What Can We Learn from Native American Relocation as a Response to Climate Change?

Shane Day



Credit: Alex Beer


Climate change will lead to extreme weather events that will necessitate communities to relocate to other areas. Native American communities are particularly vulnerable in this regard. But relocation is a complex exercise and not much thought seems to be given to this subject. The native American experience can offer valuable lessons in this regard.

Uprooting individuals, households and communities is a culturally sensitive issue.  The legacy of the “Indian removal period”, in which dozens of tribes were forcibly resettled from their existing land bases to the Great Plains, casts a shadow over any proposal for relocation, as Native peoples rightfully fear that such relocation might represent a continuation of the cultural assimilation goals of earlier removals.  Additionally, existing cases suggest that intra-tribal conflict is a major barrier to relocation efforts, with tribal elders in particular resisting it on the basis of a “they’ve lived there, they’re going to die there” mentality.  Furthermore, any relocation is unlikely to be politically viable to a tribe unless the new land base is familiar and supports traditional cultural and subsistence practices.  Given this backdrop, a generalizable lesson may be that for relocation to be a viable option, obtaining community consensus from the bottom up is necessary.

Where is the Administrative Infrastructure for Relocation?

Even assuming that community buy-in has been established and a tribe is willing to move, there is no lead agency authority, centralized funding stream, nor rationalized process for facilitating such a move.  Existing policy overwhelmingly focuses upon limited mitigation efforts and/or post-disaster temporary emergency assistance through agencies such as FEMA.  The actual costs of relocation can be significant, and entails both the procurement of a new land base and implementation costs for the actual move.  The establishment of a new land base has not followed a consistent pattern, with some tribes negotiating land swaps with various federal agencies for adjacent land on higher ground, others purchasing small tracts of land with their own limited resources, and still others obtaining funding through ad hoc federal grant programs.  Furthermore, even if a suitable land base can be identified and procured, the cost of relocation can be highly variable and significantly impacted by factors such as the relative remoteness of the tribe, leading to stalled or piecemeal implementation as a tribe taps into whatever financial support they are able to obtain.  Alaskan Native villages in particular face dramatically higher costs for community-wide relocations.

In the handful of instances where relocation has occurred or is underway, comparative analysis yields no consistent pattern or process.  A frequently-cited case, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe of Louisiana, provides few if any lessons in that the tribe is not federally-recognized, and obtained $48 million from a one-time natural disaster resiliency competition grant program for local, not tribal, governments sponsored by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.  This is a process most federally-recognized tribes are unaccustomed to, and potentially hostile towards, going through as most tribal governments expect services owed to them under treaty provisions or the federal trust responsibility to be implemented through the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other related agencies that they have a history of working with.  Furthermore, the promise of potentially favorable land swap deals is very likely limited to a small handful of potential cases, and dependent upon political support and lack of popular opposition.  In the few instances where such transfers have occurred, it has involved remote communities and entailed particular federal agencies having their own institutional interests at stake.  In the case of Newtok, Alaska the village negotiated a land swap with the US Fish and Wildlife Service for adjacent higher ground, in part because the old village site held promise for fish habitat restoration activities.

Land exchanges involving the National Park Service (NPS) are much more difficult owing to the agency’s different mission.  As one employee states, “the NPS doesn’t transfer park lands casually, and it doesn’t happen often”.  In the case of the Hoh tribe in Washington State, most of their new land was procured with their own money, with a relatively innocuous 37 acre connecting corridor of former National Park land swapped with the tribe as a result of the support by the state’s congressional delegation.  Such support comes amid the backdrop of past state-tribal conflict over fishing rights, with recent years demonstrating a marked improvement in state-tribal relations.  A more conflictual contrasting case involving the nearby Quileute Nation, involving a more significant 785 acre land swap, met with greater resistance from the NPS.  The Quileute, whose existing land base was under two square miles in size and subject to coastal erosion, tsunami impacts, and other issues, had been unsuccessful in negotiating a land swap and resorted to cutting off public access to two popular beaches in Olympic National Park that could only be accessed through tribal territory.  In most circumstances, such a move by a tribal government would likely be met with fierce public outcry, but the Quileute, who figure prominently in the popular film and book franchise The Twilight Saga, marshalled this pop culture status to pressure Congress to intervene on their behalf.  The NPS ultimately signed off on the deal on the basis of restored beach access and assurances that tribe will preserve much of the land as wilderness.

In conclusion, if negative impacts of climate change continue to increase in native communities, a more standardized program for facilitating relocation will be necessary.  Yet, relocation efforts will probably be viewed with some skepticism given the experience Native communities have had with federal programs over the last two centuries. In light of the current administration’s reduction of support for climate policies however, tribes will likely face a decreased range of options to support their efforts at relocation, with potentially dire results that would represent a violation of the federal trust responsibility towards tribes. The challenge for public administrators is to think creatively on how the interests of the underprivileged are protected, and through what sorts of administrative interventions, as the challenges posed by the changing climate mount.

Shane Day is an Assistant Professor in the School of Public Administration at the University of New Mexico, and Affiliated Faculty in the Ostrom Workshop, Indiana University – Bloomington.