Place  /  Longread

Goodbye to Good Earth

A Louisiana tribe’s long fight against the American tide.
A dead tree stands between a ruined building and a destroyed pile of wood in a marsh.
AP Images/Bill Haber

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.