The Biloxi-Chittamacha-Choctaw, Pointe-au-Chien, and Atakapa-Istak Chawasha Indians live in a part of Southern Louisiana that is losing ground. The sediments that once replenished “uninhabitable” swamplands with silt carried from 41% of the lower United States naturally subside. But, the levee system along the Mississippi River diverts almost the entire flow of the river directly into the Gulf of Mexico, carrying the sediment with it. Canals built to service the oil and gas industries and increasingly intense tropical storms have caused severe erosion and allowed salt water to intrude where once all was fresh water. This has killed vegetation, leaving “ghost trees” and removing even more of the land. Added to that, sea level is rising.
One community, on the Isle de Jean Charles, has lost 98 percent of its land. It is connected to the “mainland” by a road that is often inundated by storms or when the wind blows from certain directions. Many community members have relocated for jobs and school. Their culture has shifted over recent decades from subsistence trapping, fishing, and agriculture in bayous once rich with wildlife, to mariculture such as crabbing and shrimping, and work in the in surrounding communities including work in the nearby petroleum-based industries.
Many southern Louisiana tribes lack federal recognition, which means they have been ineligible for assistance from agencies such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) or the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The residents of Isle de Jean Charles have been told by the authorities that their road will not be repaired and power lines will not be rebuilt when these are damaged again in future storms. Fresh water is currently piped to the island due to its unsafe local water supply.
After initially resisting relocation, the remaining Isle de Jean Charles residents have decided to move approximately 40 miles inland, and are in negotiation with government agencies regarding implementation of this choice. There has been a great deal of “red tape” and many delays, however members continue to hope to be able to bring their extended families back together, and to develop renewable energy resources in their new home.
With coordination and assistance from the Lowlander Center in March 2018, six tribal members traveled to the Handy Village Institute in North Carolina to learn how to use hand and power tools for woodworking and metalworking to build a wind-powered electric generator “from scratch.” They joined three local participants in a week-long workshop led by Dan Bartmann to fabricate one of his designs for a “Homebrew” horizontal, axial-flux, air gap generator with a 13-foot area swept by hand-carved wooden blades. This design, in turn, is inspired by the work of Hugh Piggott in Scoraig, Scotland. Workshop participants in Saxapahaw, NC, hand-wound copper coils to build a stator, and secured powerful magnets to build a rotor. They assembled these with a nacelle built from a trailer axle, and added a tail to complete a new machine in six-days.
Current plans are to prepare this small wind turbine for their marine environment and then ship it to the tribal center in Montegut, Louisiana, to be mounted on a tower where it will generate electricity. Tribal participants reported an interest in repeating this workshop process to continue developing their woodworking, metalworking, and electrical skills and to build additional generators for the other tribal centers. Four tribal women with limited experience using power tools or torches found they could cut and join metal and wood with satisfaction and pride. With some additional collaboration with the Handy Village Institute team, including instructor Dan Bartmann, participants in the workshop expect they will be able to build, maintain, and repair these machines to keep them running in their own communities.
- with gratitude and appreciation for input and corrections from Jack Martin and Kristina Peterson.