August 10, 2017

Preserving My Culture and Land on the Grand Bayou

VISTA Carmalita problem-solving with with Lowlander Center team

My name is Carmalita Sylve. I live in the Grand Bayou. I am part of the Atakapa-Istak Chawasha Tribe. I have been an AmeriCorps VISTA member at the Lowlander Center for six months now, and I'm honored to be working with others that go above and beyond the call of duty.

I work with some amazing people that have a passion for helping others succeed. Kris Peterson, Alessandra Jerolleman, Rosina Philippe, and Theresa Dardar are with the Lowlander Center and First People’s Conservation Council (FPCC). I’ve been working with another VISTA, Katie Dehart, and soon a third VISTA, Kandi Dardar, will start her service year here.

We work together with six tribes in Louisiana. The Avoyel-Taensa Tribe is just about in the center of the state. Five of them are on the coast:

  • Atakapa-Istak Chawasha of the Grand Bayou Indians
  • Pointe au Chien Indian Tribe
  • Bayou Lafourche Biloxi Chitimacha Tribe
  • Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians
  • Grand Caillou-Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians

Preserving My People, Culture and Land

In May, I was asked to be on a panel at the National Adaptation Forum in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the topic chosen was historic preservation. Another panelist had a different definition of preservation than what I had. I'm glad that there are people out there who want to rescue old buildings, but I'm into preserving my people and our culture by making the tribes self-sustaining and trying to slow down the process of coastal erosion. 

Am I making a difference in my community? I would like to think so. For years, I just concentrated on myself and my family without seeing the needs of my people, my community. Now I hope that I am not too late to try to undo what has been done.

Making a Difference: Recovering Language and Mitigating Coastal Erosion

For example, when my grandparents and parents were younger, they were forbidden to speak Indian French. So, a lot of our people don't use the language or speak very little of it, and our children don't speak it at all. Now having culture camp is important to us so we can teach the language, the history and various cultural ways of doing things to our youth.

Besides helping with the culture camp, I look at grant opportunities for bulk-heading to slow down coastal erosion and for lifts so that our elderly and sick people can come and go, not to be confined to their homes only. Because we are outside of levee protection, our homes had to be elevated 14 to 16 feet off the ground. I suppose if someone got sick now, they would have to be carried down.

Why I Serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA in My Community

Working as a VISTA gives me a sense of accomplishment. Listening to webinars and going to conferences and community meetings gives me and my fellow VISTA a better understanding of how to serve Indian tribes. It also empowers us to be self-sufficient, resilient and determined that no matter what, we will succeed. Being a servant to my people and the other tribes is a great honor; it's my way of giving back.

Carmalita Sylve is a Cultural and Climate Tribal Resilience VISTA member hosted by the Lowlander Center.

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