Thriving Against the Tide

In Conversation with Elder Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar and Chief Devon Parfait

In the branching tendrils of the Terrebonne Parish bayous, Chief Devon Parfait took me around Dulac, Louisiana, visiting cultural hallmarks of his people, the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw. As a coastal resilience analyst for the Environmental Defense Fund and newly-titled chief (as of August 2022), Chief Parfait explained the hardships of frontline communities through deeply personal experiences. I visited his family gravesite, where neighbors experienced drifting caskets due to high floodwaters. He showed me where his grandfather’s home used to stand, before Hurricane Rita left it decimated. Since his teens, Chief Parfait has faced constant displacement and has witnessed much of the same for his people over the years due to natural disasters and rapid land loss. The environmental crisis is an immediate threat to the tribal communities who live on the fringes of the bayou region. We took the only stretch of road out of Dulac, Bayou Sale Road, to get to Chauvin. On our way, we pulled off the road to climb the levee and look at the bayou whose shores tightly hug the road. Pointing out at these vast bodies of water, Chief Parfait told me that neighborhoods used to reside on the now-submerged land.

We soon arrived at the house of Elder Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar, who is the former chief, president of the First Peoples’ Conservation Council (FPCC), and also Chief Parfait’s cousin. I sat down with both chiefs to learn about their ongoing struggle to solidify the place of Native peoples in state government offices, leading a long journey toward regaining tribal sovereignty to address the quickly disappearing land they strive to save. They spoke about conservation efforts of the tribes to protect and preserve their cultural lifeways from environmental threats, as well as how they hope to overcome the seemingly never-ending barriers imposed upon them by state bureaucracies.

Can you talk about the land that we’re on, the communities that are here, and a brief history of where we are now?

Chief Devon Parfait: Right now we’re on the lands of coastal Louisiana, this delta that was built out within the past 7,000 years through the Mississippi River tributary system that stretches all across America. It’s one of the largest tributary systems in the world. The sediment that leaks down from all of those rivers ended up making this delta. We have a couple problems with the delta. The delta over time has fluffy sediment that compacts in a process called subsidence. The land is being sunken down and the sea levels are rising, and that’s what gives you that dramatic level of land loss that we see in Louisiana today. The tribal communities that live down here were forced to live on the lowest lands of Louisiana. A lot of these tribal communities are living in these lands and are dealing with this extreme amount of land loss. Traditionally, tribal communities would have been able to move freely across the landscape dealing with storms, dealing with inundation. But now, because of these systems and society that have conformed around these tribal communities, they’re stuck in place and unable to freely move. A lot of the tribal members are either physically losing their lands or being displaced by storms.

Elder Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar: I can say that our tribal community’s a little different from some because most of them have one strip, one bayou—we have two. It’s always been because Grand Caillou and Petit Caillou, they would always go back and forth between each other and made their way through Bayou Sale. Where you’ve seen all of that open water on both sides, that was all land. Our people stayed there. But of course, as things changed over time, they were forced further and further inland. We still do the habits today, we move back and forth. I’ve lived here [in Chauvin] probably whenever I was in my teens. I had stayed here with my Aunt Joann for a bit, went back home to Grand Caillou/Dulac, stayed over there, and I’m back over here. We have still maintained our life ways.

What is the language called?

SPD: It’s Indian French, that’s what we refer to it as. We actually had [Dr.] Nathalie Dajko [linguistics professor] that had came down and met with the tribes some years ago and studied our language. The reason why other people who speak Cajun French or other types of French can’t understand everything that we’re saying is because we still have Choctaw and Chitimacha words in our language. So we’re actively trying to preserve that because it is dying. As we get pushed further and further inland and we have to amalgamate with other communities, you become a part of that community, so you’re no longer using your traditional language. That’s something that needs to be protected for everyone because there’s so much that’s connected to language. My great-grandmother, his great-great-grandmother, Memé Tia, she was a traitor, a healer. She had this little bitty house, she had chickens, she did all of her own herbs, medicinal plants, and people would come to her. We wouldn’t even go to a doctor, we didn’t need to, we had Memé! And it worked. She lived into her 90s… She had this knowledge with the medicinal plants that we had in the area and was able to treat ailments. And that’s another thing that concerns me is that each environment holds these sacred plants that are so in need and, as we lose land, we’re losing those medicinal plants. We’ve lost so many that we don’t have traitors like we used to that can heal heat stroke and things like that. I am a traitor, but my name is different. I’m a traitor de terre, and that means “healer of land.” I think when my uncle gave me that name, it’s in regards to the work that we do, but I was not able to pick up on the knowledge that my great-grandmother had because we’re missing a lot of those plants now. And once it’s gone, it’s gone. The plant, the language, and its meaning are all connected. We’ve seen some pretty drastic change in the community over the years.

