A Louisiana tribe’s long fight against the American tide
wo hundred years ago, Isle de Jean Charles was thick with trees and marsh grass. Despite its name, it is not an island—or was not then—but rather a high ridge of land along a bayou that drained the waters of the Mississippi Valley into the Gulf of Mexico. An Indian tribe built homes from hardened mud and moss that were replaced later with modern bungalows. They cleared gardens, planting hundred-foot rows of cantaloupe and okra and beans. They ate shrimp and crabs and oysters plucked from the teeming swamps.
Viewed from above, Isle de Jean Charles now looks like a dangling, loose thread amid the fraying tassels of Louisiana’s coast—a thin strip of land, barely a mile and a half long, scattered with fishing camps and mobile homes, most lifted high on stilts. The edges bleed quickly from marsh into choppy, brackish water, which is carried by the wind over the soil. Saltwater flooding has poisoned the gardens, and old oak forests have withered; barren trunks, silver-white like bones, reach with empty branches toward the sky. Even among scientists, these trees seem to inspire poetry: “ghost forests,” they are called. According to a recent paper in Nature, they are one of the “most striking indicators of climate change.”
This is how Isle de Jean Charles became famous: as a canary in the coal mine, an early indicator of what is coming for us all. Since 1955, the landmass surrounding Isle de Jean Charles has decreased by ninety-eight percent; in two generations it’s shriveled from about half the size of Washington, D.C., to half a square mile. The island has appeared in international papers and cable news programs, in governmental reports, even a hit movie: dispatches from a swampy apocalypse, postcards from our climate-change future. By 1992, as the first international climate-change agreements were being negotiated, residents were already fleeing. That year, Hurricane Andrew became the latest storm to ravage the island. “Out of this place,” a sixteen-year-old resident told a reporter after the storm. “Anywhere but here.”
Albert Naquin grew up on Isle de Jean Charles, but he had been gone more than twenty years by 1997, when he was named the island’s chief. To get back to there from his home in Pointe-aux-Chenes, to tend to the elders who live there still, Chief Naquin climbs into his pickup truck and drives six miles, then turns right onto the thin, two-lane highway that serves as the one link between his people’s homeland and the wider world. He’s watched, through these decades of driving, as the thick stands of marsh grass surrounding the highway have thinned. He’s watched as others left, too, their homes emptied, the structures leveled, the lawns grown wild.
Naquin is a bear of a man, and at seventy-three years old still walks with a firm rigidity, thrusting out shoulders that appear ready to take the weight of the world. A silver cross hangs over his broad chest, a ball cap is tugged down over his forehead, the text on its front proclaiming one or another of his allegiances: proud Native American; veteran of the U.S. Army. A stern chief, indomitable, ready to fight for his people.
“We’re supposed to be a tribe, and a tribe is supposed to be in an area all together,” he recently told me. So, in the early 2000s, he began to search for a plot of land where the six hundred scattered citizens could regroup. He began to dream of what the community could be: a sustainable place, opting out of the extractive economy that had doomed its predecessor, addressing not just the symptoms of climate change but nudging us toward a cure. The clock was ticking: in 2002, there were seventy-eight homes on the island; in 2005, fifty-four; by 2012, as few as twenty-five. As the island emptied, old ties began to wear thin. Soon, he worried, they would no longer be a tribe at all.
Naquin worked with government officials and developers, but his efforts were always thwarted—because after he found a new location the neighbors seemed wary of living next to Indians, because money was scarce. More than a decade passed before, in 2016, Naquin finally triumphed. The federal government offered Louisiana $48 million in disaster resilience money to relocate the residents of Isle de Jean Charles. “I’m flying,” Naquin told a local reporter. “I hope I can come down in time to be able to walk on the new grounds.”
He did come down, and hard. The triumph turned to nothing but trouble: intertribal tensions, government betrayal, careful plans discarded and replaced. All along, journalists kept coming through this small community, reducing its story to bite-sized chunks. There never seems to be space enough, or time, to pause and sift through the island’s full story: the two decades of searching, the two centuries of pressure and assault. And so the island became, in its many media appearances, a simple symbol of how bad things had become. As I traced the long fault lines, though, I found a story far more complex and troubling. The plight of Isle de Jean Charles shows that the very American values we sometimes invoke as an answer to climate change—the democratic voice of the people, especially—can be used, too, as a tool to entrench the powers that be. “The state is dictating to us what we can and can’t do,” as Naquin later told me. “The state took our money, and they walked with it.”
Southern Louisiana is built on river-sourced wetlands: its muddy soil was delivered over thousands of years by seasonal floods, then settled, compressing beneath its own weight. Atop this foundation, marsh and forest sprouted, forming a natural buffer against the storms that blow in from the Gulf. Isle de Jean Charles’s residents sometimes rode out storms inside their fishing boats, which would rise with the storm surge, then settle back in place.
Still, it was a precarious place where the weather could turn furious. In 1909, a hurricane killed at least three hundred fifty people across Louisiana; on Isle de Jean Charles, its waves tore through fields of rice and greens and corn. Some of the Indians, their homes in ruins, formed a new village even deeper in the swamps. It is the first recorded instance of a hurricane driving the Indians off the island.
Such disasters were rare—until they were not. In 1965, Hurricane Betsy tore the roof off Naquin’s parents’ home. He built another, which nine years later had to be evacuated for Carmen. When he returned to the island a few days later, he found a typical scene: debris scattered across the road, silt caking the already-thinning forest. Naquin was newly married and had outfitted the house with a new freezer, a sofa, a twenty-five-inch console TV. Mud and water covered everything. We’ve got to get out of here, he thought. It took many months before he found a property inland and built another house.
Isle de Jean Charles is not alone in its suffering. All of southern Louisiana is, quite famously, disappearing. To survive, the land must be replenished by the floods and their sediment, but after Europeans came to North America and reconfigured the Mississippi, building levees to keep their farmlands dry, that natural cycle came to an end. The steady pulse of hurricanes—beating ever faster in this era of climate change—has sped up the crisis, ripping through the already-weakened marsh.
