In January 2016, the United States government awarded a $48 million grant to fund the relocation of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw community from their ancestral home on Isle de Jean Charles off the Gulf of Mexico in the United States' (U.S.) state of Louisiana. This sounds like a sadly familiar story of Native American communities forced off their land. The U.S. government has a long, unfortunate history of doing so to make way for white colonization.
But the U.S. government is not displacing the tribe, at least not directly. To blame is a combination of forces. Besides, there is hardly any land left to take. The island shrank by 98 percent from the 1950s to 2018.
Sea levels along the Gulf Coast have risen between 12.7 to 15.2 centimeters (five to six inches) higher than the global average during the last 100 years. Climate change has brought higher sea levels and there is strong evidence that it is creating harsher storms that continually wash away more and more land. Low-lying islands are susceptible to the rise in sea-levels.
This can have serious consequences for islands and those living there. The president of the Maldives, Moahmed Nasheed, drew attention to how climate change is hurting his low-lying nation of islands by holding a cabinet meeting under the Indian Ocean in October 2009. While that act may have been criticised as a stunt, the threat is real.
Five of the 33 islands in the Solomon Islands archipelago were recently lost to rising sea levels, according to a 2016 study that used aerial and satellite images from 1947 to 2014. The sunken islands measured just over 12,000 square meters (129,167 square feet) to almost 50,000 square meters (538,196 square feet). Another six islands have lost more than 20 percent of their land and two villages in the Solomon Islands were relocated because of coastline encroachment since at least 1935.
A fourth of Louisiana’s wetlands, about the size of the U.S. state of Delaware, have been washed away since the 1930s. The loss has been catastrophic. About 4,833 square kilometers (1,866 square miles) were lost from 1932 to 2016, according to a 2017 report by the U.S. Geological Survey. Louisiana has lost more of its wetlands than what has been lost by the rest of the entire continental United States combined.
Caused in part by rising sea levels, the land of Isle de Jean Charles is also being washed away. Harsh extraction techniques from the natural gas and oil industries have destroyed soil-holding vegetation, causing land erosion.
The Isle de Jean Charles, just a 129-kilometer (80-mile) drive southwest of New Orleans, Louisiana, cannot be saved from being swallowed by the Gulf of Mexico. Soon, all the land will be covered by water. A 2002 decision by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to leave it out of a new levee system sealed the island’s fate.
The $48 million going to the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw relocation effort is part of a much bigger, $1 billion effort by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, under the administration of President Barack Obama. Most of that money is being used to build infrastructure able to tolerate the predicted rising seas and stronger storms. The grant to the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw is the first time U.S. federal money has been paid to relocate a community because of the effects of climate change.
About 64 kilometers (40 miles) north of Isle de Jean Charles, the resettlement community is a rural space of 2,084 kilometers squared (805 square miles) located in Schriever, Louisiana. What’s being called the “New Isle” is now under construction and is expected to be finished in 2022. Those who live full time on Isle de Jean Charles or who lost their homes from 2012’s Hurricane Isaac are eligible for two relocation options. They may get a new home on New Isle or receive money to buy a new home in Louisiana in a place not prone to flooding. Unlike the tragic past, this move is voluntary.
But not everyone wants to leave Isle de Jean Charles. So far, most of the resident families have decided to move to the new location with a few deciding to move elsewhere. Fewer still have decided to remain. Among them is Albert Naquin, chief of the Isle de Jean Charles Chief band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Chotaw. And he wants others to stay too. Yet Naquin was instrumental in negotiating the “climate resilience” grant.
Naquin believes decisions are being made by the state and not the tribe, as had been intended. “The state stole our plan to get the money and now they are running off with it,” he said in a 2019 LA Times article.
Residents displaced from the island before the August 2012 hurricane are eligible to get a vacant lot. That those who have moved away before that date were left out of any guarantees to the new land is a problem for some. Naquin has said the original plan was to allow members of the tribe who had moved away as early as the 1960s to be given access to the new relocation.
The Louisiana government’s Office of Community Development, which has been charged with handling the federal grant, denies this. They say the goal was always to give the Isle de Jean Charles residents refuge. “The plan was to reunite the tribe, and now it’s going to be destroyed,” Naquin continued in the LA Times article. “Instead of fixing it, I broke it.”
Another concern is the eligibility of those who are not Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw to come in and buy homes in the area that has been set aside for them. Eventually, lots will also be allowed to be sold to anyone. “It wasn’t for the white folks,” Naquin continued in the LA Times article. “We were supposed to have a tribal community. … Now anybody can go.”
Naquin is not alone is his disillusionment in what has become of the plan for relocating the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw. A huge point of contention is who has control over the resettlement process. The state has that authority, not the tribe.
The tribe had planned for a museum about the history and culture of the tribe and a community center were intended to be a part of the resettlement plan. That won’t be happening. Other residents worry about the higher taxes and insurance they expect to have to pay with more expensive homes. Chief Naquin wanted to use funds from the grant to open a store where the profits would be used to support paying taxes and insurance. That won’t be happening either.
The hope was that by resettling the entire community, not scattering them, that the heritage and way of life of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw could be preserved. The Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw survived the ethnic cleansing of Indigenous peoples throughout the region and east of the Mississippi, and maintained their culture. Will their culture survive the loss of their land? “This relocation could easily destroy our tribe,” Isle de Jean Charles resident Howard Brunet said in an April 2021 Reuters interview. The Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw are a people who have a history of resistance and resilience.
Isle de Jean Charles is not the original home of the ancestors of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw. Many of their ancestors came to the Isle de Jean Charles in an act of self preservation. Once, Isle de Jean Charles provided Indigenous peoples with an isolated refuge from prospective white settlers. The island was largely inaccessible until a road was built that connected it to the mainland in 1953.
At the turn of the 19th century, the U.S. government began carrying out the demands of white American settlers who wanted more and more Native American lands. From 1814 to 1824, as an officer in the U.S. Army, Andrew Jackson helped negotiate nine of the 11 treaties that provided the legal framework to redistribute land from Inidgenous peoples to whites. As the president of the United States, Jackson promoted and signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830. In return for giving up their lands, eastern Native American peoples were promised territory west of the Mississippi River. Ultimately, these indigenous communities were forced from their homes onto apartheid-style reservations in what became Oklahoma.
Some Native American communities complied. Initially, many in the nations of the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Seminole, and Chicasaw of southeastern North America did not take the deal to give up their lands to move west of the Mississippi River. The Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, and Chicasaw tried to negotiate with white settlers and the U.S. government. They offered some of their lands to remain on their ancestral lands.
The process was intended to be voluntary. Most of the Seminole Nation decided to fight their removal in what became known as the Second and Third Seminole wars. The Cherokee used the U.S. legal system to fight their removal. And though they won their case in the Supreme Court, Jackson and the U.S. military did not honor that decision. The forced removal of the Cherokee became known as the Trail of Tears, in which several thousand Cherokee people died on the forced march.
Eventually, most indigenous nations had been removed from east of the Mississippi River, resulting in the effective ethnic cleansing of indigenous peoples. There were exceptions with some Native American peoples remaining, including the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw. In defiance of being ordered west of the Mississippi River, many of the ancestors of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw settled in Isle de Jean Charles.
To learn more about the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw go here.