The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee advances human rights through grassroots collaborations.
U.S. Tribes Facing Climate Crisis Unite to Address Human Rights Violations
UUSC and its members are deeply committed to centering and uplifting the voices of Indigenous communities living at the forefront of the climate crisis. Climate change events such as soil erosion, sea level rise, massive storms, and saltwater intrusion paired with human-made projects such as fossil fuel drilling and levee construction have irrevocably altered lands that have been occupied by Indigenous people for generations.
UUSC is working with four tribes in Louisiana and one tribe in Alaska to call attention to the climate change impacts these communities face. Hundreds of Indigenous peoples have been forced to either relocate to new lands or work tirelessly to determine solutions that will allow them to stay in their homes.
Unfortunately, the U.S. government has not worked collaboratively with these communities to address climate change impacts and has, in many instances, inflicted numerous human rights violations. Daily, Indigenous people are denied their right to self determination and are often excluded from conversations around addressing climate change effects that are decimating their communities. The result is the marginalization of entire communities and the complete loss of sacred lands, burial sites, cultural traditions, and livelihoods as the tribes are displaced and forced to migrate elsewhere.
These five tribes have united together to submit a complaint to the United Nations Special Rapporteurs on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Peoples (Cecilia Jimenez-Damary) and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Vicky Tauli-Corpuz). Our partners at the Alaska Institute for Justice (AIJ) and the Lowlander Center have been instrumental in bringing these groups together and filing the complaint, which UUSC has been proud to support.
Below is a link to the complaint letter and profiles of the five communities UUSC, AIJ, and the Lowlander Center are working with; plus, links to the traction the issue has gained in the media.
Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw (Louisiana)
The Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians of Louisiana (IDJC Tribe) are descendants of these three historic tribes who inhabited southern Louisiana and the southeastern part of what is now the United States. The Chitimacha have historically called what is now southeastern Louisiana home. In 1830, the U.S. government passed the Indian Removal Act and members of the Biloxi and Choctaw tribes fled to the bayou area to escape forced relocation. The tribe was originally located on Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, an area in southern Terrebonne Parish that has lost most of its land mass. Now only approximately 80 of 700 total tribal citizens live on the island, while others form a diaspora in nearby communities.
Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe (Louisiana)
The Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe (PACIT) has inhabited their traditional territory in the southernmost end of Louisiana along and around Bayou Pointe-au-Chien since time immemorial. Today, this area is known as Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes. The tribe descends primarily from the Chitimacha and Biloxi Tribes, as well as the Acolapissa and Atakapas Tribes and has approximately 750 members. Several villages where Pointe-au-Chien members historically lived are no longer inhabitable due to land loss and saltwater intrusion. As a consequence, tribal citizens have been forced to relocate to family properties in the more northern area of Pointe-au-Chien, nearby towns, or beyond.
Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw (Louisiana)
The Grand Caillou/Dulac Band is a Tribe of 1,098 citizens who have historically lived in and around the ancestral village of Grand Caillou/Dulac in southern Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana. The tribe is primarily descended from Biloxi, Chitimacha, and Choctaw Tribes, along with the Atakapas and Acolapissa Tribes.
Like other tribal communities in southern Louisiana, the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band has traditionally sustained itself through trapping, fishing, and farming in lands and waters that were historically lush. Because of the diversion of the Mississippi River and other development projects, oil and gas extraction, erosion, saltwater intrusion, and the climate crisis, the tribe has seen these traditional practices threatened. Forests that used to exist are fewer and fewer due to saltwater intrusion. Land loss and increasingly severe storms now put the community at frequent risk of disaster and flooding. Land loss means less hunting and trapping. Especially since the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon Oil Disaster in 2010, tribal members have experienced smaller shrimp yields. Saltwater incursion and flooding make it difficult to maintain gardens.
Grand Bayou Village (Louisiana)
Grand Bayou Village, home of the Atakapa-Ishak Chawasha Tribe, is located at the southernmost part of Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, south of New Orleans, and is accessible only by boat. The Atakapa have called this area home for thousands of years and settled along what is now Grand Bayou—a place oral histories recall as a “paradise” with forests on high ground and plenty of game. The tribe’s sacred burial sites and ancestral fishing waters are here.
In the last century, the Mississippi River levee systems, sea level rise and destruction of wetlands caused by oil and gas exploration have caused the lands around the village to erode and subside. Saltwater intrusion has killed the forests and medicinal plants and made it impossible to carry out traditional gardening. Major storms like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 flooded the community and destroyed homes, causing many families to move elsewhere. Today, only 17 families live in Grand Bayou in homes built on 16-foot pilings. The community is routinely at risk from coastal land loss, flooding, and storms.
The native village of Kivalina includes approximately 400 Inupiaq people. The community is located on a barrier reef island between the Chukchi Sea and the mouths of the Wulik and Kivalina Rivers. No roads lead to or from the community, which is only accessible by small planes or boats and is approximately 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle and 1,000 miles northwest of Anchorage, Alaska. Inupiaq communities have resided in this region for thousands of years. Historically, the island where Kivalina sits had been used by Inupiaq people for seasonal hunting and fishing, not permanent habitation. The U.S. Congress authorized the building of schools in rural Alaska in 1905, overseen by the governor of the district of Alaska. These government authorities built a school on the island of Kivalina and informed people in the region that they had to bring children to school or face imprisonment. The people of Kivalina noted in the very first years of the permanent settlement that this was not a safe place. As early as 1910, reports from the school committee document that residents wished to move because of the risks of erosion. To this day, the community has not been able to relocate.
Read a selection of press clips about this issue below.
January 16, 2020: Tribes say feds’ climate inaction violates human rights; E&E News (PDF)
January 16, 2020: Unpublished denunciation of indigenous people against the United States before the UN for not acting against climate change (in Spanish); Euro News
January 16, 2020: Native Americans hold US government to account on climate change; PRO Bono Australia
January 16, 2020: Tribal leaders appeal to UN for help; WWNO, New Orleans Public Radio
January 16, 2020: Louisiana tribes file complaint with United Nations over U.S. inaction on climate change; The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate
January 17, 2020: Louisiana, Alaskan tribes file UN climate change complaint; The Associated Press
January 24, 2020: America’s Climate Refugees Are Pleading for Help. The Government Has No Answer; New Republic
January 28, 2020: 5 U.S. Native Tribes File A UN Climate Change Complaint; WBUR, Boston Public Radio
Image Credit: UUSC