When the COVID-19 outbreak first reached Louisiana and residents were ordered to stay at home, Marie Marlene V. Foret tapped into some of the skills she learned seven decades ago.
Foret chairs the tribal council of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, which has lived along the bayous south of Houma, Louisiana for generations. When Foret was a child in the 1940s and ’50s, her family packed up every fall and moved to a trapping camp at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. Her father caught mink, otter, and muskrat, which he sold to traders for their pelts. During trapping season, the family lived in a wood-frame house, insulated with newspaper and illuminated with coal-oil lamps. They ate what they grew and hunted: garden vegetables, ducks, and the coots French-speaking Louisianans call pouldeau.
Self-isolation was the norm. “We stayed weeks and weeks and weeks without seeing anybody,” said Foret, who is 73. “So we were secluded from the get-go.”
Then the land around the trapping camp started to disappear. The engineering of waterways, oil and gas development, and sea level rise have erased 2,000 square miles from the Louisiana coastline since the 1930s. As the Gulf swallowed the wetlands the tribe relied on, families moved inland, using traditional knowledge to gauge how far they needed to travel to protect themselves from the worst flooding while still supporting some of their foodways.
Foret now lives in Bourg, about 20 miles north of where she grew up. On this shape-shifting edge of Louisiana, the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band has developed a set of practices to survive the slow corrosion of land loss and sudden disasters like hurricanes. They have built cyclicality into their culture, assuming hardship will follow abundance and require periods of hunkering down. Tribal members make do with less and develop new ways to produce and share food. They also recognize that not everyone is equally self-sufficient, so younger members check in with elders to make sure their needs are met.
The coronavirus pandemic is testing how well these systems work. The Houma-Thibodaux metropolitan area, which has about 208,000 residents and includes the bayou country where tribal members live, has incidence and mortality rates well above the national average: 1,248 reported cases and 100 deaths as of May 12. Last month, Houma-Thibodaux briefly ranked 15th nationwide in a New York Times listing of metro and micro areas with the most cumulative COVID-19 deaths per capita.
By contrast, Shirell Parfait-Dardar, the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band’s traditional chief, said she knew of only one case among her tribe’s 450 members: a young man who worked at a shipyard and recovered after quarantining at home. While many Native American communities have high risk factors — overcrowding, chronic medical conditions, and underfunded health care systems — and the pandemic has slammed Navajo Nation in the American West, Louisiana’s tribes appear to have been spared the brunt so far. The U.S. Census designates 0.8% of Louisianans as American Indian or Alaska Native, but those two groups account for just 0.04% of COVID-19 deaths statewide as of May 11.
Parfait-Dardar hopes the practices handed across generations will keep that number down and help her tribe and others emerge from the outbreak with minimal harm. “We have to have a really tight community system, and it has to function perfectly,” said the 40-year-old chief. “If it doesn’t, people die.”
The past fifteen years have tested the resilience of everyone living along Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, including the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band and the four other state-recognized tribes that live nearby. Increasingly destructive hurricanes have pummeled the coastline. Pollution plagues the region: The 2010 BP oil spill contaminated the Gulf, destroyed marshlands, and shut down commercial fishing harvests on which many rely.
Both the storms and the spill are inextricably tied to coastal erosion caused by a century of human activity. The oil and gas industry has cut 10,000 miles of canals through marsh ecosystems, funneling saltwater inland and destroying freshwater root systems. Levees along the Mississippi River have prevented sediment from naturally replenishing wetlands. As those wetlands disappear, hurricanes deliver more storm surge and accelerate land loss.
Climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions threatens to raise the sea level by more than six feet this century. Even outside hurricane season, the tribe contends with periodic flooding that damages septic systems, threatens cars, and traps residents inside their homes. It’s a continuous onslaught.
After Hurricane Gustav in 2008, residents were blindsided by how high the water had risen, even in homes that were inland and elevated. They had to salvage property and dispose of dead chickens and goats. “That hurts to have to do that,” said Parfait-Dardar. “Your heart breaks.”
She remembers seeing anguish among her neighbors — but not paralysis. “We’ve been dealing with this forever,” she said. “We don’t have time to wait for [federal] funds to come in… We go to the elders. We clean out their houses. We start doing what we know we need to do. And we start getting things back to the way that they need to be.”