Elder Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar at her father’s grave in Dulac.
Photo by Julie Dermansky

Chief Devon was telling me this story about how not only just through natural coastal erosion, but also man-made canals have been affecting vegetation here. It’s probably thrown a wrench into the cultural ways of healing through medicinal herbs. Do you have a recovery plan in the works?

SPD: It’s just from us understanding our purpose here. Everything here is dependent on something else. We’re no different. We’ve been very bad stewards, and we’ve gotten away from the teachings of our ancestors which was respect and preservation, and understanding that that source is finite. So, if you need it, you should absolutely be protecting it first. You don’t take more than what you need. So we drew out a plan for the yard. I went from one acre to almost five acres, thanks to [Hurricane] Ida (so much for down-sizing). But it was actually a blessing, because it gave me more room to be able to do what it is that needs to be done. We’ve caused nature so much harm that her synchronicity’s off. We’re going to be very strategic in what we’re doing, because the goal is to heal, not just let it go. We want to locate medicinal plants, document all of their uses. We want to make sure that we are caring for nature along with ourselves. Pretty much everything that’s going to end up being here will be edible and medicinal.

We have to learn how to live with our environment. Look, nature’s going to do what she does, and she’s pissed. I don’t blame her! Our ancestors knew how to live with nature at one time, that’s why our people were mound builders. We still have mound complexes today. But we each ourselves must be responsible. You can’t just go off harping at what everyone else is doing; what are you doing? We are actively finding ways to do these things ourselves. And if it means we have to use our own property to do it, we’ll do that. 

DP: In terms of physically healing the land, that comes into a lot of the backfilling canals work that we’re doing. 

I was just about to ask! How are you tying your sciences background into the strategy for the recovery?

DP: Over the past four years at Williams [College], I did a lot of coastal projects mostly involving land loss and satellite imagery using GIS [geographic information systems]. Any final project that I could do that was about Louisiana, was about Louisiana… Whenever I ended up getting my job at EDF [Environmental Defense Fund]—the reason that I got the job was because of all of my experience looking at coastal Louisiana, even 1,500 miles away at Williams. The goal of the work I am doing now is to ensure the ability for our bayou communities to survive and thrive along our Gulf Coast in the face of governmental, environmental, and societal challenges. Part of that work is advocating for more nature-based and cost-effective solutions to be implemented into our state’s coastal restoration plans.

There’s a number of things that the tribes and the communities down here always talk about that would be needed. The three major projects are backfilling of canals, living shorelines, and barrier island restoration. The canal backfilling is a really cost-effective way to help heal the land of Louisiana. The living shorelines [are] to help physically protect mounds and sacred sites and the shorelines of some areas. And the barrier islands to help protect against that storm surge and those hurricane winds that come in because it provides a physical buffer against those. Those are some of the projects that tribes all advocate for.

It’s a really forward thinking strategy, it’s impressive. So, this is work that you’re doing with the parish. I wanted to transition towards your work that you’re trying to do with the state. I first want to introduce the First Peoples’ Conservation Council and what the plans are.

SPD: The First Peoples’ Conservation Council was created in 2012. It was in partnership with USDA [United States Department of Agriculture] NRCS [Natural Resources Conservation Service] for tribal communities that were either federal, state, or not recognized to have a platform to address conservation issues in their homelands, in their communities, and that’s been going strong ever since. I think we’re up to seven tribes. We’ve grown over the years and it’s actually proven to be quite fruitful.

The work you’re doing in collaboration with Loyola [University New Orleans] and the Environmental Law and Policy Lab, could you give just a brief overview of what you’re trying to do?

SPD: So, I’m the former chairwoman of the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs and Native American Commission. I was elected chairwoman twice. That was 2018 when it became an act and was established. Don’t get me wrong, it was a good first shot, but we were under the idea that should there be any glitches, we could get back through the legislature and resolve those and that didn’t happen.

