Native groups fight to save land, culture from rising tides

Without help, the unique cultural traditions of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians of Southern Louisiana could be washed away.
By Brooks Hays  |  Dec. 5, 2017 at 6:01 AM
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Dec. 5 (UPI) -- The land that the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians call home is sinking. Without help, the unique cultural traditions of the native people of Southern Louisiana could be washed away.

The Grand Caillou/Dulac Band is one of several tribal groups affected. While another tribal group, the people of Isle de Jean Charles, is being relocated with the help of federal funds, the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band hope to stay.

"We still believe that there's time, and that we can make it so that we could safely stay," Shirell Parfait-Dardar, Chief of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band, told UPI.

Parfait-Dardar and her community live in Dulac, a narrow strip of water-logged land in the Mississippi Delta. Like much of the surrounding land, Dulac faces a troubling combination of environmental threats -- chiefly, subsidence, erosion and sea level rise.

While all three factors occur naturally, they've been accelerated by human interference.

Subsidence, the sinking of land, can occur naturally as heavier, younger sediment pushes down on older layers. Erosion can also cause land loss. But in the centuries before human settlement, the Mississippi supplied the delta with enough new sediment to offset losses. Over the last century, that supply of sediment has been severely curbed as engineers built dams and levees to control the mighty Mississippi's flow and protect against flooding.

"When serious levying was initiated in the 1920s, it prevented natural season overbank flooding that would provide fresh water and sediment to the delta," said Virginia Burkett, chief scientist for climate and land use change with the U.S. Geological Survey.

The oil and gas industry has made matters worse. Removing oil and gas deposits encourages subsidence. The oil and gas industry has dredged a network of canals across much of the delta, making the land that remains more vulnerable to saltwater incursion.

"As saltwater gets farther up into the wetlands from the gulf, it damages the plants," Burkett said, "and the plants bind the soil together and protect against erosion."

The combination of erosion, subsidence and a lack of new sediment makes the impact of rising seas all the more damaging, even without considering coastal storms. Over the last 30 years, the storms making landfall in coastal Louisiana have gotten stronger and more damaging.

Hurricanes can turn large swaths of delta land into open water overnight. But even a full moon and some strong gusts can pose a threat to the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band.

"Any high tide with a south wind behind it and they get flooded," said Rónadh Cox, a geoscientist at Williams College.

Cox connected with Parfait-Dardar after reading about the relocation of the Isle de Jean Charles community. She now takes her students on trips to study the impacts of subsidence on the regions' native communities. The trips have established a strong connection between the small New England school and the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band.

"Ronadh is a blessing and one our biggest advocates," Parfait-Dardar said. "She wanted to see first hand what this looked like -- what it's like to be on the front lines of coastal erosion, subsidence and climate change."

While Parfait-Dardar and her community have a small number of advocates helping them to protect what's left of their land, they're still not officially recognized by the federal government.

For several years, the community has been working with legal advocates to petition the government for federal recognition. Parfait-Dardar believes they're getting close and will be recognized in the new year.

"We don't just meet the criteria, we exceed it," she said.

Once recognized, the government will be legally required to consult the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band in regard to any federal action concerning coastal erosion.

"They do acknowledge us, but they're not required to take any [of our] recommendations and actually utilize those when they make decisions -- that will make a big difference," Parfait-Dardar said.

Parfait-Dardar has plans to petition the government to fill in the bulkhead along a stretch of land known as "shrimpers' row."

"It would require maintenance -- not a permanent fix, but would definitely help delay the land loss," she said.

Subsidence, erosion and rising seas have severely limited the ability of community members to live off the land as they have for decades. Saltwater incursion and flooding has made it increasingly difficult to maintain productive gardens. Fishing and shrimping yield smaller hauls than they used to -- and with less land, there is less game to hunt and trap.

Poverty is also ever-present in the precarious patches of land in the delta.

"They can survive on $6,000 a year because they extract their food from the delta, they go fishing in the delta, they hunt deer and alligators," Cox said.

Without such resources, feeding a family becomes more difficult. Many of the band's young people have left and gotten jobs in the oil and gas industry.

"They're not going to invest in something that has no future, we can't fault them for that," Parfait-Dardar said.

But older community members -- who bought property and settled down when there was more land and the seas didn't seem so threateningly close -- can't leave. Many have limited financial resources and the market for flood-prone houses on shrinking islands is near non-existent.

In addition to fighting to save the physical land that subsidence and climate change threatens, the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band must fight to protect their culture.

Part of that culture includes honoring their ancestors, and many of their ancestors are buried in a graveyard dating to before the Civil War. In the past, hurricanes have washed away burials, but community members are working to secure the grave sites.

"We're going to do the best we can to honor our deceased," Parfait-Dardar said. "If they do end up permanently underwater, they'll be together and we'll have markings so that we can continue to visit them."

Parfait-Dardar is confident her community can hold together even if the seas continue to rise. Young people who have left still return to socialize and participate in traditional ceremonies.

"We're going to keep clinging to all of our traditional practice, even if there is no land left" she said. "We might lose our land but we're not going to lose our spirit."

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