As climate change erodes land and health, one Louisiana tribe fights back
Devon Parfait steers his truck into the parking lot of what used to be a firehouse on Shrimpers Row in Dulac, Louisiana. He tries to get his bearings in a landscape both familiar and strange. He spies a bayou down a side street, so we walk in that direction, searching for traces of the home his family fled as Hurricane Rita barreled in. Back then, in 2005, Parfait was a second grader who collected Ranger Rick Zoobooks. Today he’s a 25-year-old coastal scientist with a mop of curls, a nose ring, and a puzzled look in his brown eyes.
“I’m scanning through the memory of all my old neurons,” he tells me. “Maybe this is it. Maybe it really has just changed so much I don’t even recognize it.”
Parfait’s January 2023 visit isn’t just for nostalgia. He’s the new chief of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, and he’s getting reacquainted with his community. The 1,100-citizen tribe has traditionally fished and hunted along this fertile edge of the Gulf of Mexico. But human engineering and extreme storms have reshaped Louisiana’s coastline, swallowing up 2,000 square miles of land since the 1930s. Many of the land patents granted to the tribe’s ancestors in a 19th-century treaty are now largely or wholly underwater. Land loss has chiseled away at tribal livelihoods and traditional diets, exacted a toll on citizens’ mental health, exacerbated chronic illnesses, and displaced families.
The Grand Caillou/Dulac Band and its neighbors also serve as harbingers of a climate crisis that threatens more intense high-tide floods on every U.S. coast by the mid-2030s. Unless protective measures are taken, rising waters could displace up to 13 million Americans by century’s end—“a magnitude similar to the twentieth century Great Migration of southern African-Americans,” wrote the authors of a 2016 University of Georgia analysis.
As we stand alongside the bayou, overshadowed by tall dry grass, a car pulls up to a nearby house. An older couple gets out and Parfait approaches them. “I’m trying to figure out if this is the place I used to live,” he says, naming his grandparents.
“I’m a Parfait,” the woman volunteers.
“Oh! Hey! Give me a hug then,” the chief says.
The couple lead Parfait to the footprint of his old home, now a garden bed that, later in the year, will produce mustard greens, speckled butter beans, and tomatoes. A fig tree Parfait remembers remains, but the rope swing of his childhood has vanished. The couple, who have lived here almost 50 years, say the land has eroded so much that the backmost six feet of their property has crumbled into the bayou.
Parfait understands the changes he sees represent both an existential crisis and a leadership burden. He prepared for this moment by leaving Louisiana to study geosciences. Now he’s back, crafting a plan to hold his tribe together, and shaking the hands he needs to get it rolling. Still, he’s cognizant of the obstacles ahead.
Coastal land loss has upended life in South Louisiana—for Cajun, Black, and Creole residents, for Vietnamese refugees and their descendants, and in particular for the half-dozen Indigenous tribes that rely on the abundance of its wetlands. Some 11,000 Native Americans live in the four coastal parishes (counties) with the highest Indigenous concentrations—flat expanses of two-lane roads that parallel bayous lined with oaks, elevated houses, and shrimp boats, and occasionally converge on small, industry-thick cities.
Cleveland “Coco” Rodrigue, a 61-year-old shrimper and citizen of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band, says he used to walk into the woods near his house in Dulac and hunt ducks and rabbits—“live off the land.” But those woods are gone, replaced by water. “Now, you step out your back door,” he says, “you’re going to sink.”
These losses stem from vast projects that altered the Mississippi River and its delta. The building of flood-control levees, according to many scientists, has prevented sediment from reaching and replenishing wetlands that naturally subside. The dredging of 10,000 miles of artificial canals by oil and gas companies altered the delta’s hydrology. Shipping channels allow saltwater to penetrate inland. Until recently, climate change was a minor factor, but now accelerating sea-level rise threatens even more inundation. Fewer wetlands mean less protection from hurricanes, which lately have intensified. The storms themselves erode the coast—a feedback loop of destruction.
Land loss impedes not just hunting and trapping but also raising livestock. Vegetable gardens face higher flood risk. Fishing and shrimping have become dicier, partly because the wetlands serve as nurseries for aquatic animals. Loss of natural food sources mean tribal citizens now have to rely more on grocery stores than in the past. But historic discrimination, like being kept out of public schools until the 1940s, has created barriers to wealth that have spanned generations. In the parish that includes Dulac, the poverty rate is 30 percent for Native Americans and 12 percent for non-Hispanic White people.
