Two Native villages in Alaska and a native village in Washington state will receive $25 million each in federal assistance to help relocate to higher ground in the face of climate change-driven erosion and flooding concerns.
President Joe Biden on Wednesday announced the funding for Newtok and Napakiak, both on the Bering Sea coast in Alaska, and the Quinault Indian Nation on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Biden spoke at the start of a two-day tribal summit in Washington, D.C.
“There are tribal communities at risk of being washed away, washed away, by superstorms rising sea levels and wildfires raging,” Biden said. “It’s devastating.”
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- Background: Native villages around the country are at risk from climate change, particularly those located on the shores of lakes, rivers and oceans that could rise or increasingly flood.
- Study: Tribes will need $4.8 billion in assistance over next 50 years to relocate imperiled buildings, harden water-treatment plants and protect themselves from erosion and flooding, according to a 2020 federal study.
- Looking forward: Biden said the money is a down payment on funding for widespread needs nationally and is part of $135 million in funding for 11 communities from Maine to Louisiana to Alaska to begin or continue relocation planning.
Biden at the conference also pledged better consultation and coordination with tribal leaders on everything from high-speed internet to drinking water systems, electric vehicle chargers and casino licensing.
Climate change threatens native villages in Alaska
Coastal Alaska Native villages are particularly at risk from both rising sea levels and the shortening of the winter ice season, which normally protects vulnerable coastlines from spring storm erosion.
They’re also facing the loss of their way of life through subsistence hunting as climate change alters migration patterns of fish, caribou, whales, birds and other food animals.
Relocating villages comes with ‘enormous complexities’
Many Alaska Native villages are considering relocating but have struggled with both finding new land but also philosophical questions about exactly how to move an entire community without losing its identity.
“It is difficult to understate the enormous complexities Alaska Native villages face to relocate their tribal communities,” the 2020 federal study concluded. That’s especially difficult as “floods, erosion, and permafrost subsidence quickly sluff away land that has been stable for centuries.”
Among the hurdles cited by the study:
- Acquiring funds
- Assessing risks
- Coordinating with authorities
- Keeping community’s economy afloat during relocation
Funding is ‘giant recognition’ of climate change-related challenges
Robin Bronen, the executive director of the Alaska Institute for Justice, said the funding is a “giant recognition” of the climate change-related challenges faced by many Native communities, but also is structured in a way that ensures tribal authorities are in charge of the process.
Many Native Americans, she said, are justifiably nervous about the federal government’s “horrific” legacy of forcible relocations, including Aleut villages in the Aleutian Islands during WWII.
“Any decision to relocate presents giant challenges because it’s more than just a household trying to figure out where to relocate,” said Bronen, a human rights attorney.
“Even though the Biden administration announcement was primarily about these three communities, we know that other places like Miami are in the process of possibly being permanently submerged.”