Summary

The Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) held a briefing during Earth Week examining the impacts of sea level rise and oil and gas extraction on Native American communities. Across the United States, in Alaska, the Mississippi delta, the Northern Plains and the Great Lakes, land degradation presents challenges to indigenous peoples’ homes and livelihoods. As many Native American communities contemplate their potential displacement, one tribe is already preparing to move – the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians, who make their home in southern Louisiana. Our speakers discussed the tribe’s ambitious strategy to become one of the first coastal indigenous groups to relocate as a community in modern times, and why they feel it is necessary.

  • Rebecca Marshall Ferris, Director/Producer of "Can't Stop the Water," introduced a 10-minute excerpt from her latest film, "Can't Stop the Water," which documents life on Isle de Jean Charles over a three-year period, and examines how the island's inhabitants are adapting to rising sea levels caused by climate change. [View the excerpt here]
  • JR Naquin, standing in for Chief Albert Naquin of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, described how his tribe's land has changed dramatically in the recent past. The island that once spanned five miles across and seven miles long, now is a mere quarter mile wide with an unreliable, unsafe, one-lane roadway that becomes more endangered with each passing storm.
  • At 52 years old, JR has seen coastal erosion force many members of his community, including himself, into relocation. In 2002, about 325 members of the 650-member tribe lived in 78 homes on the island. As a result of rising sea levels and extreme weather events caused or exacerbated by climate change, coupled with subsidence triggered by the extensive oil and gas drilling in the Gulf, the number of homes remaining on the island has dropped to 25. In 10 years, the Isle de Jean Charles community has lost two-thirds of its members to dislocation.
  • JR himself had to relocate to the mainland because he was frequently unable to get to work when the tide covered the island's only roadway.
  • He shared Chief Albert's vision of a low-impact, new homeland to which they could relocate as a community, preserving their tribal culture and networks for the next seven generations.
  • Dr. Julie Maldonado, anthropologist and climate justice expert, explained that relocation isn't just about building new houses, it's about relocating an entire community and maintaining its crucial social ties. The Isle de Jean Charles tribe has an opportunity to become a model for other communities facing relocation because of a changing climate.
  • Dr. Maldonado stressed that if we wait to take action when the water comes, it will be too late and the native culture and community will be lost.
  • The actions taken by the Isle de Jean Charles tribe to seek help have spanned local and international forums, including the United Nations, Intertribal Agricultural Council, FEMA, Indigenous Climate Change Network, University of New Orleans, and many more. Several grant applications by the tribe are currently under review to provide relocation assistance for the community as a whole.
  • Bob Gough, Secretary, Intertribal Council on Utility Policy, explained that indigenous people throughout the world are hit first and hardest by climate change, as they often live off the land and are, therefore, particularly vulnerable to changing seasonal patterns and higher incidences of extreme weather.
  • Over half of the Native American population is under the age of 20: it is their future that is at risk.
  • The Isle de Jean Charles community will likely be the first whole tribal community in the lower 48 states to relocate in modern times. This would not be the tribe's first relocation: it first moved in the 1830s to escape the Trail of Tears, landing in what is now the Isle de Jean Charles, which was then uninhabited. The island has supported their marine-based livelihoods ever since.
  • Complicating matters is the fact that the Isle de Jean Charles tribe is not federally recognized despite its nearly 200-year history in Louisiana (it is, however, recognized by the state of Louisiana). This gap in recognition leaves the community more vulnerable as it is not eligible for certain types of federal support for their relocation.
  • Gough concluded with these words, “We are not here today to look back, we are here today to look forward.”

Experiences such as the Isle de Jean Charles Tribe’s inspired the White House to convene a State, Local and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, which met from 2013 to 2014. Last November, the Task Force published a report of 35 recommendations on how the federal government can assist local climate resilience efforts. This briefing examined some of the recommendations from tribal communities, such as encouraging the incorporation of climate resilience into land use development and management practices.

The Isle de Jean Charles Tribe, which has made its home for 170 years on the Isle de Jean Charles in the bayous of southern Louisiana, has seen decades of oil and gas extraction operations, restrictive levees, and salt water intrusion from sea level rise severely diminish the freshwater marsh around its island. The dwindling marsh can no longer protect the island from ocean tides, which will eventually destroy it. Chief Albert Naquin is leading the Isle de Jean Charles Tribe as they preserve their community and culture by moving together to a new home. The tribe’s vision for their new community will emphasize agricultural sustainability, healthy living, and pride in the culture and tribal identity of the group.

The briefing included a 10-minute screening of Can’t Stop the Water, a short film examining the struggle and optimism of the Isle de Jean Charles Tribe. The tribe hopes its story and innovative relocation plan can serve as a model for other tribal communities facing displacement due to land loss.

Chief Albert Naquin, Bob Gough and Dr. Julie Maldonado were visiting Washington, DC as part of an East Coast tour to build awareness of tribal relocation issues. Other stops included New York and Philadelphia.

This briefing was the second in a two-part series examining local resilience efforts across the country. The first event was held April 1, 2015, and can be viewed at www.eesi.org/040115resilience.

 

See two articles about this briefing: