Above Photo: A cemetery in lower Lafitte, Louisiana, is covered with nearly a foot of marsh mud after Hurricane Ida struck the area on Aug. 29, 2021. Several of the caskets washed up and broke open during the storm. (Dianna Hunt/Indian Country Today)
Climate change forces a growing number of Indigenous people to choose between culture and destruction
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.
A bald eagle soars high above the tall trees. Morning rays glimmer off the rippling waters of nearby Barataria Bayou as it pushes toward the Gulf of Mexico.
It would be idyllic if not for the widespread destruction.
Homes are wrecked, pushed off their pylons and shattered. Fishing boats are upended onto dry land. Coffins washed out of local cemeteries sit cracked open, the bones inside still waiting to be claimed.
It’s more than Rodriguez can take. After decades in lower Lafitte about 65 miles south of New Orleans, he and his wife are leaving their home and their neighbors of the United Houma Nation for higher ground.
“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. Climate change is definitely causing this. People who deny that need a lesson in science.”
Rodriguez is among tens of thousands of tribal citizens across Indian Country forced to choose between staying in their ancestral lands or moving out to protect themselves from the devastation wreaked by climate change.
Indigenous peoples along coastal areas and waterways across the United States from Alaska to Florida and California to Maine are facing floods, rising sea levels, coastal erosion and increasingly powerful hurricanes. Those in the Southwest and Plains have been hit with unprecedented drought, wildfires, heat, lowered water tables and depleted waterways. They’re all facing loss of habitat and a reduction in traditional food sources for people, livestock and wildlife.
And migration has already begun, with at least a half-dozen tribal communities formally deciding to relocate to higher ground. For others, the migration out is more subtle, coming quietly and without fanfare as the realities of climate change reach Indigenous homes and livelihoods, Indian Country Today found in an informal survey of tribal nations across the United States.
The impact on Indigenous cultures, histories and languages is immeasurable.
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 parents were, our grandparents. 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 has no official tribal territories, but its 19,000 citizens are concentrated in southeastern Louisiana in six parishes, the Louisiana equivalent of counties. Most live in the areas around the towns of Dulac, Jean Lafitte and Houma, named in the 1830s for the tribe.
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 of the worst storms on record to hit the United States, and the worst to hit Louisiana, surpassing Katrina with 150-mph winds, a 12- to 14-foot storm surge and more than 15 inches of rain in some areas.
More than six weeks after Ida moved through, sounds of rebuilding can be heard among the wreckage, but many homes appear too shattered to be salvaged.
Rodriguez’s home is among those shuttered, with a power boat sitting askew in the drying mud under the battered carport. He and his wife, Judith, purchased the home in 1995, and had it raised onto pylons more than eight feet above ground after Katrina flooded the area in 2005.
Hurricane Devastation In Louisiana
The United Houma Nation was hit hard when Hurricane Ida came ashore Aug. 29, 2021, and many members are considering leaving their ancestral homelands.
The home took on more than two feet of water during Hurricane Ida, nonetheless, and now sits just a few feet above the layers of mud brought in by the storm. It remains without electricity.
Rodriguez, 73, and his wife, who is a few years older, fled before the storm arrived and have spent weeks living miles away, first with family and then in motels. They travel back periodically to survey 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 Houma area is facing the same problems that have caused devastation in other communities in southern Louisiana. Barrier islands that once slowed storms as they moved onshore are vanishing, victims of erosion and rising sea levels. Man-made channels in the marsh grasses provide access for oil workers but allow the Gulf saltwater to push farther inland and with greater force. Rains are now torrential.
Citizens of other Louisiana tribes are also making plans to move out. 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. Tribal citizens have lived for generations on the narrow island in the bayous of Terrebonne Parish.
The Isle de Jean Charles Band joined with the Houma Nation in proposing resettlement off the island, saying the destruction posed an existential threat to their communities and culture. Since 1955, Isle de Jean Charles has lost 98 percent of its land mass and at least 75 percent of its residents, according to a 2020 Government Accountability Office report.
