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.
President Joe Biden announced the funding Wednesday 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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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 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 also pledged better consultation and coordination with tribal leaders on everything from high-speed internet access 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 rising sea levels and a shrinking winter ice season. The ice protects vulnerable coastlines from spring storm erosion.
They also face the loss of their way of life through subsistence hunting as climate change alters migration patterns of fish, caribou, whales, birds and other game.
Relocating villages comes with 'enormous complexities'
Many Alaska Native villages are considering relocating but have struggled with finding 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:
Planning for the newly placed community
Keeping the community's economy afloat during relocation
Funding is 'giant recognition' of climate change-related challenges
Robin Bronen, 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 World War II.
"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."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Climate change effects impact Native villages; millions in aid coming