#11 – Tribal Towns Forced to Relocate Due to Climate Crisis

by Shealeigh

Many coastal areas in the Pacific Northwest lose up to seventy feet of their land annually due to erosion caused by climate change, disproportionately impacting the region’s Indigenous communities. The Biden administration has already paid $25 million apiece to three Native American villages in Alaska and Washington to move away from the encroaching waters, a first managed retreat for Indigenous communities in the country, with many more to come. However, the aid that has been allocated will not even cover the cost of building new schools, according to a series of December 2022 reports by Emily Schwing for Alaska Public Media and High Country News.

Managed retreats are disruptive and relocating communities must overcome a host of challenges, from choosing new locations to securing funds from the Interior Department and other federal agencies. Unfortunately, such relocations are likely to become more common as flooding and erosion affect a growing number of coastal Indigenous communities.

The first communities to receive the $25 million federal disbursements were Newtok, in southwest Alaska; Napakiak, on the shore of the Kuskokwim River; and the Quinault Indian Nation, on Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula.

In the case of Newtok, at least fifty-four houses, an airport, a power grid, and a road system will need to be built at an estimated cost of $120-300 million. Constructing a new sewage system and a health clinic would add an estimated $105 million to the price of relocation.

Navigating the bureaucratic rules that dictate how funding can be used makes the task of moving a village even more daunting. The Newtok relocation project manager, Patrick LeMay, told High Country News that, according to the Department of the Interior, funding is “supposed to support core infrastructure. But the Bureau of Indian Affairs—which is part of the Interior Department—does not consider housing infrastructure.” The rest of the money must be scraped together from different agencies with their own requirements.

An August 2022 report by Columbia Journalism Investigations and the Center for Public Integrity published in Mother Jones revealed that people of color make up more than 50 percent of residents living in counties that have experienced three climate disasters in the past five years. The same report highlighted that the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s “disaster preparedness spending—which includes money to help people relocate—already falls short of the need” and is “not flowing out equitably.”

Journalist Emily Schwing has provided the most detailed account of the Alaska relocations. Together with the Mother Jones article on the federal government’s lack of preparedness, her reports for public and independent media outlets document the inadequacy of the federal government’s spending on climate-related relocations. While the New York Times, CNBC, and The Hill all covered the Biden administration’s initial allocation of funding to the three Native American towns, these outlets failed to explore the full scope of the relocations’ impacts and often omitted the perspectives of community leaders on the daunting bureaucratic obstacles tribes encounter trying to access government funding.

Alex Lubben et al., “These Communities Are Trapped in Harm’s Way as Climate Disasters Mount,” Mother Jones, August 4, 2022.

Emily Schwing, “Interior Department Puts $40m Toward Community Relocation Efforts for Newtok and Napakiak,” Alaska Public Media, December 2, 2022.

Emily Schwing, “Newtok Residents Are Desperate to Relocate after September Storm,” Alaska Public Media, October 4, 2022.

Emily Schwing, “How Far Can $25 Million Go to Relocate a Community That’s Disappearing into Alaska’s Melting Permafrost?” High Country News, January 18, 2023.

Student Researcher: Jette-Mari Stammer (North Central College)

Faculty Evaluator: Steve Macek (North Central College)