U.S. Native Coastal Communities Moving Due to Change Climate Change

By Yessenia Funes May 05, 2017

Climate change is impacting the world and its inhabitants in various ways. But that impact is more visceral for some—particularly Native American communities that are on the coast.

An analysis the Center for Progressive Reform released May 3 shows that 17 U.S. communities have to relocate due to climate change, and most of them are Native American. Five are in the Lower 48, with the rest in Alaska.

Coastal communities are experiencing flooding, extreme weather, and coastal erosion at quicker rates than other parts of the country. In some places, like Alaskan Native villages or Louisiana’s islands, these impacts have rendered the areas uninhabitable.  

“Community displacements due to climate change are about so much more than moving possessions and finding new homes,” said study co-author Maxine Burkett, in a press release. “They uproot entire communities and tear at the fabric of life, while threatening cohesiveness and culture, as well as doing harm to individuals, families, and businesses.”

A large portion of the report proposes how Native communities can attempt to secure funds for acquiring new land: through litigation (which can be costly and risky), federal grant and loan programs like through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (which is facing $667 million in cuts under the Trump administration) or resource extraction (which can further devastate the environment and the impacts of climate change), among others.

However, as the report makes clear, walking away from a home—especially one that carries historical and cultural importance—is not easy. “[M]any Native communities identify certain spaces as sacred and engage in place-based ceremonies that are critical to their community identity and well-being,” the report states.

The decision to leave typically comes before Native American communities can begin the process of figuring out where to go next—particularly because a move means leaving behind sacred sites.  

Colorlines is highlighting three of these Native lands to explore the relocation process on different cultural groups.

Yup’ik Alaskan Natives
Newtok, Alaska
This Yup’ik village rests on the southwestern edge of Alaska within the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, where wild caribou and all five species of the Pacific salmon call home.

In 2006, residents began taking formal steps to decide their future: They formed the Newtok Planning Group to meet with state and governmental officials and figure out how to move to their new home on Nelson Island, which is farther south. More than 10 years later, residents have finally built a few homes on the island. The funding has come from federal grants, like one from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which went toward 12 off-grid homes in the new village.

But their lives didn’t always consist of planning and timeline restrictions. As Alaskan Natives, they’ve historically relied on what the land had to offer them, using sled dogs to get from point a to b. The Yup’ik have traditionally used seal oil for cooking and heating, a choice indicative of their subsistence lifestyle.

Fortunately, their village on Nelson Island should provide the same resources on which the Yup’ik in Newtok currently rely.

Hoh Indian Tribe
Forks, Washington
This isolated community is located on the shores of Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula. Like their northern neighbors, the Hoh are dependent on natural resources for hunting, fishing and gathering. Their most important resource: water. But that’s also also what endangers them.

The tribe is small with only 130 members, and they all sit within a federally designated, 100-year flood and tsunami risk zones. They’ve already lost almost a third of their reservation land to the sea, per the Center for Progressive Reform’s report. However, the reservation’s position in a flood zone on federally designated land makes the tribe ineligible to receive federal assistance. 

But they’ve worked closely with state and federal officials to relocate the Hoh Village to 434 acres on higher ground. Congress enacted a law in 2010 in honor of them: The Hoh Indian Tribe Safe Homelands Act, which put a portion of this land in federal trust for the tribe. However, it did also place limits on the tribe: no casino or gaming.

They’re still in the early stages of this relocation with no date in mind, as the tribe still lacks appropriate funds to get the move underway, according to Nation of Change.

Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe
Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana
This tribe is the only one of the 17 that sits far from the Pacific Ocean. Tucked along the Gulf of Mexico, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw has garnered the title “first American climate refugees” by The New York Times. Its members are the first recipients of federal tax dollars to move an entire community due to climate change—$48 million to be exact.

The move includes only 60 people, but it’s still complicated. They don’t know where they’ll go yet. They built a home in 1840 out of low-lying land that their state deemed as “uninhabitable swamp land” prior to 1876, according to Northern Arizona State University, and thrived there from trapping, fishing and farming.

Now, they have to pick up and start over.

Read the complete report from the Center for Progressive Reform here.