In the early 1990s, Congress decided to do something, and it tasked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with a project known as “Morganza to the Gulf.” Still in progress, the project will one day line the Louisiana coast with one hundred miles of levees, keeping hurricane waves from breaking across the land. But it will not protect Isle de Jean Charles. The Corps determined that to do so would require building across open water, on soft soils, at a cost of $190 million. It would be far cheaper, they realized—approximately $8 million in total—to simply move everyone somewhere else. Albert Naquin was named chief of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw in 1997, in the midst of the Corps’s research. When he heard their proposal, he could only think of the Trail of Tears.
As time wore on, though, Naquin began to think differently. He had benefitted from his own move away from the island; since leaving in 1975, his house had never flooded. His commute was never blocked by an inundated road. “Why should we deny the island people to be living like us?” he said. “It works.”
Naquin discussed the issue with the tribal council—which consists of two deputy chiefs and four general members who, along with Naquin and a few other advisors, make up the formal governance of the tribe—and the group approved. Naquin tells me that in 2002, when he began to formally pursue relocation, eighty-five percent of the tribe’s citizens supported the project. He figured the rest he could win over in time. But when the Corps hosted a meeting at the island’s fire station to explore the issue, things got heated; people began to shout about the government’s long and ugly history of Indian removal. Naquin says outsiders stood up and pretended to live on the island, declaring they would never leave—perhaps, he thinks, because they did not want their tax dollars being spent on the tribe. “[T]he proposed plan was not supported by the Isle de Jean Charles community,” a report by the Corps later stated. Instead, the local levee district built a small ring around the island, enough to stop minor flooding. In the wake of the meeting, tribal support for relocation began to wane.
The chief persisted. He examined potential properties, one more than a hundred miles away on the Mississippi coast, another just twenty miles up the bayou. In 2009, he found a developer who would help him cart manufactured homes onto a plot of land in the nearby community of Bourg. He gathered state and federal officials at the gazebo outside his house (which doubles as his tribal office) and declared his intention to seek disaster relief money. Opposition in Bourg was strong, and sometimes tinged with racism. On the island, too, residents worried about the site and whether it might flood. The project never got off the ground.
So the slow outbound trickle continued, storm by storm, house by house. To Naquin, it seemed as if attrition might accomplish what the government had not. “I think Andrew Jackson is going to get his way,” he told an anthropologist after the 2009 defeat. “He’s going to wipe out the Indians.”
The island’s modern story begins not with Indians, but with an international refugee. Jean Charles Naquin was born in France around 1771 to parents who had been evicted from Acadia on the Canadian frontier; but they weren’t welcomed in their ancestral home, and when Jean Charles was fourteen, the family joined a mass exodus to Louisiana. He became one of the many Cajuns who settled in the swamps, and the island was given his name.
Jean Lafitte had a base nearby; legends suggest that Naquin often assisted the notorious pirate and may have been a part of his crew. A few Indian tribes lived along the bayous, and in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, other Indians from the Southeastern uplands began to join them there. This was the beginning of the era of “Indian Removal”: Andrew Jackson, first as a U.S. Army general and later as president, began to round up Indians and force them west. For some, a life in the swamps seemed better than starving on that long march. Jean Charles’s son, Jean Marie Naquin, married an Indian woman around 1828, and nearly all of their children married Indians, too. On the island, the family blossomed in seclusion. They would head north, into settled American territory, only out of absolute necessity. By 1880, census takers had noted an exclusively Indian settlement on Isle de Jean Charles. Around the same era, it is said, one of Jean Marie’s sons—and one of Albert’s ancestors—became the first formal chief of this new tribe.
Even six decades later, when Albert Naquin was born, there was no road to the island. But, then again, no road was needed—the intrepid could make a long march across a soggy ridge to reach the mainland. When the tides rose, this path was swallowed, so most travelers paddled through bayous. The chief, it was said, paddled enough to make it around the world.
On winter mornings, a caravan of pirogues carried children five miles to reach the Indian School, the flat-bottomed boats slipping through narrow passageways, the reeds so close the children could reach out and brush them with their hands. Traplines snaked through the woods, set for muskrat and coons and marsh hens. Twine hung above the water, baited for crab. Fishermen dredged up oysters, to be sold up the bayou or tossed into iron pots and cooked over open fires. Isle de Jean Charles was one in a network of Indian communities linked together—and to nearby Cajun settlements—by marriage. French was, until very recently, the dominant language, and each village had its own slightly different inflection. Traditional healers, known as traiteurs, concocted salves from wild herbs. Bats flared from the treetops as darkness settled, and sunrise released a scent of dew and wet leaves. Terrebonne Parish, where Isle de Jean Charles is located, is aptly named: “Good Earth.”
“We lived off the land,” Naquin said. “We had two gardens, our mom and dad did. We had chickens. I don’t know how many cows we had. We had pigs.” As a child, he remembers, he sometimes got the task of holding a pig by the tail as his father dropped the axe. Naquin’s father drank the blood, then set the water boiling. The boucherie began. They used the whole animal: hogshead cheese to blood boudin. “People would start showing up for their piece of meat,” Naquin said. “There was no place to put it, so you had to give it away.”
Naquin’s family had no electricity, no plumbing, just the bayou for bathing and an outhouse in back. “We didn’t have probably fifty dollars to spare,” Naquin said. “But we had at least ten.” Some in his parents’ generation had no idea there was a “Great Depression” up on the mainland. They just lived.
In 2010, Naquin began to work closely with the Lowlander Center, a local nonprofit co-founded by two academics to support indigenous coastal communities and other vulnerable groups. Naquin had always aimed to regather his tribe and revitalize their culture; now he developed a more expansive view of what that could mean. By century’s end, as many as thirteen million Americans may have to flee the rising seas; the resettlement, the tribal council realized, could be a model for the flights to come.
Experts came to Louisiana to lend their knowledge on permaculture and native species, on concrete and its effects on the watershed and what might be a better choice. Naquin and tribal leaders flew to different countries to learn about styles of indigenous housing. At the center of the planning process was the idea that the tribe itself would compile the final design. The result was cutting edge: one hundred sustainable homes, laid out so as to reduce flooding and promote biodiversity; crawfish ponds and a commercial kitchen to provide economic opportunity; a cultural center so the tribe could sustain old traditions. The projected cost was $100 million. A million dollars per household: some found that sum incredible. But the community was intended to be an investment for everyone; the tribe, which had thrived for generations outside the American economy, would prove that it was still possible to live differently. Once a new model was established, future resettlements could cost far less. Their plans were mentioned admiringly in the 2014 National Climate Assessment, but it proved far easier to garner attention than to find sources of cash.
