Isle de Jean Charles has lost 98% of its land mass, exposing residents to increasingly intense storms and flooding. The tribal community has sought a collective relocation, that will allow them to retain cultural ties and landscape-based practices. The Isle de Jean Charles Biloxi-Chitimacha Choctaw Tribe, in collaboration with partners including the Lowlander Center and Evans + Lighter, have been working towards relocation for two decades. However, the process has been fraught because of a lack of federal tribal recognition and poor institutional support for collective relocation in the US.
Isle de Jean Charles Biloxi-Chitimacha Choctaw Tribe • The tribe is one of 10 state-recognized Indian tribes in Louisiana. The governing body of the Tribe consists of a traditional chief, two deputy chiefs, four council people, a tribal secretary, a council of elders, and tribal advisors.
Lowlander Center • The center supports lowland communities and places, both inland and coastal, for the benefit of both people and environment.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Resilient Communities Lab • The MIT RCL is led by Associate Professor Janelle Knox-Hayes and focuses on understanding the systems dynamics shaping the environmental, social and economic impacts of coastal communities, mapping social values of communities in transition, and planning and designing resilient solutions.
Isle de Jean Charles was settled by tribal members as they fled persecution during the 1830s Indian Removal Act. The island is currently home to 33 households, including members from the Isle de Jean Charles Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe of Louisiana (IDJC-BCC). Traditionally, many of the island’s residents made their livelihood from the surrounding waters and marshes. The Tribal community, which has been dispersed from previous storms, has been working since the early 2000s engaging in a deliberate and planned resettlement process to reunite their Tribe from the lower bayou region to higher ground.
Isle de Jean Charles is a small, low-lying island sited at the marshy tip of Louisiana’s Mississippi delta. It is a site of great ecological diversity. The geographic setting of Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana has lost all but 2% of its land since the 1950s and is now a strip that measures a mere 110 acres since the completion of a ring levee. As canals carved for oil and gas production increase saltwater intrusion into freshwater marshland this layer of natural protection against storms is increasingly disappearing, and Coastal Louisiana has lost more coastal wetlands than all other states (USGS, 2017). The Island Road, which was built in 1953 to connect the island to the mainland, suffers frequent inundation.
Isle de Jean Charles is plagued by a host of environmental problems including sea level rise, coastal erosion and salt-water intrusion, caused by canals dredged through the surrounding marshland by oil and gas companies, and land subsidence due to a lack of soil renewal due to levees that separated tribal land from the river. The loss of a buffering marsh has made frequent hurricanes even more intense. The exclusion of the tribe from the Morganza to the Gulf Levee in 2001 has exacerbated marsh loss and storm exposure, presenting a crisis of social equity and environmental justice.
To the members of the Isle de Jean Charles Tribe, the continual loss of land and periodic damage from storms has resulted in a loss of life-way and communal support structures as members have moved away from the island seeking safer homes. What was once a land rich with resources for a self-sustaining community has been drastically reduced through a series of environmental transformations. In response to this ongoing land loss and storm damage, the Isle de Jean Charles Tribe has been actively pursuing relocation options with the Lowlander Center.
The most recent planning, and relocation process started in 2010, when the Isle de Jean Charles Tribe utilized their previous work and honed it with green sustainable principles to submit to the Clinton Global Initiative and the Mystic Foundation, neither of which granted funding. The work was further honed by the consortium of experts brought together by Lowlander Center in conjunction with the Tribal leaders to apply for the NOFA, Rockefeller – HUD National Disaster Resilience Competition, a two year effort. The Tribe and Lowlander scored 5th in the competition to enable the Tribe to reunite in a new low-carbon impact, coastal resilient location 40 miles north by the year 2020. Yet what began as an opportunity to relocate and re-unify the Isle de Jean Charles Tribe now illustrates the fraught politics of relocation in the late-colonial context. $48 million, of a total $92 million awarded to the State of Louisiana from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under the National Disaster Resilience Competition, was allocated to resettle the residents of Isle de Jean Charles to develop “a resettlement model that is scalable, transferrable and supportive of cultural and social networks” (State of Louisiana Office of Community Development, 2016).
Through that partnership, Lowlander has been able to secure other resources such as the Citizens’ Institute on Rural Design, landscape architecture firm Evans + Lighter, National Academy of Science, Grounded Solutions, EPA, Handy Village Institute and many others. These short term partners have worked collaboratively with Isle de Jean Charles to contribute to proposals and portions of the Tribe’s planning processes (in 2014, 2015, 2016), as well as knowledge-exchange and learning from other indigenous communities facing land loss (in Washington and Newtok, Alaska) (State of Louisiana Office of Community Development, Lowlander Center, & GCR, 2015).
The actors, perceived beneficiaries, and processes involved in the NDRC application phase and the NDRC award phase. While the plan developed in the application phase was led by the IDJC-BCC tribe and Lowlander center focused on serving the IdJC diaspora, the post-award process has been led by a series of consultants unconnected to the initial application with a process centered on current island residents.
The NDRC process follows a long history of infrastructure exclusion, damaging storms, and relocation planning by past and current tribal residents of Isle de Jean Charles. The timeline represents a diverging process carried out on the one hand by the leadership of the IdJC-BCC tribe and the futures they have imagined, and on the other by the Louisiana OCD.
In 2018 the Resilient Communities Lab invited members of the Isle de Jean Charles Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe of Louisiana and members of a sister community from Newtok Alaska to visit MIT for a workshop on coastal resilience and building Indigenous, university partnerships. The participants spoke to the importance of consultation, sovereignty and the protection of values in the creation of relocation plans. Together the groups involved have been charting new partnerships and opportunities to work together and to seek to weave Traditional Ecological Knowledges and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics disciplines together for better coastal assessment and management.
Isle de Jean Charles Biloxi-Chitimacha Choctaw Tribe
Massachusetts Institute of Technology