by Alexandra Mei (MLA ’17) — Recipient of 2017 MLA Thesis Prize
The distinction between land and water is both vague and fabricated for regulatory purposes. For a steadily increasing amount of coastal communities, this line on the map is not only moving constantly, it is formed by physical characteristics on the ground that the Army Corps of Engineers has determined to be the boundary between private land and state-owned water. In the case of the Biloxi Chitimacha Choctaw tribe on the Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, this “ordinary high water mark” divides native and state properties. This Native American community, forced to leave for a landlocked parcel farther north, will eventually lose their island to the state as this mark rises with the sea over the next 50 years. However, if the water mark can be obscured, altered, and blurred, the tribe will maintain ownership of their land and have a reason to return after they leave. With such acts, cultural memory remains tied to the island and acts as an agent for communal identity by validating the continuance of local ownership of the island left behind. Through a re-representation of the water mark, suggested acts of community resistance, and articulated potentials of the island’s form over time, this project imagines a cultural commitment to the disruption of the ordinary high water mark. By doing so, the preservation of the native community’s connection to the island challenges such jurisdictional boundaries and upholds a connection to the land that is driven by collective identity and memory.