Lower Lafitte, Louisiana — The blades of grass are just beginning to push through the thick, marsh mud in Russell Rodriguez’s yard as the mid-October sun beats down on southeastern Louisiana.
The tall trees are dominated by a bald eagle. Morning rays sparkle off the waters of Barataria Bayou nearby as it heads toward the Gulf of Mexico.
It would be idyllic but for the widespread destruction.
Homes are pushed off their pylons, and then smashed. Fishing boats are towed onto dry land. Broken open coffins found in local cemeteries are still waiting for their owners.
It’s more than Rodriguez can take. He and his wife have spent decades living in Lower Lafitte, 65 miles south-east of New Orleans. They are moving to higher ground and leaving behind their neighbors at the United Houma Nation.
“It’s a life-changing event,” said Rodriguez, a Houma citizen. “I don’t like the idea of having to leave but I don’t want to go through another storm. This is clearly due to climate change. People who deny that need a lesson in science.”
Rodriguez is one of the tens of thousands Indian Country tribal citizens forced to choose between moving out to avoid the destruction caused by climate change and staying on their ancestral lands.
Floods, rising sea levels and coastal erosion are threatening indigenous peoples living along coasts and waterways in the United States, from Alaska to Florida to California to Maine. People in the Southwest and Plains have been affected by unprecedented drought, wildfires and heat, as well as lowered water tables, depleted waterways, and heat. They’re all facing loss of habitat and a reduction in traditional food sources for people, livestock and wildlife.
At least a quarter of a dozen tribal communities have already decided to move to higher ground. Others find the migration out to be more subtle. It happens quietly and without fanfare, as the realities of climate changes reach Indigenous homes, livelihoods, and homes. Indian Country TodayThis was based on an informal survey of tribal nations in the United States.
The impact on Indigenous cultures and histories, as well as languages, is immense.
In the Houma Nation, elders who can’t afford the emotional or financial toll of rebuilding are among those most likely to move away, creating a void that can’t be filled, Houma Chief August “Cocoa” Creppel said.
“It’s very hard,” Creppel said. “This is where they were born and raised. This is where their grandparents, and their parents, were raised. It’s causing us to lose our way of life, living on the bayou.
“It’s hard to see the elders move away.”
The Houma Nation doesn’t have an official territory for tribal tribes. However, 19,000 of its citizens live in southeastern Louisiana, in six parishes. This is Louisiana’s equivalent of a county. The majority of the population lives in the area around the towns Jean Lafitte, Dulac, and Houma. These towns were named for the tribe in 1830s.
Nearly 11,000 of the Houma Nation’s citizens suffered damage when Hurricane Ida pushed ashore near Port Fourchon, Louisiana, on Aug. 29 — 16 years to the day that Hurricane Katrina struck the Louisiana coast, Creppel said.
It is one the most severe storms ever recorded to hit the United States. It also hits Louisiana the worst, surpassing Katrina. It has 150-mph winds, a storm surge of 12 to 14 feet, and more rain than Katrina.
Six weeks after Ida passed through, you can hear the sounds of rebuilding among the wreckage. However, many homes seem too damaged to be salvageable.
Rodriguez’s home is among those shuttered, with a power boat sitting askew in the drying mud under the battered carport. After Katrina in 2005, Rodriguez and his wife Judith purchased the home and raised it to eight feet above the ground.
The home was submerged in more than two feet of water by Hurricane Ida. It now lies just a few feet above the mud and mud that the storm brought. It still has no electricity.
Rodriguez, 73 years old, and his wife, who are a few more years older, fled before the storm came and have lived for weeks miles apart, first with their families, then in motels. They return periodically to check on the damage.
“It’s a long commute,” he said. “I’m just not able to deal with the heat as well as I used to.”
The same problems are affecting Houma as other southern Louisiana communities. The erosion and rising sea levels are destroying the barrier islands that once helped slow storms moving onshore. Man-made channels in marsh grasses allow oil workers to access the sea, but also allow the Gulf saltwater push further inland with greater force. Now, it rains torrentially.
