Saving the island seemed like a lost cause. In 2002, the Corps decided to exclude the island from a massive 72-mile levee system it was planning, dooming it to a future underwater.
Naquinâ€™s first two attempts to resettle the community failed, as the Corps required a unanimous buy-in, and a small group of residents did not want to leave.
â€śYou canâ€™t get 100% of people to agree on anything,â€ť he said.
Naquin pressed on, working with nonprofits and the state to develop a plan for a community with homes on stilts, a bayou, grocer, tribal museum, green space for powwows and grazing land for buffalo.
â€śThis here canâ€™t be remade some place. Itâ€™s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, a setting away from the world.â€ť
Chris Brunet, a lifelong resident of Isle de Jean Charles
In his vision, the community would be not just a safe place for island residents but also a gathering point for the 600 members of his tribe now scattered across coastal Louisiana.
But soon after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development dedicated $48 million to the project in 2016, a rival tribe, United Houma Nation, came forward with a complaint: It had been left out of the plan despite having historic ties to the island.
Interviewing islanders, state officials found that most, but not all, identified â€” at least loosely â€” with the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw. A few said they did not trust tribal leaders to execute a resettlement fairly.
That put Louisiana officials in an awkward position: Federal law does not allow housing projects to discriminate based on tribal affiliation or race.
In a decision that remains a major sticking point with Naquinâ€™s tribe, the state went on to invite both tribes to the table as â€śstakeholdersâ€ť with the aim of rebuilding the islandâ€™s â€śuniqueâ€ť culture.
â€śHUD would not have given us money just to go build a subdivision,â€ť said Patrick Forbes, executive director of the Louisiana Office of Community Development. â€śWe would consider it a failure if all we did was get people moved out of harmâ€™s way.â€ť
The state plans to create lots for 150 single-family homes on land that had been used for sugarcane fields about 40 miles northwest of the island. The new settlement would also include wetlands, bayous, orchards, a fishing pond, a solar farm and a pasture.
About 30 households â€” islanders who live full time on the island or were displaced after Hurricane Isaac in 2012 â€” are eligible for a new home. Some former residents displaced before then would be eligible for a vacant lot, and then any remaining lots would likely be auctioned to the public.
The chief is instructing island residents not to move.
â€śThe state stole our plan to get the money and now they are running off with it,â€ť he said. â€śIt wasnâ€™t for the white folks. We were supposed to have a tribal community.â€¦ Now anybody can go.â€¦ Itâ€™s going to be like a Section 8 subdivision.â€ť
Residents would be allowed to keep their existing homesteads â€” at least as long as they are above water â€” with the stipulation that they canâ€™t be sold, rebuilt or used as a primary residence.
The tribe balks at those conditions, complaining the deal gives native islanders fewer rights than the cluster of outsiders who have second homes or fishing shacks on the island. State officials counter that those people are not getting new $170,000 houses.
Residents also worry they will struggle to pay higher property taxes or home insurance in the new community â€” despite state assurances that those costs will be offset by the energy-saving design of the new homes â€” on top of their bills if they keep their old properties.
â€śThe plan was to reunite the tribe, and now itâ€™s going to be destroyed,â€ť Naquin said. â€śInstead of fixing it, I broke it.â€ť
Only one islander showed no hesitation about moving.
â€śWhile thereâ€™s an opportunity to move to higher ground, wisdom says take advantage of it,â€ť said Father Roch Naquin, a sprightly 86-year-old retired Catholic priest. â€śIf you do not move now and something terrible happens, where are you going to go?â€ť
When he speaks to neighbors, he urges them to have faith that they can bring their spirit to a new place.
â€śLife changes,â€ť he said. â€śJust as somehow there was a community built up over here, we have to wake up and build a community wherever we are. Thatâ€™s the important thing.â€ť
Many residents said that holding on to their native land, or just keeping on with tradition, seemed more important than building a new community.
â€śI stick to myself,â€ť said Bert Naquin, 61, a health clinic clerk who moved back to the island a year ago after her mother died, affixing a green sign to her front deck saying the home was not for sale. â€śIâ€™m not afraid to live here by myself.â€ť
No matter how many residents ultimately decide to move, a small band of die-hards vows to resist.
â€śI stay, me,â€ť said Dardar, the fisherman, as he stood underneath his raised home slicing a fresh trout with a fillet knife. â€śI ainâ€™t planning to go nowhere, because I don’t think the islandâ€™s going nowhere.â€ť
Now that the saltwater comes closer to his backyard, he prefers to focus on the positive: He can catch redfish and shrimp where he used to hunt ducks.
â€śI say itâ€™s changed for the better, me,â€ť he said. â€śNo complaints from me!â€ť
Dardar does not bother himself worrying about whether water will eventually submerge Island Road, cutting his family off from the mainland.
â€śWe would do it the same way, like my dad used to do,â€ť he said with a defiant jut of his chin. â€śGo get the stuff by boat.â€ť