A part of our Climate Change Equity and Adaptation series
In the wake of rising seas and coastal erosion, forced home relocations raise the specter of genocide for North America’s First Peoples. Yet despite the risk of indigenous erasure, dominant climate relocation strategies fail to consider such complicated, inconvenient truths. I first encountered the rejection of inconvenient truths during a media interview at the 2022 National Adaptation Forum. The reporter wanted soundbites on climate relocations and their merits. Critiques didn’t fit her framing, so the 90-second segment never aired.
Ignoring complex considerations with regard to relocating Louisiana’s Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw nations from their tribal lands also stymie equitable climate adaptations. Their relocation involves an intricate matrix of human and sovereign rights, cultural preservation and survival. What is lost through sea-level rise and erosion is more than a home; it is a way of life that links traditional practices to natural habitat. The oil industry’s slow, violent contribution to land loss through petroleum extraction in Louisiana’s marshy Bayous, along with the memories of violent tribal removal programs, adds to the quandary.
In this context, tribal leaders and policy experts are calling for adaptation funds and programs that re-center resettlement decision-making and actions on the indigenous people affected.
Isle de Jean Charles is arguably the U.S.’s most visible tribal climate relocation project. Just 75 miles south of New Orleans in the Louisiana Bayous, the island is a narrow ridge amid marshes. It was home to Native Americans since the Indian Removal Act of 1830, when tribal peoples escaped US appropriation of ancestral lands east of the Mississippi River. Once populated by around 400 people, the island is now all but abandoned after 2012 Hurricane Isaac destroyed many of the island’s homes. The island’s landmass encompassed some 35 square miles in the 1950s. Today, not even a square mile remains.
As a remedy to Isle de Jean Charles’ climate displacement, in 2016 the state of Louisiana sought to build a new community responsive to the needs of Isle de Jean Charles former residents with assistance from a $48.3 million US HUD Community Development Block Grant. But during the planning process, tribal support waned. The relocation created higher property taxes for some and homelessness for others.
The tribe had been promised that their land would be “left to nature.” But egregiously, the state initiated infrastructure restoration projects for the recently abandoned Isle de Jean Charles.
“This is profoundly unsettling,” said band Chief Albert Naquin in an official statement. “Now, we’re finding out that the land is being repurposed, and seemingly redeveloped for private recreational use.”
Similarly, elsewhere along the Louisiana Gulf Coast, the Grand Cailou/Dulac Band of
Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, who hold ancestral ties to Isle de Jean Charles, lived in treaty-protected lands. Sustenance practices such as fishing, hunting, farming, and trapping allowed the tribe to persist. However, 2005 Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and 2021 Hurricane Ida destroyed people’s homes and lifeways.
Consequently, many Indigenous peoples living in inundated areas are having difficult conversations about abandoning their traditional lands. Alternative adaptation strategies, such as wetland restorations, plans for 98 miles of levees and floodgates, might keep rising waters at bay for the short term. But such efforts are controversial.
Similarly, relocation assistance programs continue to draw criticism.
To re-center equity, climate adaptation programs must address issues such as tribal sovereignty as well as historic abuses and theft of native lands. Relocations should reflect Native worldviews and practices. For instance, First Peoples may want rights to their submerged lands and protection from outside economic development interests. Such an approach might foster an ongoing connection between Indigenous people and nature.
Key to any adaptation strategy will be centering Indigenous ideological worldviews, histories, and moral claims for the right to sovereign decision-making. Such an approach will undoubtedly uncover inconvenient truths for federal and state technocrats. Embracing them could improve circumstances for the Indigenous groups facing existential threat. Ignoring them could further entrench the U.S.’s problematic history with First Peoples.