Gulf of Mexico
Isle de Charles, Louisiana Credit: Carolyn Van Houten/National Geographic

LA - Devon Parfait, Louisiana Tribal Chief, on Climate Change and Preserving Customs

At 25, Devon Parfait is working to preserve customs while dealing with coastal erosion.

This article originally appeared in Nexus Media News.

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 Dardar-Parfait (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?”

Losing land

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.

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