DP: I mean, whenever the Native American Commission was created, it was great. We worked with Shirell and Anne Easton [Seefeldt], and we worked together to do some preliminary research to look at other Native American Commissions that were working in different states and what was successful and we got in conversation with people, and some bylaws were created, and then the Native American State Commission was born. The problem is a lot of tribal leadership across the state of Louisiana is older and they deal with more health problems, and everybody has to get together in Baton Rouge to have this meeting in person, and that’s hard, to get everybody there together at the same time, in the same place, traveling hours sometimes for some communities to be able to come here. I mean, it’s like two hours for us to get to Baton Rouge from this area?

SPD: It’s even longer for some other ones. There’s 15 recognized tribes in the state of Louisiana. But when you have that many tribes that have to send a representative from all over the state, we weren’t the only commission having trouble making quorum, but we were locked in a quorum. Some people never appointed a representative; that was never resolved. Every time we brought up the issue, they said, “Well, it would have to go before the legislature to resolve it,” but it never happened.

We were charged for creating criteria for the state recognition process (that they never created) and we did that. When we had a quorum, we chose three out of the seven federal criteria, because why reinvent the wheel here? That’s already done, so we chose three. That was enough to not overburden these tribes, but it would also not give them extra work. It would give them a start to what they would later be pursuing. We thought that was sufficient, but that never moved forward. So then they created this task force on state recognition of the tribes and there was some actions taking place in there that did not resonate with me at all, and I held on as long as I could. 

DP: That’s where the [Task Force on State Recognition of Indian Tribes] comes into play; the Native American Commission was supposed to make that power to make and maintain the criteria for state recognition but the government was like, wait, hold on, we’re giving them a little too much power here, maybe we need to scale that back!

SPD: That environment, I refuse to be in. During my time there, I started noticing things… It wasn’t just us. I’m looking at other very progressive states and they have a department of minority and cultural affairs and in that department—it’s staffed, it’s not dependent on whatever governor’s coming in. They have different offices. They have an office of African American affairs, an office of Indian affairs, an office of Asian affairs, and I’m like, “Hey! Why we don’t got that? We’re Louisiana, have you seen how many offices we should have?” We’re one of the most diverse states in the nation and we have beautiful things to share from that—and we’re not. Why are we not supporting those things and investing in them and protecting them? Just being involved in the state has been a blessing, because it was able to show us the much bigger picture here. Y’all have an office in the Lieutenant Governor’s Office right now that, if we tweak it a little bit, can resolve many of these challenges.

What office is that?

SPD: That’s the Department of Culture, Recreation, and Tourism and underneath that there’s an Office of Cultural Development. Why are we not there yet? But that will not fix every single problem; we are still being actively discriminated against, because we’re Native. That part I don’t understand. Because I’m a taxpaying citizen at the end of the day. We’re all taxpaying citizens at the end of the day.

DP: That’s the other thing, too—people often think that because we’re Native that we live on a reservation or something and it’s not like that. It’s just people living down here also paying taxes.

SPD: And you know what we don’t see come back? Those taxpayer dollars. They’re going everywhere else but us, and it’s been like that for so long that our community is being squeezed out. Because we don’t even have access to some of the main things we need… We had a meeting for the Native American Commission and, in that, we were learning some hard truths. We were also charged with reviewing the scholarships that were coming through, for those license plates for the Native American scholarship fund. The commission was in charge of going through those scholarships. Then finding out, once the governor leaves, our director’s position is done and so are we. What happens to the scholarships? They stay stuck. I lost it. For eight years we had no representation at all. None! Former Governor Jindal never appointed anyone to the Office of Indian Affairs… But everything was just shoveled off like it wasn’t anything and it’s completely at the governor’s discretion whether or not we have an executive director over Indian affairs. In the back of my mind, at least on some tiny level, we had some progress made, and now that’s all just gonna go away. And what about all those people who still have no representation whatsoever? We can’t leave that like that.