That year, though, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development announced a program intended to spark innovation in disaster recovery, called the National Disaster Resilience Competition. The state of Louisiana decided to apply, and early on committed to the idea that resettlement needed to be a part of its approach. State officials began to ask around for potential projects; Naquin, at the behest of his colleagues at the Lowlander Institute, proffered the plan they had developed. Eventually it was incorporated, alongside ten other projects, in the state’s application to HUD.
“We spent days and weeks and months working on the deal,” Naquin said—fielding phone calls from state officials, and then searching through records for the required figures and facts. The state’s submission was, according to Lowlander, almost exactly what the tribe and its partners had conceived. Blueprints and mock-ups that the tribe had created with design firms were included in an appendix. There was one major difference, though: while acknowledging that the overall process would cost $100 million, the state’s Office of Community Development proposed to oversee just “Phase 1.” It asked HUD for $48 million, which it would use to buy the site, develop key infrastructure, and build the first forty homes. After the application was submitted, Naquin tamped down expectations. “We’re competing against some big operations people,” he told a reporter. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. Probably nothing.”
But HUD, too, knew that relocation would soon be necessary in Louisiana—and everywhere else. Much of the agency’s housing stock is built on cheap land that is increasingly vulnerable to flooding. And relocation has long been seen as political poison: Who wants to be forced from their home? While buyouts are not uncommon—vouchers offered, neighbors dispersed—there are few examples of communities moving intact. Here was a group asking to do just that. HUD saw it as a chance to learn “what the pitfalls are and what the difficulties are,” as Harriet Tregoning, a former HUD official who oversaw the competition, told me.
On January 21, 2016, HUD announced Louisiana as a winner of the competition, funding the Isle de Jean Charles resettlement and one other project from the state’s proposed list. The island’s residents would become, in words the New York Times later blasted across its front page, the nation’s first “climate refugees.”
Then, three weeks after the announcement, Governor John Bel Edwards received a letter from the chief of another tribe. He asked a simple question: was the $48 million just for Naquin’s people, or would it be applied toward all Indians who live on Isle de Jean Charles?
There are a number of different ways that a community can become officially Indian, at least in the eyes of the U.S. government. Since the 1970s, the most common paths have been through paperwork: often, a tribe submits a petition to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Just compiling the documents can take years of research, and after they are submitted, petitions languish within the slow-flowing bureaucratic pipeline. The United Houma Nation, a collection of Indians from across southern Louisiana, applied for official recognition in 1979.
The BIA made its determination in 1994: they rejected the UHN petition on the grounds that, although the tribe is Indian, it could not establish clear connections to a historical nation. The agency acknowledged that there was a former Houma nation farther north in Louisiana but claimed that by 1800 this tribe had faded away. Ignoring the tribe’s oral history—which the BIA often dismisses as invalid evidence—the agency decided that the Houma Indians who trickled into Louisiana’s bayous did so as individuals, not as part of a united group. In rejecting the petition, the BIA noted that “some or all of the component communities on the lower bayous” might qualify if they applied as separate tribes, a reversal of the advice that had initially prompted the formation of the UHN. Around the same time, two smaller organizations were formed. One, called the Biloxi-Chitimacha Confederation of Muskogees, Inc., included Indians from Isle de Jean Charles.
These new groups filed their own petitions for federal recognition, which told a different story. They were never Houma communities, they said, instead tracing their lineage to a wide range of tribes—Biloxi, Chitimacha, Acolapissa, Atakapa, and Choctaw—who settled together in the swamps. The UHN, meanwhile, filed a rebuttal to the BIA’s response. The long slog continued. (Eventually, after Naquin became chief and began to pursue resettlement, his tribe split away and became one more independent entity, called the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw.)
Unsurprisingly, the creation of these new groups sparked tensions. Indians had to choose their affiliation; some families were split between tribes. For a few months in 1995, the schism splashed across local headlines; in a paternalistic editorial, the Houma Courier worried that bickering might “divide people for generations, especially the children.” Tribal leaders still disagree about the demographics of the island, disputing how many of its residents belong to each tribe. Sometimes different tribes compete over disaster relief resources.
The letter Governor Edwards received asking about the allocation of the $48 million came from Thomas Dardar Jr., then the chief of the UHN. His tribal council, he wrote, was “shocked that we were never informed and brought to the table” as the state applied for funding from HUD. Officials from the state’s Office of Community Development were completely unaware of the tangled local politics, and had assumed that only citizens of the Isle de Jean Charles Band lived on Isle de Jean Charles.
“I think this leaves us with a choice,” Mat Sanders, the program administrator overseeing the project, wrote in an email to colleagues after he received the letter. The OCD could find a way to stick with the “verbiage” of the initial application, which specified that the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw was the project’s beneficiary, or it could announce its intention to resettle everyone, regardless of affiliation. “My initial inclination is toward the latter,” Sanders wrote—and that is the option they pursued. As they spoke to the press, though, OCD officials framed this not as a choice but as a requirement of law: the Fair Housing Act, they said, prevents discrimination in the distribution of public housing.
The OCD’s internal emails show that ignorance about tribal politics was endemic. One of its contacts within the Terrebonne Parish government was unaware that anyone beyond “the Choctaw,” as she called Naquin’s tribe, lived on the island, too. Pat Forbes, the director of the OCD, wrote that he did not know “how we got caught by surprise on this, but we’re trying to find out.” (It could not have helped that Bobby Jindal, who had recently finished his two terms as governor, had left the state’s Office of Indian Affairs vacant for years.) By the time I interviewed Forbes this spring, he had settled on an answer: he told me that his office had been misled by the tribe and the Lowlander Center about the community’s demographics.
The disagreement hinges, again, on the definition of community. Kristina Peterson, one of the co-founders of the Lowlander Center, said their proposal never claimed to target a geographic location; it was written by and for a tribal nation, a diaspora, the bulk of whom had already left the island by 2016. The state, meanwhile, contends that when the OCD gathered potential projects to include in the application, it was made clear that these must target specific geographies. The state has a moral obligation to focus on the island because it is the island residents who face the most risk.
