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Devon Parfait’s earliest memories are of the Louisiana bayou. He spent countless hours on his grandfather Pierre’s shrimping boat, hauling up freshly baited traps and hearing old family stories. His family, part of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, had lived off the water for generations.
But those days came to an abrupt end in 2005 when Hurricane Rita tore through Dulac, Louisiana, destroying his family’s residence along with nearly 9,900 other homes in Terrebonne Parish. Pierre’s boat was split in two.
Parfait and his family left Dulac, along with many members of the community, and Parfait, who was 8 years old at the time, spent the rest of his childhood shuttling between southern Louisiana and eastern Texas. He attended four different schools in the span of eight years.
Now 25, Parfait is helping his community navigate a future made uncertain by climate change. Last year he became chief of the 1,100-member Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe.
“I always knew I wanted to work on behalf of my people,” Parfait said. He was chosen to be chief when he was 12 years old, after showing what former chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar (a distant cousin) described as a persistent interest in preserving tribal customs and helping the community. “Having the title of future chief has guided me throughout my life, helping me to make decisions so that I would be prepared to be a leader in our future community.”
Parfait lives in Marrero, about an hour from Dulac. As chief, he represents his tribe in negotiations with local and state governments, works with elders to organize community events, and leads outreach to other tribes. When he’s not attending to those duties, he’s working as a coastal resilience analyst at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). There, he researches technical solutions to land loss, like sediment diversions and shoreline protection, and organizes with other regional advocacy groups. It’s a combination he describes as a “dream role.”
“You don’t get a salary as chief,” he said. “[This way], I can do my duty as chief supporting my community while also making sure I can afford to live.”
In the 18 years since Rita, coastal erosion has claimed hundreds of square miles of southern Louisiana. Today, only about 800 people live in Dulac, down from 2,500 in 2000, and the only remaining grocery store is a Dollar Tree.
“All the time I hear from people that they want to leave, because of Dulac’s economy and cost of living,” Parfait said, adding that flood insurance was a major expense for most residents around Louisiana’s low-lying areas. “Even with all my luck, I still struggle, so what about everyone else?”
Indigenous groups across the country face existential threats due to climate change. In 2016, residents of Isle de Jean Charles, about 10 miles east of Dulac, became known as the nation’s first “climate refugees” after they received a $48 million federal grant to relocate inland. Most residents there belong to another branch of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe.
The relocation efforts, also known as managed retreat, were marred by accusations that the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversaw the process, disenfranchised tribal leaders, and failed to reunify the community.
“Bureaucratic exclusion is just the latest challenge,” Parfait said, noting that the government breaking deals with tribes is “nothing new. That’s why we need to keep organizing.”
In 2021, Congress approved $130 million to help more tribes relocate. But the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band, though recognized by the state of Louisiana, is not recognized by the federal government, despite the band’s repeated applications for recognition.
That means Parfait’s community cannot access federal relocation or recovery aid, funds for tribal climate mitigation projects, or even compensation from the Deepwater Horizon and BP oil spill settlements (the latter still contributes the lion’s share of Louisiana’s environmental funding). Instead, each household is left to apply for assistance on its own.
Consequently, many families — including Parfait’s — cannot access the funds they need to rebuild. “We need direct interaction with FEMA, just like other tribal and community leaders, if we are going to coordinate repairs and crisis response effectively and at scale,” Parfait said.
Long Standing Inequities
Indigenous groups in the US have lost more than 99 percent of their historical land, according to a study published in Science in 2021. When those groups were dispossessed of their land, they were typically pushed to less desirable land that today is more vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
From witnessing Dulac’s decline and hearing stories from his grandfather and other fishermen, Parfait had always sensed that his community was losing land more quickly than its non-Indigenous neighbors. In 2022, when he was a senior at Williams College, he set out to prove it.
By studying satellite imagery of southern Louisiana, he found that majority-Indigenous communities around the Grand Caillou and Dulac area were losing land at more than twice the rate of the rest of the state.
“Erasure of tribal knowledge is a constant fight,” Parfait said. “You need to frame issues in ways that force decision-makers to pay attention. To produce something communities can use to advocate around land loss was really powerful to me,” Parfait said. “If we don’t, nobody will.”
As a coastal resilience analyst, he advocates for technical solutions to land erosion, like canal-filling, which he describes as a way to let “the land heal naturally. These practices won’t be enough to stop coastal erosion in its tracks, but “it can help to buy us incredibly valuable time,” Parfait said.
For Parfait, one of the most painful aspects of his family’s displacement was feeling disconnected from his tribe. He never learned to speak the language (a blend of Indigenous and Creole-influenced French) and his grades faltered as he struggled with depression.
As chief, he wants to help the next generation feel connected to their traditions — even if many relocate away from the coast.
He leads marsh field trips for younger members of the tribe to teach them the science behind coastal erosion and frequently offers tours of the bayou to potential advocates, hosting visitors in his family’s home over jambalaya.
He communicates regularly with other tribes across the country who also face displacement. “In some ways, things seem bleak, if you just look at the situation between us and the government,” he said, referring to mistrust stemming from the Isle de Jean Charles relocation efforts and his tribe’s lack of federal recognition. “But there’s a lot we are doing to educate our own community members, connect with other tribes in Alaska and Hawaii and find collaborative ways forward.”
Parfait’s day job with EDF also gives him some hope and a sense of agency. He’s currently developing a methodology to make it easier to fill in canals across the state, something he said will be crucial to slowing coastal erosion.
“While I would like to put unlimited time and effort into saving these lands, I also know there’s a good possibility that they will be gone anyway,” he said. “So we need a plan to be able to relocate together in a way that preserves our culture, heritage, and families.”
This story by Zoe Dutton was originally published by Nexus Media News and is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.