We started looking for other avenues. Rather than having to reinvent the wheel and come at them with anything new (because that terrifies them)—what do they already have? And there [that office] was. While not perfect, we’re gonna have to restructure that a little bit to make it work. We absolutely must advocate on Indigenous and tribal issues because that’s who we are. We would never attempt to speak for anyone else; that’s just disrespectful, you need to ask them what they want, but we definitely see what they need. And I would welcome every culture, every race, to say, “Where’s my office? We have something to offer and we are a specific group of people that need representation.” No wonder we’re ranked last in everything, because the people are not being represented—their challenges, their issues are not being represented. Right now, that’s the avenue we see with the least amount of resistance that’s already there that we can actively, quickly get going.

DP: Definitely quickly, because a new governor will be coming.

Parfait-Dardar in her home in Chauvin, after Hurricane Ida.
Photo by Julie Dermansky

What is your next step for getting into the Lieutenant Governor’s Office?

SPD: We’re gonna call him. I don’t see that presently being a challenge but we do have to be quick. We have had positive progress with Lieutenant [Governor] Nungesser… I’m sure like every single elected official, we’re not going to agree on everything, but we have seen him try to move things forward and listening to the people. I’ve seen progress come from that avenue before. It’s absolutely fair—we’re not asking you for money. We’re asking you for a specific office to represent the people and, for the love of ham, let’s get people in there serving that are qualified to do this. They need to keep up with your government. Each office should have an advisory group. That’s what the tribe should’ve been doing, none of this chairwoman, vice chair, secretary. Do you have any idea what we do in a day? That’s the last thing we need, that’s your government structure—not ours, we didn’t need that. You do need to talk to us though.

Would the FPCC play that role as an advisory group?

SPD: I don’t see why not. If they would reach out to the First Peoples’ Conservation Council, I’m sure within legal capacity, absolutely. We want to have true collaboration and partnerships. That is absolutely crucial for us to have. How are you gonna represent the people if you’re not talking to them? How are you going to know what they need if you’re not actually going into the communities that they live in and seeing what their challenges are? You can’t. We just have a very down-to-earth community level sense of governance.

DP: Literally down to earth. [laughs]

SPD: I see going through the Lieutenant Governor’s Office as a means to strip away some of the stereotypical beliefs… that they’re using to hold us back, and… bring it under that department and keep it what it truly is: culture, identity. The federal government has its own process for its own reasons; let that be. We need a state process for its own reasons. We should not be being made to go through all of these criteria, like federal acknowledgement does, when all we’re asking you to do is see us, and we have more than enough evidence we can give you, prepared on our own, in our own way, that would suffice. What are we doing here? You are actively denying a people their right to participate, you are denying them access to their own taxpayer dollars that they provide to fund the programs and services that we contribute to. So we’re feeding into it, but we can’t get it back, oh and it’s because we’re Native. We gotta get outta that. We have been disenfranchised since colonization and that clearly has not changed, but we’re trying to find ways around it and I think this might be a good avenue to start.

Frustrating is an understatement for the type of unsuccessful support the state has given these tribes, especially when I read the story about the resettlement deal of Isle de Jean Charles.

DP: To give you a little bit of history around that that you may not have read about, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was supposed to extend the Morganza [levee system] around Isle de Jean Charles and extend around them. They had done a cost benefit analysis and they said that it would actually be cheaper just to move the community than to do the levee system. Which is completely inconsiderate to what it means to actually move a community and what’s involved in that. I mean, they don’t want to move. We want to be in place as much as possible and they advocated for that. So, they had decided to put [in] the levee system, but whenever they went out, they were supposed to connect with the elders who were there who knew the landscape and knew the land, because they were looking for high ground so that they could build a levee system. And whenever they went out there, they did not talk with the elders, they didn’t talk with the community, and instead did their own assessment. And their assessment concluded that there was no high ground to put any levees on. So then they did not include Isle de Jean Charles in that levee system and, to me, is the reason why they had to move so abruptly now. They have an exodus. They now don’t call themselves “Isle de Jean Charles,” it’s now “de Jean Charles,” because they’re no longer on the island. And they had to move because of all the storm surge, when maybe the Morganza could’ve extended their time a little bit more.

SPD: And there’s other problems too when it comes to disasters. Good luck getting assistance from FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] or other agencies when you are outside of the levee protection system. Those people, there are a few that are still there—they ain’t leaving.