Residents of other Louisiana tribes are also planning to move. Southeast of Houma, the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indian Tribe has been hit repeatedly with hurricanes, and took another hit from Hurricane Ida. The narrow island is located in the bayous at Terrebonne Parish and has been home to tribal citizens for generations.
The Isle de Jean Charles Band partnered with the Houma Nation to propose resettlement off the Island. They said that the destruction posed an existential risk to their communities, culture, and livelihoods. According to a 2020 Government Accountability Office report, Isle de Jean Charles lost 98 per cent of its land mass since 1955 and at least 75 per cent of its residents since then.
Federal funding has enabled the state to purchase 515 acres in Shriever Louisiana, 40 miles north of the mainland, for tribal residents. Chief Albert Naquin stated that approximately 15-20 houses are currently under construction and that 39 families will be moving in by spring. Indian Country Today.
Citizens of the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe near the bayou were also subject to Ida’s destruction. Grand Isle, a barrier Island that has been repeatedly battered, was also hit by Ida. Pointe-au-Chien citizens are considering whether they will move.
Some tribal citizens, however, aren’t waiting to make the move.
Naquin claimed that he had to leave Isle de Jean Charles in order to get to work after Hurricane Carmen in 1974. Many are packing up and leaving their homes in chaos after Ida.
“People have left by force or by choice,” Naquin said.
Nearly 5,000 miles from southern Louisiana, climate change is destroying the Yup’ik village of Newtok in southwestern Alaska.
Newtok once sat high on the ground, shielded from sea ice storms. Permafrost, the frozen ground, held firm. Now, the ground melts and slumps. Wave action and storm surge wash the soil away. Already, the village has lost a mile of ground to erosion. The river is now approaching the runway that small planes use to transport supplies. Barges cannot land anymore.
The village is located near the Bering sea, between two rivers, Newtok and Ninglik. In the past decade, the village has been flooded numerous times. In September 2005, floodwaters surrounded the village from all sides due to a fall storm.
Phillip Carl, Tribal Administrator said that erosion has been particularly severe in 2021 because the river moved closer to the community because of the crumbling shoreline.
“We must have lost … probably about 100 feet,” Carl said. “The school’s water plant is the closest to the erosion. It must be like about 190 feet (away from the current shoreline).”
Carl stated that although the village has not yet experienced high winds this fall, they were expected to do so soon.
“There’s one power pole that’s about to go over,” he said. The power pole will no longer be used to service one house.
According to assessments by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Alaska is among the states most affected by climate change. There are at least 31 Native communities in danger of destruction due to flooding and erosion over the next 25 years.
Newtok is one of four Alaska Native villages identified as being at risk for “imminent destruction,” meaning they are expected to become uninhabitable within the next five years, according to the government reports.
Of the four — Newtok, Kivalina, Shishmaref and Shaktoolik — only Newtok has made substantial progress in relocating its residents.
Newtok began to plan to move in the 1990s. It received small grants for research and education. It chose a site, and negotiated a land exchange with the U.S. Congress approved the Fish and Wildlife Service in 2003.
The swap allows the eventual relocation of the village’s 350 or so residents to Mertarvik, which means “fresh water,” a site on Nelson Island about nine miles away or 25 minutes by boat. Mertarvik is within the tribe’s traditional lands and provides access to subsistence resources. It’s also resistant to erosion.
According to the GAO, construction had been completed at a quarry, landfill and barge landing, temporary airportstrip, roads and power plants. Fuel storage and treatment plants for water, wastewater and 21 homes were also in place.
At least 135 people have already moved. Rest were forced to remain behind until more homes can be built.
Other villages in Alaska that are under threat are also planning to relocate. Residents located approximately 370 miles north-east of Newtok, in the Inupiat village Shishmaref decided in 2016 to relocate their community due to erosion and flooding related to climate change.
