Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar is chief of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw in Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana. She has spent decades helping her community fight for federal recognition of their tribe and finding resilient solutions to the political and environmental challenges that have seen their traditional lands literally wash away into the Gulf of Mexico.
We did this interview on the front porch, on a windy day, along a busy road, so there is some background noise, but the conversation is rich.
“If you speak to our elders, they’ll tell you we’ve always been here. Drive around and you’ll see all the dead trees. They used to be live oaks and now they’re just skeletons. It’s only a matter of time before they sink away into the waters. As the land washes away, the saltwater intrusion kills the plants that are holding all of the soils together. And as we lose land, that opens us up to more flooding. You can’t keep small livestock, because the water stays for days. You can’t plant directly in the ground because our waters are so polluted. Once those waters come over, you’re polluting your garden.
All of our practices have been altered due to environmental changes. It’s happening so rapidly, we’ve become known as the adapting tribes. That’s all we’ve done since the diversions of the Mississippi and especially since the extractive practices with oil and gas. Our lands have just been ravaged.
We’re used to flooding. We know hurricanes. That water’s coming up and the land is sinking. It’s not easy and, if you can’t get help from the outside, then you need to look within. Down in these areas, this is mostly family. Even those that are not relatives, once they’ve been here a few months, they’re family. We take care of each other. It’s who we are. It’s our identity.
No matter where you live, you are gonna meet challenges. In the west, you’re gonna be dealing with earthquakes. Up north, you have blizzards. In the mid-section, tornadoes. We deal with flooding, but it doesn’t change who we are. If anything, it makes us stronger, because through the storms and damage to homes, we come back, we come together, and we help each other.”
-Talk about your ideal leader. What are the qualities they would exhibit?
-Are there ways that you have seen your local environment change?
-What are the most urgent issues facing your community?
-What are the things that keep you rooted in your community?
-Talk about the ways you have seen people help each other through difficult times in your community.