World / Science & Health

In first, Native American tribe displaced by sea gets land to relocate

Thomson Reuters Foundation

A small Native American tribe in Louisiana whose land has nearly vanished into the sea has moved a step closer to relocating its community further inland after authorities acquired new land for the move, part of a first-of-its-kind project.

The 515 acres (208 hectares) of farmland will be made available to members of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe and other inhabitants of the Isle de Jean Charles to relocate after their village was nearly wiped by erosion and rising seas.

“I’m happy that finally, after three years, we have property bought,” Chantel Comardelle, the tribal executive secretary of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, said on Thursday.

Isle de Jean Charles is a small strip of land in Louisiana’s coastal south that has been home to the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians since the tribe found refuge there in the early 19th century.

But since the 1950s it has lost 98 percent of its mass. Its population has shrunk from 400 inhabitants to about a dozen families, officials said.

A U.S. Geological Survey study says southeast Louisiana is losing wetlands at the rate of a football field an hour.

Pat Forbes, an official with the state of Louisiana, which handled the purchase, said he hoped this first attempt in U.S. history to move an entire community losing its home to water would serve as a blueprint for generations to come.

“Lots of people (worldwide) are contemplating moving communities that are going under water,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

The new site, acquired for nearly $12 million, was chosen because its bayou and wetland would help keep alive the community’s historical ties to water and fishing tradition, Forbes said.

The relocation has generated mixed emotions as Isle de Jean Charles families are leaving behind their ancestors’ cemetery and a way of life.

Two prior attempts to relocate the village have failed, said Forbes. “We hope that now that we’ve got the land purchased that it’s going to bolster people’s confidence.”

Authorities hope to break ground later this year.

“I’m glad to see finally something is getting done,” said Comardelle.