Tribes Were the First Climate Refugees—and the First to Build Resilience Plans

The Swinomish of Washington produced a climate adaptation plan two years before the state. Now it’s a template for all of Indian Country.
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Todd Mitchell, environmental director of Swinomish Department of Environmental Protection, digs clams. 

YES! photos by Lori Panico.

Chief Albert Naquin was astounded when emergency officials warned him in September 2005 that a second hurricane would soon hammer the southern Louisiana bayous where Hurricane Katrina had struck less than a month earlier. The leader of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, Naquin took to the Isle de Jean Charles’ lone road to urge residents who had returned home after Katrina to leave their listing, moldy homes once again.

Don’t wait until the last minute, he warned. “Once the road is flooded, you can’t get out.”

Hurricane Rita flooded the island for weeks, adding insult to injury that had already reduced the tribe’s homeland to a sliver of what it once was. Rising sea levels, hurricanes, erosion from oil production, and subsidence have since shriveled the Isle de Jean Charles peninsula from 15,000 acres to a tiny strip a quarter-mile wide by a half-mile long. There were once 63 houses flanking the town’s single street. Now only 25 homes and a couple fishing camps remain. The rest have washed away or sunk into the Gulf of Mexico, the town emptied and families scattered.

In January, Louisiana received a $48 million grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to move the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw and Houma Nation tribal members to more solid ground and reestablish their communities, making tribal members the first climate change refugees in the U.S.

Relocating an entire community is extreme adapation. Across the country, 24 tribes have responded to climate change with plans for adaptation and mitigation, and more are in development. These efforts are providing roadmaps for other communities across the country.

Don’t wait until the last minute, he warned.

“We’re trying to build out models that could be replicated” based on the best data and science, said Mathew Sanders, resilience policy and program administrator for Louisiana’s Office of Community Development, who is coordinating the Isle de Jean Charles Resettlement Project. Community members have chosen three of the 16 sites pinpointed.

As rising temperatures cause heatwaves, droughts, floods, wildfires, and increase the severity of weather events, tribes are on the forefront in respect to both degree of impact and in initial efforts to respond to adaptation, said Ed Knight, director of planning and community development for the Swinomish tribe in Washington state.

The waters around the Swinomish community have provided salmon and shellfish for 10,000 years. But today they pose a great threat to the tribe, much of whose 15-square-mile reservation sits at or near sea level.

Most tribal nations depend heavily on their environment for subsistence as well as cultural identity. On the whole, Native Americans experience poverty at a higher rate than any other group in the country, and are more likely to suffer from health ailments like obesity and diabetes. Some reservations also lack social services and transportation resources. This has made tribal communities particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and adaptation strategies are crucial to building resilience.

Under the leadership of Chairman Brian Cladoosby, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community on Puget Sound developed the first comprehensive climate change adaption plan in 2010. Today, it’s the template for climate resilience planning throughout Indian Country.

Tribal communities particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

The azure waters around the Swinomish community are breathtaking, especially at sunrise and sunset, and have provided salmon and shellfish for people there for 10,000 years. But today they pose a great threat to the tribe, much of whose 15-square-mile reservation sits at or near sea level. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that sea levels in this region will rise 4 to 8 inches by 2050.

Using climate projections available in 2009, the Swinomish analyzed the highest predicted risks and the tribe’s priorities. They categorized the level of risk to infrastructure, human health, and natural resources from low to high, and estimated the time needed to develop strategies for adapting to those impacts.

Using a unique model based on an indigenous worldview, the tribe updated its adaptation strategy in 2014 with environmental, cultural, and human health impact data. It now views health on a familial and community scale, and includes the natural environment and the spiritual realm, said Jamie Donatuto, Swinomish community and environmental health analyst.

The innovative report provides a model for other tribal communities looking to understand how predicted climate changes will affect their people and homelands in practical ways specific to indigenous life. The Swinomish won a national Climate Adaptation Leadership Award for Natural Resources for the report.

The innovative report provides a model for other tribal communities.

Ann Marie Chischilly (Navajo) is executive director of the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals at Northern Arizona University. In the last year, she and co-managers Nikki Cooley (Navajo) and Karen Cozetto led climate resilience trainings in California, Idaho, Alaska, Washington, Wisconsin, Maine, Arizona, New Mexico, and Alabama. With support from ITEP’s Tribal Air Monitoring Steering Committee and the EPA, she said, the Tribal Climate Resilience Program has trained more than 300 tribes and 700 people since 2009.

Under the new administration, however, the future is uncertain. In 2016, the Bureau of Indian Affairs became the primary funder of ITEP and other tribal climate projects. After the Trump administration took over, the BIA eliminated the word “climate” from the program—it’s now called the Tribal Resilience Program—and deleted all references to climate on its website in June. As the administration turns its focus away from addressing climate change, there is concern that adaptation funding will be cut.

“We continue to hope that all these programs will continue to be funded,” Chischilly said. “With 567 tribes [nationwide], the potential lack of funding will vary; some tribes may continue to develop their adaptation plans while others may be forced to stop.”

The successful implementation of mitigation measures will depend heavily on the participation of those affected. Chischilly was recently appointed to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Advisory Committee for the Sustained National Climate Assessment, where she now provides input on behalf of tribal nations. “Having a seat at the table and being included in future assessments is critical to maintaining a strong voice,” she said.

In Louisiana, Chief Naquin was dismayed that others will face situations like his, but efforts being taken there will serve as a model of resiliency for people throughout the world. For the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw and Houma others, that means providing a way forward for a people who have been torn from their homeland.