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Economic Rebirth After the Storm

United for a Fair Economy helps the devastated Houma Nation organize a new economic model for itself.
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Tom Varnado, Amy Graham
Tom Varnado from the Houma Nation, and United for a Fair Economy workshop facilitator Amy Graham, a Cherokee, chat about the nation's future after Katrina and Rita

After the hurricane sisters Katrina and Rita  rampaged through the Houma Nation 40 Miles outside of New Orleans, many of the tribal citizens found their homes, businesses and family mementos lost to the storms' fury. But what they still had was hope, determination, and a history of survival. In collaboration with First Nations Oweesta Corporation, United for a Fair Economy, (UFE) had the privilege of meeting tribal members to help them create a vision for the rebirth of their land.

When Katrina and Rita hit, much of the attention was given to the city of New Orleans. While those in the city are still in dire need, those on the outskirts of the city were also gravely affected and have received very little attention. The Houma Nation is made up of nearly 11,000 citizens and 3,500 of those citizens were affected by the hurricanes with 1,000 left homeless. The Houma are not federally recognized, and have been seeking recognition by the Bureau of Indian Affairs for over twenty years. The lack of federal recognition has kept them from receiving resources that could have improved their lives in the past, and which could help restore their community now. Evidence that they are indeed a tribe include the fact that their elders speak no English: they speak a pure version of 17th century French learned from French settlers, which has long since disappeared from any other part of Louisiana. The government's position is that no new tribes will be recognized; the Houma believe that this position stands because the government doesn't want to give any more benefits to Native peoples.

What did United for a Fair Economy have to offer the Houma people? United for a Fair Economy is a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization raising awareness that concentrated wealth and power undermine the economy, corrupt democracy, deepen the racial divide, and tear communities apart. Our role was to help them see how government policies had created unfair economic advantages for whites over Natives throughout North American history, to celebrate their past successes against all odds, and to encourage them to use a range of tools to make their community more successful than it was before the storm. Because they have different definitions of wealth and success, we used Native principles to provide a foundation for their economic rebirth.

We began with the Frog.

Many tribes know the Frog as the protector of the wetlands. Story has it that when things were going well, Frog was honored and respected. However, when a severe drought hit, it was found that Frog had swallowed all the water keeping it from the people. When Coyote got wind of the devastation he came to the rescue and stabbed Frog in the stomach, which then allowed the waters to rush forth. The release of the waters caused a massive flood, which carved out a new landscape. While it devastated some land, it also brought forth new life. After the flood things were not the same and much was lost forever. But new things came about that were good for the community, and many saw the affects of the flood as a rebirth of the land, part of Mother Earth's natural cycle.

The idea of rebirth in the land resonated strongly with the Houma Nation. A lively discussion ensued about the current state of inequality in the U.S. economy, racial disparities between whites and Natives, the oppressive Native history that helped lead to the current economy, and current policies such as regressive taxation that exacerbates the racial divide. When they defined “wealth,” they did not mention money or possessions first; they named family, health, and the willow trees. We noted that in today's world, you do need some financial assets to ensure the long-term security of your family and tribe. The Native image of the wheel or circle led to different models of economic development. In the straight-line model that is commonly practiced, dollars flow through Native communities; for example, when people shop at Wal-Mart. Using a role play of potential Houma businesses, they saw how dollars could be kept and circulated within the community circle, benefiting more tribal members if they bought from each other. Wal-Mart took a good beating!

Oweesta, a Native development organization working at the local level to enhance tribal capacity, presented the idea of a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) to the Houma. Having their own CDFI rather than relying on big banks would allow them to maintain control over their own resources; tribal control is one of the principles for Native success. An even wider social circle is found in UFE's “wheel of prosperity.” When people participate in the U.S. political process, they can use their political power to create policies that benefit themselves and society as a whole. Without that participation, the Waltons, owners of Wal-Mart, buy the policies that make the five Walton brothers and sisters among the twenty richest people in the country, each worth eighteen billion dollars! We used the example of tax policy to show that the Houma pay more than their fair share, and do not get commensurate benefits.

For example, when people shop at Wal-Mart. Using a role play of potential Houma businesses, they saw how dollars could be kept and circulated within the community circle, benefiting more tribal members if they bought from each other. Wal-Mart took a good beating!

The Houma are an amazing people. They have withstood two back-to-back storms and come out a stronger nation. In spite of their losses, they have optimism, lively senses of humor, and ideas for renewal. They plan to repair their boats so they can shrimp again, start an Internet café, and sell Cajun foods and Native crafts. In order to keep their tribe together, the Houma want to buy 160 acres of land in a new location, away from the waters that have taken over their current land, fields, and homes. The day ended with traditional drumming and dancing by the children.  It's clear that their community has the potential to sustain their nation, culture, and legacy for many years to come.

However, they still need the seed money to birth a new economy.

To close our workshop with the Houma, Amy, who is Cherokee and UFE facilitator, shared another Native story.

A long time ago, three Yellow Jacket Sisters were the only ones that had fire. Even though the other animals were freezing, the Yellow Jackets kept the fire from them. Wise Old Coyote, however, devised a plan to steal the fire and he enlisted the other animals to help. The Coyote diverted the Yellow Jackets, seized a burning stick, and ran away with the fire. As the Yellow Jackets chased him, he handed off the burning stick to the Eagle, who then handed it to the Mountain Lion. Several handoffs later, the Frog hid a hot coal in his mouth and went down to the river bottom and the Yellow Jackets finally gave up. When the Frog spit out the coal from his mouth, the Willow Tree swallowed it. Then the Coyote showed the animals how to extract the fire by rubbing two sticks together over dry moss. Once the animals had fire, each night they would gather in a circle around it while the elders shared stories from the past.

In the case of the United Houma Nation, the question remains, “Who will provide the fire?” With a widening circle of Houma supporters now including national organizations like Oweesta and UFE, together we can enlist the help of many. As the story illustrates, when we all work together, merge our resources, and keep the resource wheel turning, in the end we are all richer for it: we can maintain stewardship of our health, our families, and our willow trees for another seven generations to come.

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