“When you don’t have the funds to purchase foods that are healthier, or better quality, you’re going to get what you can get [to] fill your stomach,” says Shirell Parfait-Dardar, Parfait’s predecessor as chief. Alongside this shift toward less healthy processed food, she has seen a rise in heart disease and diabetes.
Parfait-Dardar’s anecdotal observations square with national figures (local data are hard to come by). Native Americans, for whom diabetes was once rare, now have twice the rate of White Americans. Obesity and cardiovascular illness run rampant, too. A key culprit is the shift from traditional to Western diets, whether because of forced migration, environmental degradation, or government policies like the mandated thinning of livestock herds.
Beyond dietary disease, tribal leaders describe crushing stress from living in a place that’s increasingly uninhabitable. “Everyone here is suffering from PTSD, myself included,” says Parfait-Dardar, whose home Hurricane Ida leveled in 2021. Researchers studying the Gulf Coast have seen domestic abuse and substance-use disorders spike after hurricanes. The former chief has seen similar patterns in her tribe.
Health experts call the psychological and dietary tolls inseparable. “Stress triggers hormones that let you eat more, and eat more junk,” says Maureen Lichtveld, dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health, who has researched and collaborated with Indigenous people in the Louisiana bayous. “Stress also triggers sleeping less. A short night’s rest actually increases obesity. So, the physiological consequences of stress feed into the social consequences of stress. And that, I think, is a cycle very difficult to break.”
Julie Maldonado, an anthropologist who has studied Louisiana’s tribes and is now working with them on issues like climate adaptation, says contemporary stresses are intertwined with a collective trauma that stretches back centuries. European colonization set the stage for the altered coastal landscape, the pollution, the hurricane damage, the growing untenability of commercial fishing, the scattering of neighbors.
“What people often talk about is a legacy of atrocities, or these cascading effects as these disasters are layered upon each other over time,” says Maldonado, associate director of the non-profit Livelihoods Knowledge Exchange Network and a lecturer at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Now, as these climate-driven events get closer together, become more intense…you’re still recovering from one when the next one hits.”
That’s a lot of history to place on the shoulders of a Generation Z chief. But Parfait is in an unusual position: He knows firsthand how environmental changes can affect a community’s health, and he has done the academic work to help him address the underlying causes.
The summer of 2005, when Parfait’s family was forced from its home, was especially bad for land loss: Hurricanes Katrina and Rita alone claimed 217 square miles. After Rita destroyed the house and ruined his grandfather’s shrimp boat, the three-generation family uprooted three times. They traveled a 200-mile circuit before settling into the New Orleans suburb of Marrero. Parfait’s mother, Dana, wanted him to have a male mentor, so she sent him to live with her brother. But his uncle was also struggling, and eventually committed suicide.
Already diagnosed with ADHD (a condition linked to childhood trauma) and depression, Parfait retreated into himself. “He rarely came out of his room,” says his mother. He failed his freshman year of high school.
But Parfait’s curious mind caught the attention of his mother’s cousin, then-chief Parfait-Dardar. As early as age 12, he watched her try to gain federal recognition for the tribe, a cumbersome, elusive, ongoing process that could bring financial benefits and self-governance rights. He asked questions and offered to help, and over time Parfait-Dardar identified him as her eventual successor. (Each chief names the next.) “When I recognized that it was him—and I still get chills today—it was like the ancestors spoke,” she says.
To face the tribe’s issues, Parfait needed a specific kind of education. It happened that the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band has a relationship with the Williams-Mystic Program, a collaboration of Williams College and Mystic Seaport Museum that runs a coastal field seminar in Louisiana. Rónadh Cox, a geosciences professor at Williams and seminar instructor, invited him to a scientific meeting in 2017, noticed his drive and curiosity, and wondered if her school might entertain a transfer from his community college. “This could be a moment where we can do something,” she remembers thinking, “to make a difference, to give back to the tribe.”
Admissions officers at Williams, a competitive liberal arts college, looked at Parfait’s grades and declined his application. After another year of academic preparation, he reapplied to Williams and this time was accepted. At Williams, Parfait studied geosciences and collaborated with Cox on several mapping projects related to the tribe’s historic territory. One showed the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band and nearby Jean Charles Choctaw Nation were losing land faster than the surrounding basins, and at more than double the rate of Louisiana’s entire coast.
