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Pulitzer Center Update August 9, 2023

Webinar On-Demand: Louisiana's Disappearing Indigenous Lands


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Indigenous people living on Louisiana's rapidly disappearing coast are running out of time.

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“There was this growing movement to return back to nature… but the undeniable truth is that we all live in nature already, on Mother Earth,” Chief Devon Parfait said. “We cannot choose whether or not to be a part of our environment. If these Indigenous philosophies about living sustainably with the environment or even further, regeneratively with the environment, then tribal sovereignty needs to be respected in the future.”

Coastal tribes of Louisiana have long adapted to life in a shifting environment, relying on their traditional ecological knowledge to guide them. Pulitzer Center grantee Lorena O’Neil moderated a discussion with Elder Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar, Chief Devon Parfait, climate scientist Dr. Alex Kolker, and Reporting Fellow Gina Lee Castro on adapting to Louisiana's receding coastline on August 8, 2023. 

“In some ways, this landscape is really unique, because it's the mouth of the largest river in the country,” Dr. Kolker said. “But in some ways, it's not unique, in that things like sea level rise and climate change are impacting communities all across the country… One of the biggest reasons that people should pay attention to what's happening in Louisiana is that what's happening here could take place in other coastal systems in the years and decades ahead.”

As climate change rapidly affects the lands of Louisiana, communities of color are being disproportionately impacted. 

“[There’s] this phrase that ‘the further you travel down the bayou, the higher the percentage of people of color in Louisiana,’” Chief Parfait said. “That's especially true down in south Louisiana where Indigenous people are amongst the front lines of this land loss issue, right along the coast, on the furthest ends of the Louisiana Delta. We've seen trends throughout the United States where communities of color, especially Indigenous communities, are pushed into what are considered unlivable lands.”

As local communities’ everyday lives are changed by our changing environment, federal programs continue to develop to provide resources. However, not all communities can equally access these. 

“Native Americans in the United States exist in a tiered recognition system, where you're either unrecognized, state recognized, or federally recognized,” Chief Parfait said. “Each tier of this recognition system allows you access to more resources. Now, typically, the way it works is that the better you are with paperwork and the more capacity you have, the better able you are to go and reach out for these resources.”

As a non-federally recognized tribe, they are unable to access these resources, even during recovery efforts from Hurricane Ida. Recovery stations are located in distant areas and often depend solely on access to the internet, luxuries that are not possible or prevalent everywhere, especially after natural disasters. 

“[FEMA] is not just dealing with hurricanes, they're also dealing with wildfires and every other disaster that has been taking place increasingly in our nation,” Elder Chief Parfait-Dardar said. “As a community, we did not have the time to wait to hope that FEMA would make its revisions and find a way to solve the inner challenges that they're having. We [had] to be able to respond to recovery on our own… A lot of what we've been doing is rebuilding our own systems. Our ancestors had these systems in place on a community level, for us, on a tribal level, and they each communicated with their sister tribes. We're having to go back to a lot of those systems, while we try to address the challenges with the other systems that we've been so dependent on.”

Chief Parfait and Elder Chief Parfait-Dardar are working to develop community engagement with local organizations, Army Corps, and nonprofits, so that information is presented in an accessible way and feedback is truly heard. They also advocate for reparations and returning of land to its Indigenous matriarchy, known as rematriation.

“[Evanston’s reparation program has] really made an option for any community, any city in the U.S. to find a way to repair the harm that happened to a marginalized community, which could include natives here in Louisiana,” Castro said, describing the housing, education, and financial reparation programs she reported on in Chicago. 

“[Engage] tribal communities and [meet] tribal communities where they're at in their capacity,” Chief Parfait said. “[Don’t expect] them to bring capacity to you, but help to bring capacity to the communities, so that tribal sovereignty and land self-determination can be respected.”

Indigenous communities have a deep connection to their traditional lands. As sea levels rise and land is lost, resilience, not relocation, is the priority for these tribes. 

“I know I'm being biased, but to me, it's one of the best places to live in the whole world, right?” Elder Chief Parfait-Dardar said. “You have everything you need here, and it's just a really wonderful place to be able to raise your children. Especially being surrounded by your family and generations of family where they're able to hand down traditional ecological knowledge and the wisdom of the ancestors.” 


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Indigenous Rights

Indigenous Rights
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Environment and Climate Change

Environment and Climate Change