The state, with federal funding, has purchased 515 acres in Shriever, Louisiana, about 40 miles north on the mainland, to relocate tribal citizens. About 15-20 houses are now under construction, and 39 families are expected to be moved in by spring, Chief Albert Naquin told Indian Country Today.
Citizens of the nearby Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe, who live along a bayou of the same name, also faced destruction from Ida, as did Grand Isle, a barrier island that has repeatedly been battered by storms. The Pointe-au-Chien citizens are also considering whether to relocate.
Some tribal citizens, however, aren’t waiting to make the move.
Naquin said he left Isle de Jean Charles for the next town over after Hurricane Carmen struck in 1974 because he could no longer get to work. Many are now packing up and leaving their homes behind in shambles 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 on high ground, protected from storms by sea ice. The frozen ground, permafrost, held firm. Now, the ground melts and slumps, and wave action and storm surge wash away the soil. The village has already lost a mile of land to erosion. Barges can no longer land, and the river is approaching the runway used by small planes to bring supplies.
The village is located between two rivers, the Newtok and the Ninglik, near where they enter the Bering Sea. The village has flooded several times in the past decade, and in September 2005, a fall storm caused floodwaters to surround the village on all sides, making it an island.
Erosion in 2021 has been particularly bad, as the crumbling shoreline has allowed the river to move even closer to the community, said Tribal Administrator Phillip Carl.
“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 said the village had not yet faced high winds this fall but they were expected to hit soon.
“There’s one power pole that’s about to go over,” he said. The one house served by the power pole will be abandoned.
Alaska is among the states hardest hit by climate change, with at least 31 Native communities threatened with destruction within the next 25 years because of flooding and erosion, according to assessments by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the GAO.
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 planning to move in the 1990s, getting small grants here and there for studies. It picked a site and negotiated a land swap with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that was approved by Congress 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.
As of December 2019, construction had been completed on a quarry, landfill, barge landing, temporary airstrip, roads, power plant, fuel storage, treatment plants for water and wastewater, and 21 homes, the GAO reported.
At least 135 people have already made the move. The rest were forced to stay behind until more homes are built.
Other threatened villages in Alaska are also making plans to move. About 370 miles north of Newtok in the Inupiat village of Shishmaref, residents voted in 2016 to relocate their community because of erosion and flooding attributed to climate change.
Shishmaref sits on Sarichef Island, a barrier island that is a quarter-mile wide and three miles long in the Chukchi Sea just outside the Arctic Circle.
State and federal agencies have spent an estimated $25 million since 2004 to expand and reinforce a seawall in an attempt to hold back the sea, yet Shishmaref continues to lose about three to five feet of shoreline to erosion each year, according to a report by the nonprofit Climate Adaptation Knowledge Exchange. Several homes and the National Guard Armory have already been moved inland because of erosion.
It will be a painful move. Inupiat people have lived on the island for at least 4,000 years and ancestors’ remains are interred in a cemetery there. Relocation is in the planning stages and costs have yet to be determined, according to the Shishmaref Strategic Management Plan.
About 35 miles east of Newtok, the Yup’ik village of Akiak is also fighting erosion. The tribe recently moved six homes being undermined by the Kuskokwim River, said Michael Williams Sr., chief of the Akiak Native Community.
“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 thickness of the (river) ice needs to be about seven feet. It’s been less than three feet.”
Warmer temperatures have meant warmer water. Dead fish have been found on the Tanana River and changes in caribou migration present new challenges for subsistence hunters, he said.
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.
In the northern Inupiat village of Kivalina, the community voted to relocate off the barrier island where it now sits on the Chukchi Sea, 83 miles inside the Arctic Circle.
Officials haven’t yet been able to find a suitable site with good hunting, fishing and water, however. One site chosen in 2000 was deemed by the Army Corps of Engineers to be too at risk to adverse effects of climate change.
Relocation of the entire community is out of reach for years to come, so residents are trying to adapt, Tribal Administrator Millie Hawley said.