Parfait always imagined his tenure as tribal chief would begin in the distant future. But as he was finishing up his undergraduate degree in 2022, Parfait-Dardar called to say she was ready to step down. “I knew what we were facing,” she says: further land loss, potential dispersion, continued public health challenges. “And Devon had the education that I don’t have.” Knowing the burden Parfait would be taking on, the outgoing chief also called his mother. “I’m so sorry,” she said.
After graduating, Parfait returned home and started working as a coastal science coordinator for the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). In August 2022, he recited the oath of office at a kitchen-table ceremony scaled down for the pandemic. That same month, he turned 25.
One of Parfait’s first orders of business as chief was to assist an intertribal effort to get the federal government’s attention. The Grand Caillou/Dulac Band had teamed up with four other tribes—one from Alaska, the others from Louisiana—that have seen their traditional lands disappear. The five had petitioned for a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), alleging that the government had failed to protect them from the impacts of climate change and other human-caused disasters.
The consequences, the petition claimed, amounted to a forcible displacement. Grand Bayou Indian Village, home to the Atakapa-Ishak/Chawasha, has lost nearly all its land; the handful of remaining houses sit on pilings and can only be reached by boat. Jean Charles Choctaw Nation has watched its ancestral island erode down to a sliver and the state’s relocation plans devolve into conflict over how much decision-making power the tribe would retain.
The IACHR, part of the Organization of American States, had scheduled a hearing for October, two months after Parfait’s swearing-in. The commission lacks binding powers for the U.S. government, “but it’s still important,” says Maryum Jordan, an attorney with EarthRights International who worked with the tribes on the hearing. “This is a key moment to put displacement on the radar at the international level. And it’s also an opportunity to pressure the government to do more.”
The hearing was online, but there were private in-person meetings, too. The day before, Parfait took an early-morning flight to Washington, D.C., where the team huddled over sandwiches and cupcakes, crafting testimony and supplemental material. They met with a White House official. And they talked with an IACHR attorney to provide more context than they could squeeze into the 90-minute hearing. Parfait talked about how colonialism had altered the coastal environment, making it harder for the tribes to stay self-sufficient.
The next day, Parfait watched off-camera as his predecessor, Parfait-Dardar, logged in from a hotel ballroom in Thibodaux, Louisiana—in her emerita role as elder chief, she retains moral authority and years of knowledge. She sat at a conference table with Rosina Philippe, an elder from Grand Bayou. Tribal banners hung behind them.
“The lands once lush and fruitful have eroded away, so that all that remains today are strips of land that stick out like fragile fingers on a badly wounded hand,” Parfait-Dardar testified. The declining harvest, compounded by education discrimination, “has led us into lifeways that have also caused negative consequences for our mental and physical health.” And without federal recognition, she said, the tribe can’t secure the funding it needs to recover from hurricanes and adapt to climate change.
After Parfait-Dardar and three other tribal representatives made their case, the U.S. government responded. Department of Interior staffer Joaquin Gallegos, who is from the Jicarilla Apache Nation and the Pueblo of Santa Ana, acknowledged that climate change poses “existential threats” to Native economies and health. But, Gallegos said, the government “takes its political and legal responsibilities to Indigenous people seriously,” funding climate-resilience programs, supporting traditional food systems like fisheries, and consulting with tribes on issues like relocation.
Still, the panel seemed alarmed by the tribes’ testimony. “Why is it taking so long…to assist these communities?” asked commissioner Margarette May Macaulay, a Jamaican attorney. She announced the IACHR would submit an official request to visit Louisiana and Alaska. “Around the world,” she said, Indigenous tribes “have the least footprint and suffer the greatest crisis from climate change, which is committed by the industrialized state in pursuing industrialized profits.”
Then the laptop screen went dark. Parfait-Dardar turned to Philippe. “OK,” she said. “We survived.”
Philippe exhaled. She had watched the federal officials talk about collaboration. But that didn’t square with her own experience of a process that solicits tribal input without any real intention of disrupting the oil-and-gas economy. “The government—they maintain that whip hand,” she said. “So they can tout and say, ‘We are engaging the tribal communities.’ …But in the end product, we don’t see our suggestions. We see them just forging ahead with what they planned to do in the beginning.”
As winter approaches, Parfait confronts the enormity of his unpaid role as chief. His tribe’s mental and physical health, limited food access, and economic insecurity all demand attention, but so does his full-time day job at EDF. “I can’t do everything,” he says.
