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First U.S. Climate Refugees Fear Rising Seas Will Drown Their Heritage

Native American coastal communities around the U.S. have begun planning moves to higher ground, but worry their ancient ways of life will be lost in the relocation.

Written by Renee Lewis Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A boy walks along the banks of the Newtok River in Alaska in 2006. AP/Al Grillo

Rising seas due to climate change are forcing the relocation of Native American coastal communities from Louisiana to Alaska, and tribal leaders say they are worried that their traditional lifestyles may not survive resettlement.

Last week, residents of Shishmaref, an Iñupiaq village in Alaska, voted to leave their disappearing island and relocate to the mainland. But it was a close vote, and many residents are opposed to leaving.

“I don’t wish to move away from this island. It’s been our home since my grandparents and other ancestors lived here,” Shishmaref city council president Johnson Eningowuk told News Deeply before the vote took place. “We always hunted from the ocean – our lifestyle is going to have to change if we move to the mainland,” he said.

Yet Shishmaref is eroding into the Chukchi Sea, a change Eningowuk blames on rising sea levels and the melting of sea ice that had protected their shores from storm surges.

Climate change is also making it harder for the village’s 600 residents to make their livelihoods from hunting and gathering – the permafrost is melting, and the summer season without sea ice is lasting longer and longer, Eningowuk said. Some residents, especially the youth, have already begun to move to the cities.

Shishmaref is just one of many Native American communities around the U.S. that have begun planning moves to higher ground – a process that requires community consensus, careful planning with state and federal authorities, and millions of dollars.

Scientists recently doubled sea level rise projections if high levels of greenhouse gas emissions continue to six feet (1.8m) by 2100. That would swamp many low-lying islands and coastal communities in the U.S. and around the world.

The rise is caused by melting ice sheets and glaciers, as well as basic physics – when water heats up, it expands, and global oceans have absorbed the majority of warming from climate change.

In Alaska, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has recommended the relocation of nine villages at imminent risk due to the impacts of climate change, and estimates that dozens more could be at risk, says Elena Gaona, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The Yu’pik native village of Newtok, some 370 miles (595km) south of Shishmaref, will be the first of the nine to relocate, Gaona said. Newtok residents agreed to move to avoid the predicted complete overwash of the village by as early as 2017, she said.

On the other side of the country, in Louisiana, Native American communities are also being uprooted.

Louisiana received nearly $50 million from HUD in January to resettle the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Choctaw Indian Nation (IDJC). The tribe has been called the first American climate refugees.

The Isle de Jean Charles has lost 98 percent of its land since 1955, largely due to sea level rise and development related to the oil and gas industry.

And as the island disappeared, so did many of its residents. Out of the 120 families in the IDJC, only about 70 individuals still live on the Isle, said traditional chief Albert P. Naquin.

A man tosses a cast net for shrimp in Isle de Jean Charles, La. in 2011. (AP/Gerald Herbert)

A man tosses a cast net for shrimp in Isle de Jean Charles, La. in 2011. (AP/Gerald Herbert)

The tribe – a grouping of three different peoples; the Biloxi, the Chitimacha, and the Choctaw – moved to the island 170 years ago to escape the impacts of the Indian Removal Act.

There, the tribe made its livelihood from fishing, farming and raising animals. Today, there isn’t enough land left to raise animals and the little that remains has been made infertile by salt-water intrusion. The only road connecting the island to the mainland occasionally floods, cutting them off from the outside world.

As residents fled the island, the close-knit community suffered, Naquin said. “We have lost that sense of security, we have lost that sense of love, because we have lost our community,” Naquin said.

Naquin said the grant from HUD could potentially reunite the IDJC community – but only if the resettlement includes all 120 families in the tribe.

“Reuniting the tribal nation community is the most important phase in the resettlement plan,” he said. “The resettlement of the IDJC would re-create the community as a paradise like it was back in the 50s and 60s.”

If the tribe isn’t moved together, “the fear is that the IDJC will just be history in a few years,” Naquin says.

South of Alaska, in Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula, several tribes are also considering relocation.

Home to a rare temperate rainforest, sea level rise has eroded the Olympic Peninsula shores, and intensifying winter storms have led to flooding and landslides.

The three tribes living there are in different stages of relocating. The Hoh tribe was transferred land in the adjacent Olympic National Park. The Quileute, of Twilight fame, are still developing their relocation plan, Gaona said.

The Quinault people are raising funds to relocate the approximately 800 residents of the ancestral village of Taholah, now threatened by rising seas and storm surges.

After the sea wall protecting Taholah was breached in 2014, the Quinault tribe began to formulate a plan to relocate to a new village 120 feet (35 meters) above sea level.

The resettlement of Taholah is estimated to cost at least $200 million. Federal funding will cover just a fraction of that, so the tribe is looking into other means of financing including foundation grants and tax credit financing, said Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation.

Climate change has also threatened the community’s traditional shellfish and salmon industries.

Warmer river temperatures have reduced the salmon harvest, while a toxic algae bloom known as “the Blob,” which formed in recent years in the Northern Pacific, has shut down countless clamming, crabbing and fishing businesses around the Quinault.

“Our ancestors were good stewards of the land,” Sharp said. “Yet we seem to be paying the price for others who don’t share the same values.”

Like Naquin and Eningowuk, Sharp is concerned that relocation risks the loss of generations of history and cultural heritage, which the community must balance against the risks of staying.

“Coastal tribal communities, such as the Quinault, have much at stake,” Sharp said. “Their heritage. Their homes. Their lives,” she said.

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