An evacuation road was completed in November 2020, and a school and community center will come next on the mainland near 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 flooded in January 2021 when the ocean breached a seawall, and models prepared by the state Department of Natural Resources show the community is at risk of a potential tsunami 40-50 feet deep. The encroaching ocean has washed away chunks of the coastline, and water levels are expected to rise more than 2.5 feet by 2100.
Construction is underway to build a new Upper Village at a higher elevation about a half-mile away from the existing village center, beyond the expected reach of rising seas and tsunamis.
Quinault hopes to have its new village complete in 2030, with a variety of housing types, a K-12 school, a park, trails, a community center and offices for tribal government and emergency services. Construction on a new school is set to begin in early 2022.
The infrastructure costs alone — for communications, roads and utilities — are estimated at more than $50 million.
A bill now pending in Congress would contribute about $500,000 to help the tribe with infrastructure costs. The bill also includes about $1.5 million in funding for the Quileute Tribe in La Push, Washington.
The Quileutes have also sustained heavy flooding, rising sea levels and erosion, and are at increased risk of a tsunami. The tribe has decided to relocate to higher ground about 2.5 miles away, and construction of a new school is underway.
Still, some will remain behind at the lower village, where the Quileute people have harvested fish and shellfish and hunted off the coast of northwest Washington for centuries.
Other tribes in the western and northwestern United States are also being affected by climate change, but have not yet made the decision to relocate tribal operations. No one knows, however, how many citizens may have slipped away quietly to areas less at risk of 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.
In Montana, three tribes banded together in August to save homes, lives and cultural sites as wildfires fueled by hot, dry conditions burned nearly 200,000 acres. Hundreds of families in the Flathead Indian Reservation, the Fort Belknap Indian Community and the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation 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. The air this year was thick with smoke from fires in the drought-parched region, tribal Chairman Robert Gomez said.
“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 brings prayers for rain.
“It’s very important in our community,” he said. “I wanted to hear the final prayer.”
Just before the dance began, however, a deluge erupted. Pouring rains created rivers through the streets, and the village plaza turned into a lake. Some homes in lower-lying areas were flooded.
“There was a huge storm,” he said. “A cloudburst. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Masayesva decided to leave before flooding got worse, but his daughters stayed behind to wait it out. The clouds parted just in time for the last dance. The rains had stopped.
It was a spiritual moment for many, though the unexpected rains meant different things to different people. For some, they were a blessing, a sign that prayers for rain had been answered; for others, they served as a warning that Hopis and others need to change their ways.
“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.”
Water is at the heart of climate change in the southwestern United States, where the Hopi, Navajo, Pueblos and other tribes have lived for generations. Water and rain are growing scarce, leaving corn to die in the fields, causing sheep and wildlife to forage farther for food and drink, and forcing families to wait in lines to get water for their homes.
The smell of smoke from wildfires fueled by the hot, dry conditions is all-too-familiar for Indigenous people in the region.
Sometimes the drought is followed by torrential rains before the dry heat takes a grip again on local Indigenous communities, affecting their families, cultures and traditions.
Masayesva, a former chairman of the Hopi Tribe, is from the village of Hotevilla. He said he is not aware of tribal citizens migrating away from the homelands because of climate change. They have been leaving for decades for 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 kids to go to the best schools. Our schools are in really bad 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, East Coast communities
The Seminole Tribe of Florida is among dozens of tribes across the southeastern United States and East Coast that are facing devastating impacts of climate change.
Increasingly powerful hurricanes, rising sea levels and erosion coupled with heat and periodic drought are threatening the Seminole homelands that have sustained their people for centuries.
“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, which oversees six tribal territories with about 5,000 citizens, stretches from southern Florida northward in the Florida Everglades and in areas near Lake Okeechobee.
The tribe, owner of a restaurant and hotel empire that includes Hard Rock and Seminole gaming, recently hired its first climate resiliency officer, Jill Horwitz, to build a local program that combines traditional knowledge with science. The tribe is also working with state officials to draft a response plan to climate change.
