A midsummer breeze blows the Spanish moss as the coffee brews in preparations for an afternoon visit on the porch of Tribal elder Wenceslaus Billiot, Sr. As we sit discussing the days before erosion and roads, he motions to an area of water that was once prime real estate for fur trapping. The memories of the past brighten the face of the ninety-year-old elder. In Alaska, another section of land has fallen into the sea as the permafrost and sand below deteriorates. Another pot of coffee as people discuss the road that fell into the water during the last storm; and talk about when the ice will freeze for travel over the ocean. Both communities slipped into the water; both communities holding onto their lifeways and traditions.
Kigiqtamiut Inupiat and Jean Charles Choctaw Nation lands, the earth, the ocean, the rivers, the animals, and the people are an interconnected system that have survived since time immemorial. Elder knowledge, intimate understanding of nature and weather cycles, and traditions of food gathering have allowed Kigiqtamiut and Jean Charles Choctaw Nation people to live through extreme changes on the coast, changes in social life, and the attempted genocide of Indigenous people throughout North America. These two Indigenous communities now stand on the edge of a climate crisis.
However, village life in Shishmaref, in Kigiqtamiut lands, and Isle de Jean Charles is also hard. Shishmaref lacks running water and other basic health infrastructure that most people in the US take for granted. Isle de Jean Charles struggles with frequent instances of water contamination and risk of Naegleria fowleri which render the water unusable. For both villages economic opportunities are limited and the struggle to make ends meet is real. Added to these challenges now are flooding and erosion, disasters brought on by relative sea level rise and climate change. Aid to relocate communities and protect lifeways has not been forthcoming and the communities face the real challenge of having homes and land washed away.
Artists Dennis Davis and Chantel Comardelle have partnered to bring us a multimedia exhibit showcasing the beauty of culture and the price of the climate crisis. The stunning images will introduce you to their communities and sacred traditions. The voice of elders and stories of seasons past will transport you to a time when life was less complex . The turbulent and unjust events of climate and environmental crisis will invoke inward reflection on your future choices.
Hundreds of journalists have photographed and written about life in Isle de Jean Charles and Shishmaref, Alaska – but none has shown the whole heart of the story. Along with homes falling in the ocean, and roads covered in water, this exhibit captures the love, warmth, power, knowledge and genius of Indigenous lifeways, of living with the environment in sustainable relations, while showing simultaneously the struggle of adapting to a quickly changing environment and a political world that cannot cope with these changes.
Chantel Dolphin Lady Comardelle has a deep passion for her community and culture. Chantel is a wife and mother of three beautiful children Isaiah, Faith, and Jake. Research and photography has always been a passion of Chantel. Being able to weld the two together in “Preserving Our Place” and other Tribal projects has been a rewarding experience.
As Tribal Secretary of the Jean Charles Choctaw Nation, she serves the Tribal Council and citizens with vigor. Chantel has served in this role since 2000, acting as a Tribal Representative while simultaneously juggling Tribal communications, archival and historical research, and grant writing responsibilities. Her current areas of focus include Federal Recognition, Tribal Resettlement and the Preserving Our Place Movement. These projects allow Chantel to use her professional and organizational skills to advance the Tribal Community. As a lifelong bayou resident, Chantel seeks to positively impact her community for future environmental, economic, and cultural sustainability.
Education has always been important to our Tribal community. For many years our people were denied an education. Chantel is a first generation college graduate with a Bachelor of General Studies from Nicholls State University. In 2016, she started the Certificate of Museum Studies from the Institute of American Indian Arts to learn new archival and conservation skills to help the Tribe preserve their culture in light of their current environmental crisis. Chantel is now in her second year as a Master Student at IAIA in Cultural Administration. It is her hope the knowledge gained will help thrust the Tribe through the Federal Recognition process and finally reach their collective goal of acceptance.
Dennis Davis is a self-taught Inupiat photographer that has been taking pictures and videos of the western coastline of Alaska for over 20 years. He uses an Inupiat vision of the connections between land, animals, and people to create new forms of photography and video, that offer a glimpse into the subsistence lifestyle. Dennis’ goal is to show others what his culture is all about; to highlight the risks that Arctic peoples face with the coming of climate change; and to give a voice to his people.