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Climate change threatens Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe's cultural sites

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Climate change is impacting different regions in different ways, and communities across the country are finding ways to respond and mitigate the damage caused. For one Louisiana tribe, sea-level rise and erosion threaten their cultural sites. In response, the tribe is using discarded oyster shells to build reefs. WWNO's Halle Parker reports from New Orleans.

HALLE PARKER, BYLINE: Growing up, Lori Stewart remembers shrimping, crabbing and fishing were a way to be with her family. And now she has kids of her own.

LORI STEWART: I didn't see it as a teaching lesson as a kid, but now as an adult, I know that, you know, that was a teaching lesson. It taught me how to live off the land.

PARKER: Living off the land for the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe is getting harder and harder as more of south Louisiana's coastline is lost to the Gulf of Mexico. Stewart says sea-level rise and erosion threaten earthen mounds built by her ancestors. Some might have held houses or been used for ceremonies. Some are old cemeteries, deepening their importance.

STEWART: This is where our ancestors grew up. This is where they're buried.

PARKER: That's why Stewart and her tribe are working to protect them. Recently, volunteers with a local nonprofit traveled down to the southern tip of Terrebonne Parish to help with a unique solution.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Today, we will be building our fifth recycled oyster reef since the program started in 2014.

PARKER: Gloved up and ready to go, volunteers with the Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana form several human chains, leading from giant 2-ton bags of oysters to boats captained by tribe members.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Remember - you got to put these ones in there, too.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Little ones.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Oh, no, that's...

PARKER: Once the boats are piled high with smaller 40-pound sacks of oyster shell, they putter off down Bayou Pointe-au-Chien to Bernard's Mound, or as Donald Dardar from the tribe says in French...

DONALD DARDAR: La butte a Bernard - that's what it was always called.

PARKER: Once there, the group unloads, stacking and splashing the sacks of shell near the mound's edge. When it's done, the reef will stretch about 300 feet along Bernard's Mound and some others nearby, using around 150 tons of oyster shell. Dardar hopes it will succeed in keeping the mound here, despite the state's land-loss crisis.

DARDAR: If we don't try and protect them, our next generation might not even see this. And we could talk about it, but, you know, it's not going to be there to show.

PARKER: These reefs are known as living shorelines. They act as a barrier against erosion, helping to keep the land in place using materials from nature, says Darrah Bach, the coalition's Oyster Shell Recycling Program coordinator.

DARRAH BACH: The beauty of this project is it's self-sustaining. We're creating an ecosystem that hopefully will last for a very long time, if not forever, you could say. You know, it's often said that oyster reefs can outpace sea-level rise. So as the water rises in the Gulf, the reefs will grow upwards as well.

PARKER: The nonprofit collects shells from any willing New Orleans restaurant, then disinfects and recycles them for the community reefs. Not only does it preserve the land, but Bach says it creates new habitat underwater, too. They've seen it in action at their first Pointe-au-Chien reef around another eroding Indian mound. The area swarmed with marine life when Bach last went out, despite taking a hit from Hurricane Ida last year.

BACH: We had live oysters growing from spat to sack size. We had mussels, crabs, barnacles, Gobi fish, shrimp - all sorts of little critters enjoying the reef habitat.

PARKER: The coalition expects to finish the new reef by the end of next year and will keep building more. The tribe is also looking for more ways to slow the loss of land around them. Dardar says the reefs won't be enough.

DARDAR: We're washing away. And if nothing is done, for sure, we're going to just keep washing away.

PARKER: The tribe hopes this is just a start toward protecting their heritage and keeping the tribe's culture and identity alive.

For NPR News, I'm Halle Parker in Pointe-au-Chien, La. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.