The OCD now claims it was the primary author of the grant application. If so, its officials have proved unfamiliar with their own words. “We’ve also heard the $100 million price tag, but this is not a price tag we developed or vetted,” the office wrote in an FAQ a few months after the grant was awarded. That document barely acknowledges that the grant was intended as part of a larger, longer process. Instead, it implies that the $48 million is intended to cover the entirety of the original proposal, not just the first phase.
Naquin and his tribe felt shut out. In the first three and a half months after the grant was awarded, there was little contact between the council and the state; most of what they learned about progress came through media reports. “We think they may turn our resilient tribal resettlement into some kind of public housing,” Naquin’s nephew said at a House of Representatives Natural Resources Committee forum that May. “We thought we were finished with the treaties of the 1800s. We hope and pray that this is not ‘another treaty made, another treaty broken.’”
In August, the state sent interviewers to the island to collect data. The journalist Elizabeth Rush observed one of these interviews, which she describes in her book Rising: out-of-place officials, wearing “mod sunglasses,” approached a sweat-soaked fisherman as he cast his net into the bayou. Before he was even asked a question, the fisherman told them he would not leave. “This is my home,” he said. “You can write that down.” The officials explained that everyone had to move together and told him that the road to the island would not be repaired again. Eventually, his voice rising, the fisherman told them not to show up in his home to tell him where to live. “What am I going to do inland, watch TV and get old quick?” The interviewers gave up and walked away. “We hear you, loud and clear,” one said.
As I reviewed the state’s report on this survey, it struck me that it seemed designed to dredge up tensions, or at least undercut Naquin’s authority. “Are you aware of previous visioning efforts?” the interviewers asked. Most residents said they were. “Were you involved in any of the previous visioning efforts?” Almost everyone said they were not. But no one had complaints, and those who had attended community meetings said they admired the earlier plans. A few residents expressed frustration with tribal leadership, but the only real objection to the plan seemed to be that some residents had no desire to leave, not with Chief Naquin, not with the state. One said he planned to die on Isle de Jean Charles.
In these interviews, residents talked about how the island was one big, tangled family; few brought up tribal identification. Some said they looked forward to gathering together in the new community for powwows, for Christmas celebrations, for ceremonies to remember ancestors already gone. One resident did not care about reconnecting. Almost everyone said they loved the quiet, the privacy. With this information, the state made an imaginative leap: “Although residents did not address this directly,” the OCD wrote in its report, “most seem to appreciate how other Island residents respect each other’s privacy. ‘Community’ on the Island may be as rooted in a shared sense of privacy as it is in regular interaction.” It’s as if they were clearing a path: no need to build a communal place where cousins might mingle in a shared kitchen; instead they could build one more American exurb, disconnected homes rising amid wide yards, in which the islanders could live out their American lives in peace. It was clear, at least, that the plans Naquin and the tribal council had developed were no longer being pursued. The community center, the gardens, the aquaculture: the fate of these elements was up for grabs.
Residents were nervous, too, about what would happen to their old property. When the state applied to HUD for the resettlement money, it had made a commitment: “As long as The Island exists, it will be retained for traditional uses and tribal identification as all the members relocate.” But HUD does not want to give away second homes, and works to ensure that after a buyout, most of the property is converted to open space. The partnership with HUD meant that the state would retain, at the very least, strict oversight on what kinds of repairs residents made to their old homes.
As it developed its new approach, the OCD engaged with the islanders to an extent it calls “exhaustive and unprecedented.” It hosted biweekly phone calls, sent out mailers, and dispatched officials to the island each week to visit homes, answering questions and stifling rumors. Beginning in the summer of 2016, it convened a series of community meetings. In August, nearly fifty people—including thirty residents as well as other island property owners, former residents, and officials from both tribes—clustered around collapsible tables in a small-town gym, a twenty-five-minute drive from the island. They jotted notes on chart paper about their lives and their needs, and what they thought about the old plans. (Again, most participants appreciated the previous vision.) Two months later, a slightly smaller group gathered on the island, in the shade beneath the upraised house of the local priest. Children clambered across the porch swing while current and former residents stuck dots onto maps, indicating where they’d like to move.
Kristina Peterson sees these as empty activities. The tribe had once been a partner in the process; now its citizens were described as “stakeholders.” They became sources of information, while the state called the shots. “You have to be at the table, not on the menu,” Peterson said. Not everyone was displeased; in a survey given after the second meeting, residents expressed enthusiasm about moving to higher ground. But another survey response reveals the emerging tension: “I believe you accomplished the same as Christopher Columbus,” one attendee wrote. “You succeeded in taking the Native American culture out of a project.”
It was not the first time the island’s Native American culture had come under attack. By the 1930s, oil and gas had been discovered beneath Louisiana’s swamps. Men began to appear down the bayous, dangling paperwork. The Indians—many of whom could not read English—were told that if they signed, their ownership would become official. Only later did they realize they were giving up their claims. (Sometimes, the oil companies had a rougher method: just burn Indian houses and take the land.) For decades, oilmen shredded the marshes, blasting the soil with dynamite, dredging through mud to form canals. The land that was not ripped up was often poisoned by salt water. And as the oil was removed, the mud sank faster; this, as much as the levees, has been the cause of the devastation of Louisiana’s coast.
The first oil rig near Isle de Jean Charles sprouted in the early 1950s, just a few years before the island road was built. Electrical lines soon followed, then plumbing, and then a cascade of mid-century marvels, never before seen on Isle de Jean Charles: refrigerators, bathtubs, toilets, televisions. And white people, in increasing numbers. Naquin was seven when the road was built, and his mother told him to hide whenever he saw a car, in case they were coming to take him away.
The road’s dirt ruts were filled and covered with clamshells in the 1960s, then blacktopped in the ’70s. This progress, though, could not correct the road’s initial flaw: instead of following the bayou, along the high ridge of the old wagon path, the route was sent east, passing through low-lying turf. Like many decisions to come, this one seemed to be about money: there were businesses to the east, the islanders understood, that the politicians favored. (Through it all, the oil companies kept fighting: in the 1990s, one conducted research it hoped might undercut the UHN’s petition to the BIA.)