Shishmaref can be found on Sarichef Island. This barrier island is about a quarter mile wide and three miles in length, located in the Chukchi Sea outside the Arctic Circle.
Federal and state agencies have spent $25 million to strengthen and expand a seawall since 2004, but Shishmaref still loses approximately three to five feet of shoreline each year to erosion, according to a report from the Climate Adaptation Knowledge Exchange. Many homes and the National Guard Armory were already moved inland due to erosion.
It will be a painful decision. Inupiat people have lived on the island for at least 4,000 years and ancestors’ remains are interred in a cemetery there. According to the Shishmaref Strategic Management Plan (Shishmaref Strategic Management Plan), relocation is currently in the planning stages. Costs have yet to be determined.
About 35 miles east of Newtok, the Yup’ik village of Akiak is also fighting erosion. Michael Williams Sr., chief for the Akiak Native Community, stated that the tribe moved six homes that were being eroded by the Kuskokwim River.
“We’re assessing a few more homes and structures, and if they are within 200 feet from the river, we want to consider moving them,” Williams said.
“The permafrost is receding and it’s getting thinner and thinner,” he said. “Our Chinook returns have been low and our chum didn’t come back this year. The last five, 10 years, we’ve experienced real hot summers, a lack of rain, a lack of snow in the headwaters, and a lack of ice. The river ice should be approximately seven feet thick. It’s been less than three feet.”
Warmer water is a result of warmer temperatures. He said that dead fish were found in the Tanana River, and that changes in migration of caribou present new challenges to subsistence hunters.
Williams, 69, said the conditions he’s seeing are all new — conditions not known to his grandparents and great-grandparents.
“The warming is tremendous,” he said.
Kivalina, a northern Inupiat village, voted to move off the barrier island. It now sits on Chukchi Sea, 83 miles from the Arctic Circle.
Officials haven’t yet been able to find a suitable site with good hunting, fishing and water, however. The Army Corps of Engineers deemed one site too vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change in 2000.
Millie Hawley, Tribal Administrator said that relocation of the entire community is impossible for many years to come. Residents are trying to adapt.
In November 2020, a road was constructed to evacuate the village. Next, a school and community centre will be built on the mainland close to the village.
“We’ve got to live with what we’ve got,” she said. “Where are we going to go? We live on an island. The nearest village is 70 miles away.”
There’s a sense of urgency in the Quinault Nation community of Taholah in northwest Washington state.
Taholah was inundated in January 2021 by the ocean breaking a seawall. The state Department of Natural Resources has prepared models that show the community is at the risk of a possible tsunami 40-50 feet below the surface. The ocean is threatening to wash away large sections of the coastline. Water levels are expected increase by more than 2.5 feet by 2100.
Construction is underway for a new Upper Village, located at a higher elevation approximately a half-mile from the village center. This will be beyond the reach of rising seas or tsunamis.
Quinault hopes to complete its new village by 2030. It will include a variety housing types, a K-12 school and a park. There will also be a community center, offices for tribal government, and emergency services. Construction of a new school will begin in the early 2022.
The infrastructure costs alone — for communications, roads and utilities — are estimated at more than $50 million.
A bill currently in Congress would contribute approximately $500,000 to help the tribe pay for its infrastructure costs. The bill also provides $1.5 million in funding to the Quileute Tribe, La Push, Washington.
The Quileutes are also at risk from a tsunami due to heavy flooding, rising sea levels, and erosion. The tribe has made the decision to move to higher ground approximately 2.5 miles away and construction of a new school continues.
Some will still be there at the lower village, where Quileute people have hunted off the coasts of northwest Washington for centuries.
Other tribes in the west and northwestern United States are also affected by climate change but have not yet decided to relocate their operations. However, it is not known how many people may have moved quietly to areas that are less vulnerable to devastation.
In Oregon and Idaho, five tribal nations that make up the Upper Snake River Tribes Foundation — Burns Paiute Tribe, Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribes, Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of Fort Hall, and Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of Duck Valley — have documented shifts in species and habitats driven by increasing temperatures and changing precipitation patterns.
