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Visiting the lowlands of Louisiana gives Presbyterians first-hand view of climate change

MRTI and others make a trip earlier this month similar to one undertaken five years ago

by Robyn Davis Sekula, Presbyterian Foundation | Special to Presbyterian News Service

MRTI members and others who voyaged to the lowlands of Louisiana take a boat trip offered by the Pointe au Chien Indian Tribe. (Photo by Robyn Davis Sekula)

Five years ago, members of the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) visited South Louisiana to see the devastating effects of climate change on Native American Tribes living in the coastal bayous.

MRTI visited this same area again on March 1 and saw that the same challenges are present, but advocacy, including work by Presbyterians, is helping raise awareness.

At a meeting at the Pointe au Chien Indian Tribe headquarters — in a raised building next to the bayou — members of the Tribes outlined the pressures and challenges they are facing to hold on to their identities, their land, and their livelihoods. “They are forcing us out in multiple ways, and not giving us any way to rebuild our lives,” says Elder Chief Shirell Parfait-Dardar (Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw).

Land is disappearing fast as new canals are created to accommodate industry. Native American Tribes are being forced off their land by the water and by companies who want the property for commercial ventures.

On a boat tour of the area, Donald Dardar, Second Chair of the Pointe au Chien Indian Tribe, pointed to the land on either side of the canal. “At one time, you could hold your arms out on each side of the boat and touch the grass,” Dardar says. Now, the canal is as wide as a six-lane highway.

There’s a relatively new challenge now: the arrival of tourists and gentrification. For those who love the outdoors and enjoy fishing, this area is a recreational paradise. While there’s not as much land here as there once was, what is available is being bought to create “luxury camps,” says Elder Chief Shirell.

MRTI visits matter

Such visits are part of the work of MRTI, which is a General Assembly Committee that implements the General Assembly’s policies on socially responsible investing by engaging corporations in which the church owns stock. This is accomplished through correspondence, dialogue, voting shareholder proxies and recommending similar action to others, and occasionally filing shareholder resolutions. (Watch a short video that explains MRTI’s work here.)

In addition to discussing and voting on those matters, MRTI also engages with the communities that they are visiting. In Detroit in 2019, the group visited an area heavily polluted by Marathon Petroleum and heard from activists about their lives in the vicinity of the refinery. Such visits and in-person meetings were paused during Covid but are picking up again. About 12 people from MRTI attended this visit in South Louisiana, including representatives from the investing agencies, which are the Presbyterian Foundation and the Board of Pensions. They were joined by three Young Adult Volunteers serving in New Orleans, the Rev. Jim Kirk from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, and Richard Williams, Interim General Presbyter for the Presbytery of South Louisiana.

One measure that would help protect the Tribes is federal recognition. There are 15 acknowledged tribes in the area; 11 are state recognized, and only four are federally recognized. Federal recognition carries with it additional protections and assistance, but so far, this has proven elusive.

For nearly three decades, the Pointe au Chien Indian Tribe has been seeking federal recognition. (Photo by Robyn Davis Sekula)

Pointe au Chien Indian Tribe has sought government recognition for 27 years, but the process is fraught with hurdles and difficulties. For example, a certain percentage of the tribe must live within the boundaries of the tribe. But tribal members are being forced off the land. “It’s an easy way for them to deny us recognition,” Elder Chief Shirell says.

Additionally, insurance is often a requirement, and it simply isn’t being offered in these coastal areas. Many insurance companies no longer sell insurance in these areas due to the high likelihood of losses.

“We have been told we are not going to get recognition because of the oil and gas industries here,” Elder Chief Shirell says. “We are right in the middle of what they want.”

In situations in which Native Americans are offered funds to leave their property and move, the offers are as little as $2,500, Elder Chief Shirell says. Some Tribes are building homes to address the lack of housing, which is expensive but necessary, as the tribe includes such amenities as a lift to get visitors up to the raised first floor of the building, so anyone can visit, regardless of mobility.

Presbyterians raising awareness

Presbyterians have been walking with the Native American tribes in this area for a decade or more. The Rev. Kristina Peterson, a Presbyterian pastor and applied anthropologist, was one of two founders of the Lowlander Center in 2010, which describes its mission as addressing the challenges experienced by people and places that have often been left out of formal decision-making processes.

The trip earlier this month was yet another opportunity for the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment to engage with community members on environmental degradation. (Photo by Robyn Davis Sekula)

The Lowlander Center advocated to bring United Nations Special Rapporteurs to the bayou area of Louisiana and also to Native American communities in Alaska. Special Rapporteurs are independent experts appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council with the mandate to monitor, advise and publicly report on human rights situations.

Williams noted that the Presbytery sent an overture to the 226th General Assembly to develop policy positions for internally displaced persons within the United Stated and its territories similar to those addressing the concerns of externally displaced persons. This would be helpful to people living in southern Louisiana who are being forced off their land. “We recognize people around the world who are displaced, but not those here in our own country,” Williams says.

That overture will be up for consideration this summer at the 226th General Assembly in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Reflections after the visit

The Rev. Kerri Allen, Chair of MRTI, participated in both visits, in 2019 and 2024. She’s grateful for the time the Tribal communities spent with MRTI as they shared about how climate change is impacting their lives and livelihood.

“I wish I could say that I was surprised by this ongoing degradation of the natural resources, but this is the story of hundreds of years of recklessness with Indigenous communities,” Allen said.

“I was most struck by the ingenuity of the tribes in their mitigation efforts and the beauty in their resistance. Should they have to be constantly fighting for survival? Absolutely not. But I don’t want to dismiss their power, love of self, love of community, and love of Creation that they have faithfully cared for over generations. There is untold wisdom there and we have a lot that we can learn.”

Robyn Davis Sekula is Vice President of Communications and Marketing at the Presbyterian Foundation. She is a ruling elder and member of Highland Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky. She can be reached at

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