We started our own disaster case management program. It’s called the Indigenous Resilience Disaster Case Management Program because… just because. It took us four days to get a crash course from FEMA (what a nightmare). However, now we’re actively trying to help people and we do have people that live outside [the levee protection system]. And it is very challenging trying to get them assistance because, when you’re outside of your protection system, you don’t qualify for a lot of services. But in the same breath, that’s all these people know and you’re not giving them enough money to properly resettle anywhere else anyway, so they have no choice but to stay. I mean jeez, it’s never-ending. We watch that unfold very closely for [a] multitude of reasons because we’re next.

Photo by Maya Acharya

It seems like what your band of tribes is doing is really trailblazing these areas of focus that haven’t ever been uncovered before, like the FEMA thing and resettlement, it’s all new. You’re setting that example. In what ways do you see yourselves setting that example for other climate refugees?

DP: For me personally, I just want to take the generational responsibility that was given to me and do something meaningful with it. People ask me often, “What does it mean to you to be doing the work that you’re doing?” And to me, it literally means my life. Using my life in service of the community and using it to move things forward and to do things here. Not just for the tribal communities, but also by proxy, the people of Louisiana. Because my ultimate goal is to make sure that everybody can live safe, healthy, happy lives and that starts with the government and their decisions and how it affects all the people across the state of Louisiana. I’m hoping as we move forward in our leadership and move forward with these projects that it inspires others and other people get involved, other people from the tribes, we do more youth programming or more programming in general, get more people involved, more people educated about the issues and garner more support. The goal is to change things on a fundamental and philosophical level to change the world and sometimes you gotta do it one step, one community, one state Coastal Master Plan at a time.

SPD: That’s right. I’ma be 43 in a few days. I’m a grandmother now. For me, it’s realizing that time here’s short. I’m here for a purpose. For a long time, I didn’t realize that my purpose was gonna be serving as chief of the tribe or any of the things that I did. I dunno, woke up one day and there it was. But I still fully intend to actively advocate and preserve our life ways and the ways of our people because I would really enjoy being around [at] least ‘til I’m 85 (you think they can handle that?). Because I want to do good with the time that I have here. And we should be doing that. I want to do as much as I can. I’m working on becoming a good ancestor. That’s what I want to do. That’ll take you day by day. We don’t know what we’re doing half the time, our days get crazy… We do have schedules, we’re actively doing these things just like everyone else and their work. But we also have to stop and be available to our people. Like they’ll reach out to us for anything, we mediate lots of things. So it’s literally a day-by-day thing. That’s what I’m hoping for, for at least my service, in the future for the tribe. I would love to see more of our people coming together and really securing our life ways and sharing those blessings with others.

In what ways can people help your cause? What takeaways do you wish for our readership to leave with?

SPD: What do you got? Everyone comes here with purpose, you might not figure it out right away, but everybody’s got talents and skills. What’s your passion? I guarantee you, if you resonate with us and our cause and you’re like, “Look, all I got is passion.” We’ll take it! That’s all you need. We can definitely figure out what you can do, that’s not a problem. It takes everyone in their own way to do one small thing and that would be a blessing. We do need lots of help, but even if they’re like, “Well, I can’t come down there with you guys in Louisiana, but I want to do what you guys are doing over here because we’re facing the same thing”—there you go.

DP: Finding more capacity, people to lend their expertise and their knowledge. And then on a basic, “What can everybody do?’” is read what they’re reading now and then also sharing what they’ve learned. Because the biggest thing that we fought for a lot of the time was visibility, to show that we’re even here and that we exist and the history that these tribal communities go through. To be aware and to learn and to share means everything and that’s exactly what we’ve been fighting for for a long time.

SPD: It’s really sad, we’ve had to really learn ourself, we’ve had to dig back to the 1600s, don’t tell me we don’t know who we are! But, it’s just that, what more do you want from us to prove who we are? We shouldn’t even be having to do that, no one else is having to do that, but we are. We need them to understand that we are not here asking your permission to exist. We’re gonna exist regardless. We’re still here. It would be an absolute insult to our ancestors if we just gave up with everything that they fought through, their determination to ensure that we could have a future. We’re not going anywhere, we’re here now, and we’re gonna stay here. The good news is there are much more hearts like ours today than all those generations past that have been trying to stop us. I do believe it will change.

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Top photo: Chief Devon Parfait on the land where his grandfather’s house, his family home, once stood in Dulac.

Top and bottom photos by Maya Acharya

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