In northeastern Oregon, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation report that traditional foods — what they call First Foods — are being affected by warming temperatures.
Three tribes in Montana banded together to save their homes, lives, and cultural sites after wildfires caused by dry, hot conditions engulfed nearly 200,000 acres. Hundreds of families from the Flathead Indian Reservation and Fort Belknap Indian Community were evacuated.
And in California’s Kern Valley, heat and drought are affecting the Tubatulabal Tribe’s access to traditional foods, as well as their overall quality of life. Robert Gomez, tribal Chairman, stated that the air was thick with smoke this year from fires in the drought affected region.
“We had fire after fire and the smoke was terrible,” he said. “We had 67 days with temperatures over 100 in the county.”
Hopi elder Vernon Masayesva didn’t want to miss the final katsina dance last July, when tribal lands were “bone dry” in the midst of unprecedented drought. The ceremonial dance invokes prayers for rain.
“It’s very important in our community,” he said. “I wanted to hear the final prayer.”
A deluge struck just before the dance began. The streets were filled with water, and the village plaza became a lake. Some homes in lower-lying regions were flooded.
“There was a huge storm,” he said. “A cloudburst. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Masayesva made the decision to leave before the flooding got worse. However, his daughters stayed behind to watch it all. The clouds parted just in the time for the final dance. The rains had stopped.
Although it was a moment of spirituality for many, the unexpected rains were different to different people. Some saw them as a blessing and a sign that their prayers for rain had been answered. Others saw them as a warning to Hopis and other people that they need to change.
“You can take it both ways,” he said. “This is what the ceremony was all about, about rain .. (But) it’s a signal from Mother Earth that mankind needs to settle down. It’s a world out of balance.”
The heart of climate change in the Southwest United States is water. This is where the Hopi and Navajo, Pueblos, and other tribes have lived for generations. Water and rain are becoming scarcer, causing corn to go to seed, forcing wildlife and sheep to forage further for food, and forcing families and individuals to wait in line to get water for their homes.
Indigenous peoples in the region are all too familiar with the smell of smoke from wildfires that were fueled by hot, dry conditions.
Sometimes, the drought is followed up by torrential rains, before the dry heat grips again local Indigenous communities, affecting their cultures, families, and traditions.
Masayesva, who was once the chairman of the Hopi Tribe is originally from Hotevilla. He said he was not aware of tribal residents moving out of their homelands due climate change. They have been leaving for decades because of other reasons.
“There are many Hopi families that have left but it was way before this climate situation,” he said. “It was these people who wanted good-paying jobs. There’s none on the rez. They wanted their children to go to the best schools. Our schools are in terrible conditions. For those kinds of reasons, many have left a long time ago.”
But they don’t stay away too long, he said.
“They don’t permanently leave,” he said. “They have clan homes. Ceremony — that brings them all back.”
Southeastern and East Coast Communities
The Seminole Tribe of Florida, one of many tribes in the East Coast of the United States that are facing the devastating effects of climate changes, is just one example.
Seminole homelands, which have provided shelter for their people for centuries, are under threat from increasing hurricane power, rising sea levels, erosion and heat.
“The Seminoles’ home in the low-lying Everglades is critically threatened by climate change,” according to a recent report on the looming disintegration of the historic Egmont Key, an offshore island near Tampa Bay where Seminoles were temporarily locked up while waiting to be shipped west.
The Seminole Tribe oversees six tribal territories that have approximately 5,000 residents. It stretches from southern Florida to the Florida Everglades and areas near Lake Okeechobee.
The tribe, which owns a restaurant and hotel empire including Hard Rock and Seminole Gaming, recently hired Jill Horwitz as its first climate resilience officer to help build a local program that integrates traditional knowledge with science. The tribe is also working closely with state officials to develop a climate response plan.
“Climate change touches all of us, and we each have a role,” Horwitz said.
