Over the past half-century, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe has watched rising sea levels slowly swallow their island home. A recent federal grant will allow the tribe to find a new home, making it the first community of official climate change refugees in the United States.
“What you see of the island now is just a skeleton of what it used to be,” Chris Brunet, a tribal council member and lifelong island resident, told The New York Times in a mini-documentary called Vanishing Island in 2014.
The tribe has occupied the Isle de Jean Charles, located about 80 miles southwest of New Orleans, for 170 years, living off the land as fishermen, oyster men, and trappers.
However, a combination of irresponsible oil and gas practices and climate change effects have caused the island to shrink from 22,000 acres to just 320 acres. Many residents have fled – only 25 houses remained occupied in 2009, down from 63 just five years prior.
Late last month, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) awarded approximately 50 million dollars for the tribe to relocate to a “resilient and historically-contextual community.”
The allotment was seen as a major win by Albert Naquin, chief of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, who has been working to restore funding for 13 years. He noted that the money will help the tribe rebuild their community.
“I’m very, very excited,” Naquin told Indian Country Today. “Now we’re getting a chance to reunite the family. … They’re excited as well. Our culture is going to stay intact, [but] we’ve got to get the interest back in our youth.”
The tribe will retain ownership of the island after relocating to a new community, although experts believe the island will be completely submerged within the next 50 years.
Pat Forbes, executive director of the Louisiana Office of Community Development, noted in a press release that the grant serves as a model for resettlement of other communities.
“This $48 million grant will allow the state to help them resettle their entire community to a safer place with a minimum of disruption to livelihoods and lifestyles,” Forbes said. “Together, we’ll be creating a model for resettlement of endangered coastal communities throughout the United States.”
Although the Louisiana tribe was the first to be considered climate change refugees by way of federal funding, many other tribes are impacted by climate change. Isle de Jean Charles was used as an example in recommendations outlined by the White House’s State, Local and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience. At the panel, Bob Gough, secretary for the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy, noted that indigenous people are disproportionately affected by climate change.
“Indigenous peoples are the first and worst hit by the impacts of climate change because subsistence culture is based on intact habitats,” he said.
A similar resettlement plan may be necessary in Alaska, where climate change affects more than 180 native villages, including the Yupik community of Newtok, which the Army Corps of Engineers predicts could be underwater by 2017.