Sometimes, public-health problems require action in areas that look tangential but are actually foundational. “You could treat that diabetes, you could tell people to walk,” but health is collective, too, says the University of Pittsburgh’s Lichtveld. “The sense of community cohesion, or the gaps in it, in Indigenous communities is very strong.”
And so Parfait gravitates toward the issue that, to him, undergirds all the others. “How do you live a healthy, happy, productive life,” he says, “when you can physically see your lands eroding away in your backyard?” He fixes on a primary task: pushing for coastal restoration efforts that would slow the degradation enough for his tribe to plan an orderly retreat.
Louisiana has a 50-year, $50 billion coastal master plan, released in 2007 and updated every five to six years. Some of the funding comes from a Deepwater Horizon oil-spill settlement. But no amount of money can fix the entire coast. “It’s not like restoring a chair, where you’re going to strip the old varnish off and put some new stuff on, and it’s going to look exactly the same as it was,” says Denise Reed, a coastal geomorphologist at the University of New Orleans and a member of the master plan development team. “If you have limited resources, where are you going to put them? Where can you achieve most of your objectives?”
A keystone of the state’s coastal program is the $2.3 billion Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion: a gated structure, built into the levee system downriver from New Orleans, that will allow river water and sediment to flow back into the delta. According to the 2023 draft update to the master plan, the diversion could build 21 square miles of new land over the next half-century. “That will serve to protect everything inland,” says Kelly Sanks, a Tulane University sedimentologist. “From a protection-of-New-Orleans standpoint, it’s good and lots of people want it,” including a coalition of large environmental groups.
But the diversion will make flooding more severe for the Atakapa-Ishak/Chawasha in nearby Grand Bayou, and tribes like Grand Caillou/Dulac live too far from the river to benefit.
“So it costs billions of dollars,” Parfait tells me. “It only benefits people 50 years from now. And it does nothing to help the tribal communities.”
The state’s plan acknowledges that some places won’t survive intact. For those residents, it recommends voluntary property acquisition and relocation assistance. This is not a reassuring prospect for Native Americans who watched Jean Charles Choctaw Nation’s dispute with the state over resettlement. “[It] indicates to these communities who are on the frontlines that people have given up on them,” Parfait says.
The chief understands that land loss might continue to force the tribe inland. But he wants the state to invest more in slowing down that loss—“buying time” to prevent citizens from dispersing helter-skelter as his family did after Hurricane Rita. “If you were to do coastal restoration projects to save the land now, and have that community stay there and develop a plan, you have a better chance to save culture, to keep the community cohesive, and to keep families together,” he says.
Topping Parfait’s priority list: seeing those oil-and-gas canals backfilled with the piles of dredged material that run parallel to them. This, some researchers say, could help restore the hydrology the canals wrecked decades ago. The tribes have consulted with R. Eugene Turner, a coastal ecologist at Louisiana State University who calls backfilling a cheap, fast, and effective way to rebuild wetlands. Those wetlands, he says, would in turn provide habitat for the seafood and game that make up the traditional Indigenous diet.
Stuart Brown, the state official who oversees the plan’s development, calls backfilling “one of many tools in the toolbox, not a panacea.” But after meeting with Turner and tribal leaders, he added one sentence to the 2023 draft endorsing the practice. “Now,” he says, “those seeking funding for it can go to the master plan and specifically say, ‘Look, it’s consistent with the plan.’”
When Parfait saw the draft update, he initially had mixed feelings: happy that backfilling got mentioned at all, and saddened by the brevity. “It is kind of an asterisk,” he says.
But he has moved past his disappointment and now views that sentence as a potential pipeline. “It feels like they’re saying, ‘Hey, connect,’” he says. “And that’s exactly what I’m doing.” His calendar is filling with meetings, and his head with strategies. He has met with local officials about a potential backfilling demonstration project that, if it comes about, would be managed by the parish government with tribal input. If that project succeeds, Parfait hopes it will nudge backfilling higher on the state’s priority list.
Parfait often thinks in stories; he calls this a product of his Indigenous heritage. “When I leave this world, what story do I want my life to represent?” he asks. “I don’t want to move forward into a world where we have to be constantly displaced, where we have to be constantly worried about our next meal, where we have to be constantly worried about land loss.” He thinks about his 8-year-old self, fleeing the bayou without his Zoobooks, and all the upheavals he has experienced since. Those memories remain close, guiding his plans for the future.
This article was produced in collaboration with Harvard Public Health Magazine. It may not be reproduced without express permission from FERN. If you are interested in republishing or reposting this article, please contact [email protected]