Today, the island has a spare and haphazard beauty. Almost every day, fishermen stand in clusters along the island road, casting their nets into the ever-widening water. Where the island begins, the road curves left; here, it’s dense with trees before these give way, gradually, and the sky grows wider. On the right side of the road, to the west, runs the bayou, lined with wood-plank bridges that lead to the homes. To the east there is an oil canal, its size becoming apparent as the forest thins. Half of the island is wild now; herons perch in the overgrown grasses. The trees are thick in places, reduced in others to those silvery, spectral stalks. After a mile and a half the road ends in a dirt turnaround, and there the sky rises over the brackish beginnings of the Gulf of Mexico.
Amid the beauty, there is evidence of the storms: the doors to an abandoned trailer hang open, the interior stained, the furnishings torn apart. Most of the land is vacant, and some of the homes are abandoned, though sometimes it’s hard to tell amid the rust and threadbare furniture and jerry-rigged, scrap-wood repairs which are still occupied. The road, too, has sustained damage; after Hurricane Ike, in 2008, orange-and-white signs were installed every few hundred feet, marking where just one lane survived. Even now, after the road was repaved and lifted, high tide or strong winds routinely wash it out. The latest repairs were completed in 2011, and the tribe has been told the road will never be fixed again. Some say good riddance: the island can go back to being just for islanders. Others see it as one more insult from a government that doesn’t care.
By the summer of 2017, a year and a half after the grant was awarded—and almost twenty years to the day since he was named chief—Naquin was angry. As he drove to the island for another community meeting, on July 1, he had the windows of his pickup sealed shut. It was a bright day, and the wind pushed the water against the edges of the island road. He was turning over words in his head, thinking about what to say to Pat Forbes and his team.
Past the battered homes of his friends and relatives, Naquin arrived to find the usual circus: officials and residents and reporters clustered in the space beneath the priest’s house. As Naquin emerged from his truck, plunging into the chaos, there was Forbes, stepping forward to shake the chief’s hand. The words that spilled from Naquin’s mouth were more blunt and direct than he intended. But they expressed the truth: he was done. “Can we give the money back?” he said. “Say you don’t want it. Say the tribe don’t want it.”
Forbes replied that some of the people did want the money. “It’s not the people’s choice,” Naquin told him. He was the chief; he spoke on their behalf. “Myself and the council put together this application for money. We govern the people, so the people don’t have to agree with us but they have to acknowledge the council [on] what they want.”
A newspaper reporter who turned up on Isle de Jean Charles in 1940 found “a little civilization separate from the rest of the world,” with its own self-contained economy and its own political system, led by its chief. The duties of the chief were, and are, various: settling disputes, coordinating aid to families; the chief once delivered the mail and ran a small grocery store, too, which doubled as a church and school and dance hall. When one chief grew too old or too tired to continue his duties, he would select a successor. Even into the 1970s, the island would vote as a bloc in local elections, with the candidate selected by the chief. Today, some tribes elect their leader, but Isle de Jean Charles continues its long-standing tradition of chiefdom: each handpicks his successor. Naquin’s critics sometimes seize upon that fact. America is a nation of individuals, after all, each of whom must have a voice.
But Americans’ zeal for independence has long been used as a weapon against indigenous people. The Dawes Act, passed in 1887, allowed the president to split reservations into individual plots of land. Many were bought by outsiders; by 1934, the amount of Indian-owned territory had fallen to fifty-two million acres, a small fraction of even the one hundred and thirty-eight million acres of former reservation land, and just two percent of the total nation. Then, in 1953, the federal government formally resolved to “terminate” tribes, ending their special status and dissolving their reservations. Individual Indians were paid, and sometimes coerced, to move to urban centers, where the government hoped they might fade into the crowd. The BIA’s rationale for rejecting the UHN’s petition is a part of this pattern, too: the Houma people, under the pressures of the Removal Era, were recast as discrete individuals that no longer had any power. The point of this assault has always been to seize Indian lands and mine them for profit—whether by planting cotton or raising cattle or pumping oil.
That we are now in the Anthropocene—the “age of man”—is all but settled. But that term has been criticized for suggesting that the problem is universal, as if mankind cannot help but swallow and destroy. There have always been other ways of being. The American project—an economy and politics of individualism, in which we each get our vote and each, if we can afford it, our plot of land—was a historical triumph, a great leap forward in freedom, at least for certain people. But climate change is showing its limits. The earth is a tangled, complex system, which, once divided into parcels, begins to fall apart. The double tragedy of extractive colonial capitalism is that it has not just broken the climate, but it has worked to wipe away other modes of thinking, ways that might help us now. This is why some tribes in Louisiana flatly refuse to pursue relocation. They want to stay put, and speak for the land, which cannot speak for itself.
Isle de Jean Charles is only loosely American. When Jean Charles Naquin first trekked across the island, it was the Spanish empire that claimed these swamps. In 1803, when the U.S. bought the territory, the American government did not seem to care or even know that he was there; the land was still considered useless. Even six decades later, a federal map declared most of the area as “unsurveyed and unfit for cultivation.” By the time any American official ventured that far down the bayou, the island was recognized as an Indian community. One resident showed me a thirty-year-old fishing map that labels the island as an “Indian Reservation.” Even on the latest edition of that map, I eventually found, that same text still appears.
The island is not a reservation, not officially; that a group of Indians on Isle de Jean Charles survived a long assault is not, according to the U.S. government, enough to make them a tribe. The U.S. approach to recognition—asking that tribes sift through a faulty record, compiled by imperial intruders who frequently misunderstood their culture and actively attempted to destroy their way of life, and then somehow emerge with evidence that tells the particular story the government wants to hear—is not a violation of international law. But, according to the United Nations, the practice is “out of step” with contemporary legal ethics. The U.N. has declared that indigenous peoples have a “right to self-determination,” the right to self-identify as Indian people and to select their own form of governance.
The Louisiana Office of Community Development has used that phrase, too, to defend its actions. “The residents of Isle de Jean Charles have consistently maintained their desire to make individual choices,” the office wrote in reply to stinging public comments. “[They] have consistently affirmed their right to self-determination apart from the wishes or desires of either tribe’s leadership.” Some islanders have told the OCD that they would not join the resettlement if it was directly managed by either tribe. Which explains how Forbes responded to Chief Naquin and his plea to return the funds—that some of the people did want the money. Forbes was obligated to listen to what the people had to say.
