The Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians have lived on the Isle of Jean Charles 100 miles south of New Orleans for almost 200 years – but the small island has been steadily disappearing over the past half century. After decades of erosion and an approximate 8 inch sea level rise, only 2% of the tribe’s land remains livable, and the community has shrunk to 25% of its former population. As the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw abandon their home, they become the largest American community to have been resettled due to climate change.
Fleeing the United States’ ethnic-cleansing policy of Indian removal, the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw first settled on the island in the 1830s. The tribe traditionally relied on fishing and small-scale farming to survive. Both of these pursuits have become less tenable as the island has been lost to the rising water. In 1950, the Isle was 11 miles long and 5 miles wide. Today, it is only a quarter-mile long and two miles long. This dramatic land loss inspired director Benh Zeitlin in the creation of “the Bathtub” community in the 2012 film Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Jean Charles Isle and the plight of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw is a tragic living example of American industrial imperialism. The fleeing tribe arrived on the Isle around the same time that the United States was embarking on its Industrial Revolution, which would provide the initial burst of greenhouse gases that contribute to ongoing climate change. In more modern times, logging, levee building by the US Army Corp of Engineers, and the devastating impact of oil drilling has damaged the Isle’s surrounding wetlands – its natural defense against storms and sea level rise.
In 2016, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development granted $48 million to the tribe’s unprecedented relocation. To many, this may be too little, too late. “As the people leave, our culture goes with it,” says deputy chief Boyo Billiot. “When environmental justice issues are on the table, the Native people are forgotten,” says Tara Houska, national campaigns director of indigenous environmental non-profit Honor the Earth. “It’s hard to be such a small population and still be heard, but we are facing the consequences of climate change and our voices must be heard.”
Images via Karen Apricot/Flickr