Kael Alford is a documentary photographer, and writer born in Middletown, NY, in 1971. Alford began her career covering culture and conflict in the Balkans in 1996 and lived between Bulgaria, Serbia and the breakaway province of Kosovo until 2002. She started photographing in the Middle East with a trip to Israel and the Palestinian Territories in 2002, when she moved to Amsterdam, Netherlands.In 2003-2004 Kael photographed in Iraq before during and after the U.S. military invasion. Her photography about the impact and aftermath of the war on the civilians of Iraq is widely exhibited and included in the book: Unembedded: Four Independent Photojournalists on the War in Iraq (Chelsea Green 2005). A portfolio of that work is held in the permanent collection of the High Museum in Atlanta and in private collections. She is returning to Iraq in the summer of 2011 to revisit that project.
For the last 4 years, Alford has been documenting Native American communities on the coast of Louisiana that are facing dislocation due to massive coastal erosion and the environmental impacts of the oil and gas industries. That work will be exhibited at the High Museum in Atlanta in July 2012 and was commissioned by the Museum’s “Picturing the South” series in 2008. Alford continues to take assignments, lecture and write related to her photography projects.
Alford has taught photography at The American University in Bulgaria, Savannah College of Art and Design and the annual Foundry Photo Workshop; she currently teaches at Southern Methodist University. She holds a BA in Literature, an MA in Journalism from the University of Missouri. She was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in 2008-2009 and a Knight Luce Fellow at USC in 2011. Alford is represented by Panos Pictures in London and Jennifer Schwartz Gallery in Atlanta. She now lives in Dallas, Texas.
Point-aux-Chene and Isle Jean Charles Louisiana are two small, largely Native American villages on the coast of Louisiana that are connected by a single road like an umbilical cord. I first traveled to these communities looking for the roots of my grandmother’s family, a melange of French immigrants and Native Americans who came together at the brink of the continent sometime before 1800. My great grandfather kept a hunting camp on the outskirts of Pointe-aux-Chene and taught my only living great uncle how to survive in these coastal marshlands with nothing but a hatchet, as the story goes.
My great, great grandmother was Indian by her outward appearance and stigmatized by non-Indian neighbors when the family moved further inland. A generation before that, a lake in the marshlands south of Pointe-aux Chene was named after my ancestor, Felicity Billiot, the granddaughter of a Biloxi Indian Chief, Houma Courteau, who himself reportedly arrived from Mississippi in the early 1800’s.
I’ve attempted to make to make a visual map of this complex physical and cultural inheritance, and often asked myself how much of it belongs to me. I’ve stumbled upon evidence of what appears sacred, or at least essential, even familiar to my own family, in unexpected places. With distant, relatives but no immediate kin in these two close-knit communities, I have made some friends who help guide me and grown increasingly attached to this place.
The people who live here are fiercely attached to the ailing land and in spite of common intermarriage with French, African American or Mexican descendants, many here maintain a decidedly “Indian” identity. The native Choctow language has been completely supplanted by French and English in the last 100 years, with only a few stray words of their ancestors remaining. Before 1830 or so, the trail of historical documents identifying residents’ origin grows cold. Other than the fragmented records of French and Spanish colonial authorities, the unwritten history is lost.
In a decades-long battle, these two communities and a handful of others nearby have sought the protection of their land and the self-determination that comes with federal acknowledgment of their status as a Native Americans. Achieving this status allows a native nation to interact directly with the federal government. The acknowledgment process is designed to be difficult. Managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, federal law puts the burden of proof of ancestry on people who kept no written documents previous to European contact and whose culture and lineage was systematically dismantled through colonization, war, and forced migration. The pressure to meet the requirements for federally recognized status has bred internal strife reflected in the range of names adopted by various groups in the region. Some call themselves Houma Indian, others say they are members of the Billoxi-Chitimata Confederation of Muskogee. In Pointe-aux-Chene they are simply “The Pointe-aux-Chene Indian Tribe”.
There may not be time to settle the dispute. Since the 1930’s, these coastal communities have been facing a new threat – the coast of Louisiana is disappearing. Eroding into the Gulf of Mexico, the coastline surrounding these communities is loosing a football field of land every 30 minutes, largely as a result of coastal marshlands severely damaged by canals dredged to aid oil and gas extraction. The coastal zone is simultaneously sinking due to the extraction of underlying oil and gas deposits. Land that once supported native, self-sufficient villages full of gardens and cattle is now too unstable to stand on. Burial grounds are sinking into the sea. The fields and forests where my great uncle and his father once hunted have been swallowed by the Gulf of Mexico, leaving open water in its place. After each destructive hurricane that slams the coast, fewer families are able to return and rebuild.
Even as their land is disappearing beneath their feet, the residents of Isle Jean Charles and Pointe-aux-Chene struggle to remain on their ancestral ground. Asked why they refuse to leave for higher ground in the face of this onslaught, they will tell you that this land and the traditions of fishing and self-reliance defines them. Many cannot imagine another way to live. I often wonder what my grandmother and her offspring would have been if she hadn’t abandoned the coast herself and married an Air Force pilot who took her far from here. I hope that this estranged-family album evokes the spirit of these places, and lights a candle for their survival.