Horwitz said tribal lands — already subject to hurricanes and other storms — have been prone to shifts between drought and flooding in recent years. But she’s not aware of citizens who have decided to leave the area because of climate change.
“No residents have needed to relocate due to sea-level rise,” she said.
Other tribes in the southeast United States are also feeling the effects. The Lumbee Tribe, a North Carolina tribe that has a long history with Lumbee River and upland coastal plains is facing unprecedented flooding.
According to a report by a, the state-recognized tribe has approximately 60,000 citizens. Most of its tribal citizens live in or near the Lumbee River Watershed. 2018 study of the impact of climate change on the Lumbee by Dr. Ryan E. Emanuel, a Lumbee citizen and professor at North Carolina State University who is moving next year to Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment in Durham.
Although the tribe does not own tribal lands, thousands of citizens within the watershed are private landowners.
“The Lumbee Tribe has strong historical, cultural, and socioeconomic ties to the Lumbee River, and climate change has the potential to modify hydrological and ecological conditions along the river, across its connected wetlands, and within its watershed in ways that have serious implications for the tribe,” Emanuel concluded in the study, which was published in the Journal of Contemporary Water Research & Education.
The effects will be felt in hunting, fishing, foraging and basket-making as well as pottery, medicinal plants, religion, and hunting.
“We value those swamps and we value those wetlands,” Emanuel told Indian Country Today. “The flooding makes it difficult for us to stay close to our waters. Our ancestors fished, boated, relied on the water a lot more than we do now … We (now) have a hard time forming bonds with the rivers and swamps.”
As people move out flood-prone areas, migration is slowing down. He said that some property owners were forced to move out of their homes by Hurricanes Matthew and Florence in 2016-2018. Others are moving quietly on their feet.
“I don’t see evidence of large-scale migrations of Lumbee people out of our homelands, and that is because the floods, even though they have been traumatic in recent years, are localized,” he said. “You’re seeing piecemeal movement of people who live in the lowest-lying areas who are moving to higher ground.”
Emanuel was born in Charlotte, North Carolina. However, his parents were raised in Robeson County in the heart of Lumbee country. His family has close ties with the area.
“My grandmother, my aunts, uncles, cousins, all lived in the Lumbee community,” he said.
Climate change is imminent, however. He said that the Lumbee Tribe passed a resolution calling on researchers to study flooding and its effects on tribal territories.
“The tribal council passing this resolution means they’re ready to take a more proactive stance,” he said. “It signals to me that they’re starting to look ahead.”
Recovery is the focus
Back in Louisiana, jars of peanut butter and canned goods are stacked along the halls at the United Houma Nation’s new tribal administration building, as workers help citizens stock up on supplies and apply for aid.
The building, which was a former nursing facility, was being renovated to be ready for new use when the storm struck. The new sheetrock has been torn away and the interior walls have been stripped to the studs. The tribe, however, had insurance unlike many of its citizens.
According to Lanor Curole, Tribal Administrator, renovation plans could be modified to make the building a shelter for residents in the event of a storm. The plan also includes a back-up generator.
Creppel, the Houma chief, said he is working to provide support in whatever capacity is needed — for tribal citizens who are staying, those who are leaving, and those who haven’t made up their mind.
“The hardest thing about being chief — 11,000 of my people were affected by the hurricane and in just a matter of hours, their lives have changed,” he said. “People ask, ‘Why do y’all stay there?’ If it wasn’t for hurricane season, it would be paradise.”
Although the Houma Nation is Louisiana’s largest state-recognized tribal, it is not eligible to receive federal disaster relief funds. It’s a sore subject, and the tribe is fighting once again for federal recognition.
Creppel said some people can’t afford to move. Others can’t afford to rebuild. Many tribal people depend on the water for their livelihood. They lost their house and their boat. People who are still able to fish have no place to sell their catch since the local seafood distributors were also destroyed by the storm.
“People heal physically but not emotionally,” he said.
Counselor Louise Billiot of Houma helps residents apply before taking a visitor along the bayou south Houma, Dulac, where she was born.