So, despite the chief’s entreaties, OCD officials pressed on. CSRS, a Baton Rouge–based firm, was contracted to lead the new community’s “Master Planning team.” The state purchased the same site that the tribe and Lowlander had long preferred, called Evergreen Plantation—five hundred fifteen acres on high ground, tucked behind an oil company warehouse in the town of Schriever, which sits on the outskirts of the parish seat.
Naquin, though, never softened his position. In October last year, he sent a letter to HUD, formally recommending that the agency take back the funds. In early 2019, the new master plans were completed. The community center, originally intended to be the hub through which tribal identity would be preserved and revived, was relegated to a back corner of the lot. Eventually, the state floated the idea of scrapping the community center entirely if funds ran too low. (Officials backtracked after receiving a torrent of complaints.) The center and other communal elements of the new settlement will most likely be managed by a nonprofit that is essentially a sidearm of the OCD. One of the tribe’s leaders told me they had requested that an independent community land trust take over these duties, but the state will not budge.
The state’s original press release had indicated that the tribe would “come together to live in one community, not scattered as it is now.” But the state is offering homes only to residents who lived on the island after 2012; residents who left earlier are eligible for an empty lot, but only if they prove they have the funds to build a house. After all island residents, current and former, have made their decisions—which the state aims to collect by next year—any remaining lots may become available for sale to the general public. The money for the program must be spent by 2022.
This January, soon after the OCD purchased the property, Forbes told a reporter that he no longer sees Naquin as a stakeholder. And while the state’s original application committed to “support and enhance tribal identity, sovereignty and dignity,” lately the OCD has been saying it cannot recognize the tribe as having sovereignty. In defending their actions, OCD officials dredged up the text of a 2004 resolution that was intended to confer state-level recognition on the Isle de Jean Charles Band. But the text was amended as it passed through the Louisiana Senate; the final language, the OCD points out, is brutally narrow: it says that the tribe’s Indian ancestry is acknowledged “for the sole purpose” of allowing its members to qualify for healthcare and education benefits. It’s the same old message: sure, you’re Indian, but not Indian enough.
The OCD has worked to accommodate concerns. It has developed a mechanism that will allow islanders to access their old properties, though use will be tightly restricted. No renting the property, no living there, no new construction, and after storms the owners can only make minor repairs. If residents fail to comply with these guidelines, the island property will be seized and any structures will be razed. If residents find they can’t keep up with taxes or flood and homeowners insurance on their homes in the new community—a likely problem for some of the island’s elderly Indians, many of whom live on Social Security—the island property might be seized, too, leaving them with nowhere to go. If someone besides the owner makes significant repairs or additions to the island property, it, again, may be seized and razed.
Meanwhile, opposition has snowballed. Residents who live near the new site have complained at parish meetings, worried that if the relocated islanders can’t keep up with tax payments, the resettlement will become an abandoned housing project. Nonprofits and professors from across the country have submitted public comments, condemning the state’s betrayal of the tribe. At a parish planning commission meeting in February, leaders from various tribes, including the UHN, were unanimous in their criticism. August “Cocoa” Creppel, the newly elected UHN chief, used his few minutes of testimony to slam the state: “For too many years, people have been using the Indian name to get what they want,” he said. “And then, after, we find out that’s not what they say it is.” Creppel and other UHN leaders later told me the OCD had called the tribe the day before the meeting, asking its leaders to speak on behalf of the project—but had not yet showed them the plans, which were received later that day. (The OCD denies that such a call took place.) They believe the state is actively pitting the tribes against one another. “If we fighting back and forth, they just sit back and watch,” Creppel said.
Through it all, the state has been required to submit reports to HUD, once each quarter, offering a summary of its progress on the project. Each report includes an executive summary, words that are cut and pasted from the initial application—Naquin’s words, the words of the tribe. Again and again, these documents note the intended beneficiaries of the grant: “the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw.”
In April, though, the OCD submitted a special request to HUD: it wants to amend the original grant proposal, rewriting the entire project narrative—finally, officially casting aside the language and vision that Naquin and his partners spent years developing, clearing away the confusion that started the whole mess. If that request is accepted, the new statement of intended beneficiaries will not mention the tribe at all.
Isle de Jean Charles is hardly even a small town: inside the twenty-five homes that are still occupied, fewer than a hundred people eat and sleep and gossip and pray. And there are more than enough stacks of records—legal papers, transcripts of speeches, hundreds of pages of federal petitions, decades of news clippings—to animate those lives. Reading, you learn who is taciturn, who is bitter, who is cheerful, who is tired. You see their rituals, their habits, the ways they are grappling with loss. A wife watches old Bonanza reruns. A man walks each morning to drink coffee at his sister’s house. A store is built, piece by piece, atop thirteen-foot stilts, to survive the flooding. A priest pays $2,500 to lay a stone marker in a cemetery where the names on the graves have long since rusted and washed away. People stake signs in their yards, messages to the many visitors who continue to compile the record of their home. “ISLAND IS NOT FOR SALE,” one says. Another declares that the island “CAN NOT BE ERASED.” It’s a bayou version of Yoknapatawpha County, told in bits and snippets, the Sutpens and Compsons replaced with Naquins and Chaissons and Dardars.
Then there is the island itself, its people, their physical fact. On one of my visits this May, I watched a man climb the steps up to his home, and wave—perhaps out of small-town instinct—as my car rolled by. He was the fisherman, I knew, who had excoriated the state’s interviewers. He was a character to me: I knew his name, his daily ceremonies, the fact that he has no plans to leave. The imbalance was unsettling. He knew nothing about me. Or maybe he knew everything: that I was one more white man in a long line of white men, men who have evangelized and educated, who have stolen land and extracted oil and collected stories.
A fatigue has settled across the island; one anthropologist I met told me that he had hoped to study Isle de Jean Charles, but could not break its wall. A photographer who has documented foreign conflict zones said that this was one of the most difficult places he’d worked. Another journalist told me she had spent two years building relationships before she finally cracked through. We come because we believe this story matters, but we come, too, to broadcast our bylines. The islanders know this deal. Janet Malcolm once wrote that “[e]very journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” I was never convinced of this idea until I was driving down the island road, uninvited, looking for someone to talk to—a way in.
