Editor’s Desk: A tribal leader confronts climate disasters

Devon Parfait, Chief of the Grand Caillou/Dulac band of Biloxi Chitimacha Choctaw, poses for a portrait at his home in Marrero, Louisiana. Photo by Edmund D. Fountain

By Samuel Fromartz

The story has become disturbingly familiar: A series of climate disasters, from extreme rain to drought to hurricanes, forces desperate people to migrate. We see this among asylum seekers on the U.S.- Mexico border, in flimsy boats crammed with refugees in the Mediterranean and on the coast of Louisiana, where rising waters and storms are displacing local tribes. This is the focus of Barry Yeoman’s latest story for FERN, produced in collaboration with Harvard Public Health magazine. Here, Yeoman profiles a young chief, Devon Parfait, of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, as he confronts this new era.

“The 1,100-citizen tribe has traditionally fished and hunted along this fertile edge of the Gulf of Mexico,” Yeoman writes. “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.”

Parfait trained as a geoscientist, so he is familiar with the climate crisis, but navigating the tribe through this terrain is new to him. As Yeoman writes, Parfait faces both “an existential crisis and a leadership burden.” He’s crafting a plan but cognizant of the obstacles ahead.

Please give this story, which features photographs by Edmund D. Fountain, a read, for it will make you think about what’s here, and also what’s coming. As always, we thank you for your support of our work. It makes stories like this possible.