She’s seen the climate migration first-hand. Many people fled Dulac after Hurricanes Katrina or Gustav. A large mobile home community developed in the Ashland area with housing for more 100 families.
Many of these homes were damaged in Ida. Residents are now faced with the decision whether or not to move.
“We had a large migration after Katrina and Gustav,” Billiot said. “Now this hurricane has just devastated this community.
“It wasn’t high enough.”
She stated that the tribe’s impact has been catastrophic.
“Years ago, we were a community, a close-knit tribal community,” she said. “What has happened, with the weather and the devastation of the hurricanes, is it has relocated us. We’re not practicing our culture as much. We’re losing that — I don’t want to say Indian-ness — but we’re losing a lot.”
The United Friendship non-profit organization has set up a tent in Lower Lafitte to distribute food, bottled iced Tea, toilet paper, and other supplies.
Gregory Creppel, a Houma citizen, and his cousin to the chief, founded the nonprofit to help the community. He explained that the tent was set up in lower Lafitte as no one else was offering assistance to the area.
The tent is located just steps from a community cemetary that was battered in the storm. Some of the coffins were swept out of their crypts and tossed in the floodwaters. The same marsh mud that Gregory Creppel’s grandmother used to mold into clay ovens now coats them all.
Gretchen Billiot Boudreaux is the tribal council member representing the area. She is helping to distribute the supplies. She understands the dilemma faced by many citizens.
“Half of the people can’t afford to come back,” she said. “They’re wondering, ‘What else do I do? Where do I go?’ Now our kids don’t get to know the history that these elders could have taught them.”
A Red Cross van lands near The United Friendship Tent to distribute homemade jambalaya. Residents move in steady but sparsely to enjoy a hot meal.
Rodriguez and his wife are not included in the group. They are now house-hunting for a place closer to New Orleans, either behind a protection levee or at an elevation high enough they won’t need one.
“It’s a hard decision to make,” Rodriguez said. “But it’s going to have to be that way. It’s diminishing returns.”
Holding on to Traditions
However, not everyone in lower Lafitte is packing up to go.
Giovanni R. “Jay” Santini, the oldest citizen of the Houma Nation in the area, said he is not leaving the bayou lands where he has lived for most of his 86 years. His mother, who was born there, taught him traditional methods, including how to build huts out of palmetto leaves.
He’s fished, driven boats, worked as a carpenter, and lived off the land.
“I made my whole living here,” he told Indian Country Today. “I used to hunt alligators. We’d trap muskrat. Fish, catfish. I was a black moss collector and a green moss seller. I fished for a living. There ain’t nothing I didn’t do.”
His strong, bright blue home, built in his own time 50 years ago, is a landmark in the neighborhood. He’s had damage five times in those years, and raised his home more than 10 feet after Hurricane Rita struck in 2005.
This time, with Ida, his home didn’t take on water but he had roof damage that allowed water to come into some of the rooms. However, the electricity continues to run, which means that air conditioning is running and a blue roof tarp covers any roof damage.
For now, he’s fighting with government officials to dredge the mud out of the ditch along the street so the winter rains will drain properly. The message is sent by a sign at the top his front stairs.
“86 years old,” it reads. “Looks like I have 2 dig my own ditch. HELP.”
He also knows that others are in dire straits. Some residents are determined to restore their boats before they can make homes livable again.
“It hurts,” he said. “It hurts just to look at all the houses that are destroyed completely. People don’t have nothing at all to start with. I was blessed. I’ve got a house with four walls and a roof. I’ve got something to come back to. Some people don’t have nothing at all.
“Just looking at the place will make you cry,” he said.
He is well aware that the loss of tribal citizens, especially elders, can cause irreparable damage to the land’s cultural and historical connections. But he understands why some can’t return.
“I feel sorry for them,” he said. “I know they love the place over here.”
For more information on the United Houma Nation, visit the tribal websiteOr Facebook page. Information about The United Friendship nonprofit organization is available on its Facebook page.