The first few times I visited, I sat and drank beers at the island’s marina (atop which flies the flag of the United Houma Nation, indicating the affiliation of its owners, a family that has roots here but, like so many, has left). I could not muster the courage, or the justification, even, to knock on doors. Then one day in May, as I was leaving the island—bound for a hotel room twenty miles north, up on higher ground—I saw a man sitting beneath his upraised home, typing on his phone. I knew who he was: Chris Brunet, one of the last few members of the Isle de Jean Charles tribal council who still lives on the island, and one of Isle de Jean Charles’s most voluble residents, according to the stories I’d read. I parked, then walked to his house and began to pet the dog who greeted me. Brunet invited me to sit and chat. He did not know me, but he knew exactly who I was. “An instigator,” he called me, and, though he later said he meant it as a joke, it struck me as at least halfway true. We talked for an hour, and the next afternoon I returned with a six-pack of Bud Light.
Brunet, like Albert Naquin, is descended from Jean Baptiste Narcisse Naquin, the island’s first chief. He told me his mother signed UHN enrollment papers because it would help the community’s school get money earmarked for Indian education; after the UHN representative drove away, though, she told him clearly: “We are Choctaw.” So Brunet joined the Isle de Jean Charles Band. It was no hard decision, he said, but “actually more of a celebration.” Not because he does not like the UHN—he believes their advocacy and organization was an essential first step for local Indians—but because “finally, finally the identity of us being Naquin Choctaw, Choctaw Naquins, finally that was lifted.” He supports his chief, ardently, though the two do not always agree; Brunet said that in 2009 he was skeptical of the proposed resettlement site. He has no interest in inter-tribal fighting; he gets along with all his neighbors, no matter their affiliation. He has to, after all, within the island’s narrow space. But he is committed to never again hiding who he is.
“I have a location,” Brunet said. “I have an island named after one of my grandfathers, six generations back. And, like I said, he identified as Choctaw. And so if I just don’t go on that, well then I’m going on nothing. Because if I can’t just grab hold of that, and believe in that and know that and cherish that, well then how can I take the next step? How can I take the next step to the past or to the future? And why should I bury that for someone else?” If he loses that identity, he said, “I’ll just be a grain of sand in the wind that’s just tossed about.”
The sun was setting. It was the first time I had been on the island at this late hour. The sky flared pink, flecked with cirrus clouds. A rabbit hovered at the edge of the yard. In the shade beneath the house, sitting on Brunet’s porch swing, I felt a breeze wash away the heavy summer heat.
Brunet said what he loved about the island was being surrounded always by peace, by serenity. “Knowing that you are all on home ground.” It’s why he’s willing to talk to journalists: because anyone who comes here, who sees this place, who feels it, who knows it, carries a piece of the island on.
At the island marina one day, I met a group of white vacationers who complained that Isle de Jean Charles had become a pawn in the media’s climate-change story. Rising seas are not the problem, they said, at least not here; what’s doomed this island is river levees and sinking mud and oil-and-gas canals. They are not wrong. But climate change is happening; sea levels are rising, and are going to keep rising, and for Isle de Jean Charles that is going to make things far worse.
Terrebonne Parish is already disappearing faster than almost anywhere else in the world. The fact is, our good earth is shrinking, and not just in Louisiana, not just on coasts. Rivers are flooding, swallowing farms and cities; deserts are growing; fires are consuming the American West. As the world grows narrower, we will all need to consider where we’ll go, and what and who we want to carry with us—and consider who we want to be in charge. Will they bring us closer, or work to divide us? Will they help us build a better future, or repeat the same mistakes? Isle de Jean Charles is not alone in facing hard questions. It simply has the distinction of facing them now, first—as it has faced them many times before.
The intention of the relocation project, from the beginning, was to offer guidance for the resettlements to come. But what lesson can we learn without seeing the history? Nathan Jessee, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Temple University whose dissertation is on Isle de Jean Charles, notes that the tribe found ways to persist despite “generations of displacement, discrimination, exclusion from regional levees, threats to food sovereignty and traditional ways of life, and the imposed criteria for political recognition.” It may not have been its intention, but the state has, in its administration of funds, repeated old colonial practices, Jessee says. “Will coastal tribes be forced to choose between sovereignty and safety from coastal flood risks? Between resources for adaptation and cultural survival?” Jessee wonders what might happen if the state begins to focus its coastal adaptation efforts on that past, on addressing the long train wreck of choices that made the tribe so vulnerable in the first place, instead of accommodating economic development. That, he says, would require accountability—recommitting to the tribe and its original resettlement vision, and working with other tribes, too, to pursue their own adaptation plans.
When I interviewed OCD officials—who have recently released a statewide blueprint for coastal adaptation to climate change, which declares Isle de Jean Charles to be an exemplar of their approach—I asked what was their biggest lesson learned. “Any community is going to have a culture, and it’s going to be a nonhomogeneous aggregation of individuals,” Pat Forbes, the office’s executive director, said. “And it is critical to engage all those people in the planning process.”
Mat Sanders, the program administrator, agreed, noting that every time a community is moved, there is going to be conflict. “So, in a way, I think I’m thankful that we’ve been able to encounter this level of difficulty,” he said. “This is just what it’s going to be—in this scenario and every other scenario like it moving forward. So the fact that we’ve been able to learn that first and to navigate all of the complications and difficulties and just understand how hard of a project this is—I think has really been, you know, a value-added proposition for us.” Behind the buzzwords and business speak lies a simple idea: the conflict that seems so tragic to Naquin is, in the state’s eyes, an indicator of success—democracy at work.
Chief Naquin was one of the last people I spoke to as I reported this story. I had figured he would be easy to track down, but despite a months-long barrage of voicemails and emails and text messages, I never heard back. So I kept on researching the island’s history, visiting the island, driving up and down its one road. When I interviewed Kristina Peterson at the Lowlander Center, she admonished me for talking with tribal citizens and visiting tribal territory before receiving the chief’s permission. From Naquin’s critics, meanwhile, I heard that he was something of a bully—a man that, until he became chief, had denied that he was Indian at all. By the time I heard back from Naquin—I had finally dropped a note off at his house—I was feeling intimidated.
But I found Naquin to be a genial conversationalist, delighting in jokes and off-topic rambles. We sat side by side on a swing in his gazebo office, which was cluttered with garden tools, and he spoke with a soft French accent and an endearing habit of reaching for English words that he knows on paper but is unsure how to pronounce. He apologized for being unresponsive; as the chief, he is a busy man. He brushed off my visits to the island and told me I was free to talk to whomever I chose.
