Tribal nations demand response to climate relocation

Five Indigenous communities have asked the U.N. to investigate the United States’ failure to live up to legal obligations.


The island housing the Village of Kivalina has lost roughly half of its livable space. More robust sea walls and an exit roadway are being constructed, but the community is fighting to relocate entirely.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

THE ALASKA NATIVE VILLAGE OF KIVALINA sits on a barrier reef island in the Chukchi Sea 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle, accessible only by plane or boat. In 1992, Kivalina — a federally recognized tribe — voted to relocate due to the threat of erosion and storms, but the community’s attempts to move were blocked by the U.S. government. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers twice rejected proposed relocation sites, saying they would be too expensive to bolster against future erosion. By 2003, the island had lost roughly half its livable space. Today, the community of 400 is still seeking relocation assistance from federal and Alaska agencies — and time is short. Some reports suggest that the island could be uninhabitable as soon as 2025, due to land loss, melting permafrost and increased storm threats. 

In January, the Alaska Institute for Justice filed a complaint with the United Nations on behalf of Kivalina and four coastal tribes in Louisiana, asking for an investigation into the United States’ handling of tribal nations affected by climate change. The complaint emphasized the failure of the U.S. government to provide adequate resettlement resources to Indigenous communities, violating their human rights through repeated negligence. It cites the government’s failure to relocate tribes, provide thorough consultation, to protect tribal cultural sites and to recognize tribal sovereignty. “By failing to act,” the complaint reads, “the U.S. government has placed these tribes at existential risk.”

The complaint seeks to “highlight a systemic injustice that we’re seeing across the nation,” said Michael Givens, spokesman for the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, a human rights advocacy group that worked in partnership on the complaint.

Climate-forced displacement is a reality for tribal nations in the Pacific Northwest, as well: The Hoh Tribe, the Quileute Tribe and the Quinault Nation have been working on moving to higher ground for more than a decade, as they face increased erosion, flooding and storm damage. The Pacific Northwest could see up to 2 feet of sea-level rise by 2050, as well as higher tides, a hazardous prospect for low-lying coastal communities.

“By failing to act, the U.S. government has placed these tribes at existential risk.”

This is the first complaint to the U.N. about a government’s responsibility to its own citizens should they experience displacement from climate change, says Ama Francis, climate law fellow at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. “Something that this complaint really helpfully does is point to the ways that the federal and state governments can support Indigenous people in adapting to climate change in ways that tribal communities themselves have determined.”

One way is through a “relocation governance framework” first put forward by the Obama administration in 2013, which recognized the lack of progress agencies had made in assisting Alaska villages in their response to climate change. Currently, tribal nations seeking to relocate have to work with at least a half-dozen different federal agencies  — in addition to state agencies — for housing, transportation, disaster recovery and infrastructure needs. But climate change requires a coordinated response. In 2013, a White House task force called climate-driven relocation of coastal communities “an unprecedented need” — one that agencies lacked the “technical, organizational and financial means” to address. The relocation framework recommends establishing a lead federal agency to coordinate funding and decision-making to help communities move.

The Village of Kivalina on the Chukchi Sea, 83 miles above the Arctic Circle, where coastal villages are working to adapt to the changing climate.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The U.N. complaint also highlights the difficulties faced by the many non-federally recognized tribes grappling with climate change: Four communities in the Southern U.S. included in the complaint do not have federal recognition and do not have the same government-to-government relationship and access to resources that the 574 federally recognized tribes have. The Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians of Louisiana, the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe and the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw each have state recognition and have been seeking federal recognition since the 1990s, while the Atakapa-Ishak Chawasha Tribe of Grand Bayou Village has neither. According to the complaint, the resulting failure to recognize tribal sovereignty has led to a lack of resources to adequately address land loss and natural disasters. Meanwhile, the multifaceted impacts this has on cultural rights, food sovereignty and more are ignored.

As the climate crisis deepens, advocates say the same state actors behind land dispossession and climate change are now failing to respond responsibly to either. “Climate change has a lot to do with local capacity to coordinate,” says Kyle Whyte (Citizen Potawatomi Nation), a professor of philosophy and community sustainability at Michigan State University. For the state to ignore the sovereignty of, and its responsibilities to, tribal communities, “that’s just really unethical,” he said.

“We are at a crossroads,” said Whyte, “and the decisions that we’re being forced to make today and with insufficient support are ones that are going to have a lasting impact on future generations.” 

Anna V. Smith is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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