 30 have moved farther inland to a resettlement community in Shriever, financed in 2016 by a $48 million federal grant from the U.S. Office of Community Planning and Development. Speaking of the feds, Comardelle says the tribe has changed its name to the Jean Charles Choctaw Nation to make it easier and less cumbersome for its members to complete federal census forms.

“Several years into our resettlement project, we realized we were doing more than just relocating,” says Comardelle. “As community members were moving off, we saw that transition of culture from generation to generation slowly wane as folks became more assimilated into where they were now living. The tribal council saw the need to preserve as much of our tribe’s existence as possible. It started off slowly and just kind of evolved. So, we put a name to it — project Preserving Our Place. That way we can really get some traction. We have no museums or cultural centers in our community or in Terrebonne Parish. We thought this would be a good way to bring about an actual place where folks can keep that connection.”

And that may be soon. The tribal council recently purchased property in nearby Pointe-au-Chien as a high-and-dry location for a community center and museum for people to better understand the history and culture of the Isle de Jean Charles Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe. Comardelle is optimistic about the progress the tribe is making in telling its story but laments the irreversible losses.

She recalls those days growing up on the island where she learned how to swim, fish and crab in the bayou that ran through the center of the island. She loved fishing and crabbing off the little bridge that crossed over to her grandmother’s house where the family gathered after church on Sundays. She loved those days playing with her cousins across the bayou, feeding the chickens and walking in the marshes that she describes as once “full of green, hard land.” Most of that land is gone now, she says, and the island is surrounded by a ring levy that has cut off the bayou, causing it to be at times little more than a stagnant drainage ditch.

“In a sense,” she says, “life on the island has left. It’s not the way it once was. There’s no crabbing, there’s no fishing. It’s a different feel now. It’s just a skeleton of what it used to be. I wish I had taken more photos of that transition.”

Comardelle’s photographs are now part of a traveling exhibit titled “Project Preserving Our Place” that will visit Princeton University this fall. Her work also will be featured in the forthcoming book, “Invisible No More: Voices from Native America” published by Island Press.

Art 01Illustration by S.E.George


Chantel Comardelle

Hometown Houma
Born 1982
Artistic Goals Document memories of Isle de Jean Charles
Inspiration Culture and spirit of her people, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe
Photo-graphic Style Documentary
Tribal Website


Categories: History, Homepage