Biden administration commits millions of dollars to relocate Native tribes threatened by climate change

The Biden administration announced Wednesday a $135 million commitment to helping to relocate Native American tribes whose homes are threatened by the effects of climate change. Using money from the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law, the voluntary community-driven relocation program, led by the Department of the Interior, will assist 11 tribes with adapting to climate change — or, when necessary, moving their communities altogether.

“As all of you know, there are tribal communities that are at risk of being washed away, washed away by superstorms, rising sea levels and wildfires raging,” President Biden said at the White House on Wednesday, speaking at his administration’s first Tribal Nations Summit, with which the announcement was timed to coincide. “It’s devastating.”

Biden said the funds will be used “to move, in some cases, their entire communities back to safer ground.”

President Biden speaks at the Tribal Nations Summit.
President Biden speaks Wednesday at the Tribal Nations Summit at the Department of the Interior. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Three coastal tribes that already are contending with flooding from rising sea levels and stronger storms are receiving grants to relocate. In Alaska, the Newtok Village and the Native Village of Napakiak, along with the Quinault Indian Nation in Washington state, are each receiving $25 million to help move their homes and businesses to higher ground.

Newtok Village, on the Ninglick River, is suffering from 70 feet per year of coastal erosion due to stronger storms and thawing permafrost. Erosion studies have found no cost-effective remedy. The new site of the village will be 9 miles away.

Napakiak is on the banks of the Kuskokwim River, which flows into the Bering Sea. It is losing 25 to 50 feet of land each year to erosion, and much of its critical infrastructure will be destroyed by the end of this decade. The village has already developed relocation plans but hasn’t been able to implement them due to a lack of funds.

The Quinault Nation’s main town of Taholah, which sits on the Pacific Ocean, has been struggling with heavier storms, flooding and resulting power outages, and it has been seeking government relocation assistance for years.

Schoolchildren play on melting ice at Yupik Eskimo village of Napakiak on the Yukon Delta in Alaska on April 19, 2019. (Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images)
Schoolchildren play on melting ice at Yupik Eskimo village of Napakiak on the Yukon Delta in Alaska on April 19, 2019. (Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images)

In addition, $5 million planning grants will be given to four Native villages in Alaska and the Havasupai Tribe in Arizona, the Yurok Tribe in California, the Chitimacha Tribe in Louisiana and the Passamaquoddy Indian Tribe in Maine.

“As part of the federal government’s treaty and trust responsibility to protect Tribal sovereignty and revitalize tribal communities, we must safeguard Indian Country from the intensifying and unique impacts of climate change,” said Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Native American to hold that position, in a statement accompanying the announcement. “Helping these communities move to safety on their homelands is one of the most important climate related investments we could make in Indian Country.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will also be contributing funds and participating in the planning process. “From wildfires out west to typhoons in Alaska, I have seen firsthand the devastating affect [sic] climate change and extreme weather has on communities across the nation, especially in Indian Country,” said FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell. “While FEMA continues to help Tribal Nations plan for future conditions and strengthen tribal community resilience through our suite of hazard mitigation tools and resources, we are excited to partner with our federal family on larger projects such community-driven relocation to further support all Tribal Nations.”

Boardwalks extend across the Yupik village of Newtok, Alaska.
Boardwalks extend across the Yupik village of Newtok, Alaska, in 2019. Significant erosion from the Ninglick River has already forced the dismantling of several homes. (Bonnie Jo Mount/the Washington Post via Getty Images)

All of the Native American tribes receiving grants volunteered through an application process or in consultation with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

While relocating entire communities is increasingly necessary due to climate change, it is a politically fraught subject. Some residents are reluctant to leave their homes, even after multiple storms have forced them to repeatedly rebuild. In New York City, waterfront neighborhoods in Queens and Staten Island were offered voluntary buyouts, but not every homeowner accepted them, leaving a patchwork of abandoned land and still-inhabited homes.

The Obama administration gave $48 million to the state of Louisiana to relocate the coastal village of Isle de Jean Charles, which has lost most of its land to rising tides in the Gulf of Mexico, in 2016. But residents disagreed about where the new village would go. The first people to move under the program started moving into their new homes only this year.

“Because of the impact of climate change, it’s unfortunate that this work is necessary,” Bryan Newland, assistant secretary for Indian Affairs at the Interior Department and a member of the Michigan-based Bay Mills Indian Community, told the New York Times on Wednesday. “We have to make sure that tribes can continue to exist, and continue their way of life.”

Audience members listen as President Biden speaks at the Tribal Nations Summit.
Audience members listen as Biden speaks at the White House Tribal Nations Summit. (Patrick Semansky/AP)