I asked about the criticism I’d heard, that he’d once rejected his heritage. He said it was true. By the time he was old enough to play cowboys and Indians, he (like all his friends) had learned an American lesson: the Indian is the one who gets killed. That’s why everyone wanted to be the cowboy. He said after he read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee—a book that lays out the history of Indian displacement—he realized that the Indians weren’t the bad guys. By the time he took over as chief from his brother in 1997, he had long identified as Native American.
The tribe is still fighting for official status; in 2015, the Obama administration eased the criteria for federal recognition, and Chief Naquin and the council began to draft a new ream of paperwork so they could apply again. (They now have a slightly changed name: the Isle de Jean Charles Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe.) In late 2017, tribal leaders flew to Washington, D.C., where they spent a week sifting through the Smithsonian Institution Archives, trying to find the documents the government wants. Naquin has noted that they might have been better off having fought against Andrew Jackson: then their white enemies would have been forced to record their presence. Instead they slipped into the swamps. Now they find themselves amending the mistaken notions of anthropologists who stumbled upon their village years later and turned presumptions into official fact. “It’s not a full-time job,” Naquin said. “But it is.” But if the petition is finally successful, it could be a game changer: the tribe would qualify for some federal grants directly. There would be no need to partner with the state.
Naquin retired from his day job as an oilfield inspector a few years ago, but the stories he told me were peppered with half-joking complaints of how much labor remains. (“I got two metal knees,” he said at one point. “One still don’t straighten out.”) There are the simple chores of a modern homeowner—pressure-washing his garage, mowing his lawn—and there are the duties of the chief. He was moving one of his tribal citizens into a new house; he was preparing to build a bridge over the bayou for an elder, to ensure that emergency vehicles could get to her. The work will continue, Naquin said a few times, until his final retirement. I could not help but wonder about how much longer he would choose to be chief.
Naquin doesn’t much like to be called a refugee. His tribe has a home still. If it goes away, they’ll find a new one. They have a vision for who they are and who they will be. Change is just the way of things, Naquin told me: “You know, eventually we’re all gonna get recycled into something else.” Throughout his long quest to keep his tribe together, Naquin has awoken to issues he hadn’t known before. The concrete slab beneath his house worsens local flooding, he now knows. He tries to drive his truck less, to burn less gas. He is proud of the vision he helped craft, and is heartbroken that it’s not yet being built, and not just for his tribe. It would have been a showcase for all of us. But he does not consider himself an environmentalist. “I just want to see our community survive and get reunited,” he said.
Naquin says he no longer hears from the OCD—“They know I don’t agree with them, and they don't agree with me, so I guess it doesn’t pay to talk”—but still he shows up at meetings. He mails letters, protesting. He talks, somewhat wearily, with journalists like me. (At least, he said, our conversations in the gazebo gave him a break from working in the heat.) He knows it’s too late now for the state to return the money, but he’s asked for the phrase “Isle de Jean Charles” to be removed from the project. Some of the island residents accepted temporary housing in anticipation of moving, and he wants these people to be able to return to the island if they choose. To those who remain on the island, he’s given simple advice: “Stay where you at. I mean, you know, if Mother Nature come and take your house, well then, we’ll have to figure something out. But other than that, just stay home.”
In July, just weeks before this story went to press, Mother Nature came: Hurricane Barry made landfall in Louisiana, and, according to one resident who stayed on the island, the water on Isle de Jean Charles rose more than ten feet overnight. Many had evacuated, but around a dozen residents, along with a cat, were rescued by the Coast Guard—including four who were plucked by helicopter from a rooftop. One, though, waved off the chopper, confident he had sufficient supplies. I texted Naquin the day after the storm, and he told me that everyone was safe. But what damage the island had sustained—to its homes and to its population—was yet to be known.
Sitting with Chris Brunet beneath his porch, I asked him to describe the first time he visited Evergreen Plantation. His affect changed entirely; he looked wounded. “That’s not a joyful memory,” he said. I tried to clarify my question, but he kept talking. “Oh, my goodness,” he said. “That’s not no joyful memory.”
The state is now allowing residents to use the grant funds to buy property anywhere in Louisiana, so long as it is outside the one-hundred-year floodplain. It is the soon-to-be-built homes at Evergreen that prevent this from becoming just another buyout; groundbreaking is scheduled for this fall. The site was once a whole different kind of good earth: a sugar farm, the kind where black laborers carved through the soil with hoes and slung machetes to cut down cane, doing all the work so someone else could reap the profits. When I tried to find the old plantation, I grew lost in the cul-de-sacs that run along its edges, lined with blocky houses, dense and heavy. Wide lawns, tightly trimmed, abutted driveways where pickup trucks and speedboats sat gleaming. It was the American dream in miniature, which is to say the source of our American nightmare. There is a danger in saying that this seems like a mismatch for the islanders; Indians are not creatures of a lost past. But I do admire the way that people live on the island, and think it offers a lesson for all of us about how we might relate to the Earth.
Brunet, it turned out, had been driving past the property for many years, on errands into town, though there was no reason to notice one more patch of overworked dirt. Only recently had he begun to contemplate the fact that these rows of sugarcane might become his home. This spring, the state began sending case managers to the island to talk with residents about whether they will move into the new community. Brunet said that the state had stopped by, but—like most of the islanders I met on my walks—he had yet to tell them what he’d do.
He wore a camouflage shirt and fiddled with a cell phone, and with his light skin, an inheritance from a French wing of the family, he could have passed for any other down-the-bayou Cajun. As he noted at one point in our conversation, he doesn’t wear deerskin or feathers; still, he hoped the state would notice who he is at heart. “I have an identity,” he said. “I have a location. I have a community. For me, that’s where it starts.” He was speaking slowly, as if letting each sentence settle. “I have to honor what I come from. I have to honor first who I am.”
We sat in the lengthening light of the afternoon; the stands of grass at the edge of his yard, buzzing with insects, hid how much water surrounded us, how much of the island was gone. Brunet knew that he might need to go too, eventually, and he attempted to explain the questions he was asking himself now. “A house is a house,” he said at one point. “Whether you build it for a white man, whether you build it for anybody—a house is a house.” A community, though, a Native American community, especially—that is something else. Which was he being offered? That, he told me, is what he is trying to discern.
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