“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 southeastern United States are feeling the effects. The Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, which has a long history with the Lumbee River and the upland coastal plains, is facing increasing flooding and unprecedented hurricanes.
The state-recognized tribe, with about 60,000 citizens, is the largest in the eastern United States, and most of its tribal citizens live within or near the Lumbee River watershed, according to a 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.
The tribe does not have tribal lands, though thousands of citizens are private landowners within the watershed.
“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 impact will be felt on hunting, fishing, foraging, basket-making, pottery, medicinal plants and religion.
“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.”
Migration is happening slowly, as people move out of flood-prone areas. Some property owners were bought out of their homes after Hurricanes Matthew and Florence in 2016 and 2018, he said. Others are making the move quietly on their own.
“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 grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, but his parents grew up in Robeson County, the heart of Lumbee country. His family has close ties to the area.
“My grandmother, my aunts, uncles, cousin, all lived in the Lumbee community,” he said.
Climate change is looming, however. The Lumbee Tribe recently passed a resolution calling for research into flooding and the impacts on tribal territories, he said.
“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.”
Focusing on recovery
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, a former nursing home recently donated to the tribe, was being renovated for its new use this summer when the storm hit. The new sheetrock is now torn out and the inside walls are mostly stripped to the studs. The tribe had insurance, however, unlike many of its citizens.
Renovation plans may be altered to allow the building to serve as a shelter for residents when the next storm hits, said Tribal Administrator Lanor Curole. A back-up generator is also being added to the plan.
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.”
The Houma Nation is the largest state-recognized tribe in Louisiana, but without federal recognition it is not eligible for certain 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 citizens make their livings off the water, and lost both their house and their boat. Those who still can fish have nowhere to sell their catch, since the local seafood distributors were also damaged in the storm.
“People heal physically but not emotionally,” he said.
At tribal headquarters, counselor Louise Billiot, a Houma citizen, helps residents with their applications before taking a visitor on a tour down the bayou south of Houma in Dulac, where she grew up.
She’s seen the climate migration first-hand. After Hurricanes Katrina and Gustav, many residents fled from Dulac to the Ashland area, where a large mobile home community sprung up with housing for more than 100 families.
Many of those homes were destroyed in Ida, leaving residents to decide once again whether to move.
“We had a large migration after (Hurricanes) Katrina and Gustav,” Billiot said. “Now this hurricane has just devastated this community.
“It wasn’t high enough.”
The impact on the tribe has been devastating, she said.
“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.”
In lower Lafitte, The United Friendship nonprofit organization has set up a tent to distribute food and bottled iced tea, toilet paper and other supplies.
Gregory Creppel, a Houma citizen and cousin to the chief, and his wife, Lisa, started the nonprofit to serve the community. They set up the tent in lower Lafitte because no one else was providing help to the area, he said.
The tent sits just steps away from a community cemetery that was pounded in the storm. Some of the coffins washed out of their crypts, toppled and cracked open 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, the tribal council member who represents the area, is helping hand out the supplies. She understands the dilemma many citizens are facing.
“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 stakes a spot near The United Freedom tent to hand out meals of homemade jambalaya. A sparse but steady stream of residents move in for a hot meal.
Rodriguez and his wife are not among them, however. 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
Not everyone in lower Lafitte, however, is packing up to leave.
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. He grew up there, and his mother taught him traditional ways, including how to make huts from 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 picked black moss and green moss for a living. I fished for a living. There ain’t nothing I didn’t do.”
His sturdy, bright blue home, built by his own hands about 50 years ago, towers above many 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. The electricity still runs, however, which means air conditioning, and a blue tarp covers the damaged sections of roof.
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. A sign posted at the top of his front stairs sends the message.
“86 years old,” it reads. “Looks like I have 2 dig my own ditch. HELP.”
But he knows others are facing ruination. Some residents are focused on restoring their capsized boats before they can make their homes liveable 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. At least 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 knows the loss of tribal citizens in the community, particularly elders, can cripple the cultural and historic connections to the land for others. But he understands why some can’t return.
“I feel sorry for them,” he said. “I know they love the place over here.”