Can't Stop the Water/Vimeo
Still from 'Can't Stop the Water,' a documentary on the climate-change-induced relocation of the American Indians on Isle de Jean Charles off Louisiana.

Climate Change Is the New Removal as the Ocean Makes a Land Grab

Steve Russell

The Indians in this story are actually losing land—not merely legal title to land. Behind the loss is a case of environmental racism on a multigenerational and epic scale. It starts in the 19th century, as the settlers in the southeastern United States were enthusiastic beneficiaries of Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policy. Even tribes with strong governmental institutions from the colonial point of view had trouble responding with one voice.

The settlers wanted all Indians on the big reservation west of the Mississippi called Indian Territory, and that became Jackson’s major campaign promise. Keeping that promise led to a string of bogus treaties negotiated in a style represented better by gangsters than by diplomats

Too many sketchy methods to detail here brought Dancing Rabbit Creek (Choctaw) in 1830, Cusseta (Creek) and Payne’s Landing (Seminole) in 1832 and New Echota (Cherokee) in 1835. In 1836 the Chickasaw, seeing no other choice, accepted a payment for their ancestral lands and bought a piece of the Choctaw Reservation in Indian Territory.

Hearing that removal was the policy, settlers understood land occupied by Indians to be available. Many Indians not taken by soldiers to enforce the bogus treaties imposed on the Five Tribes were simply run off at gunpoint.

A common escape route was down the Mississippi Delta to swampland thought unfit for white people, excepting Cajuns, French-speaking political refugees from the British conquest of Canada.

The two sets of political refugees subsisted on trapping and fishing, Indians separated by race and Cajuns separated by language, creole French. The Isle de Jean Charles Band of Indians is a state-recognized community that traces their origins to Biloxi, Chitimacha, and Choctaw—all federally recognized tribes and all part of the diaspora caused by removal.

The Indian community of Isle de Jean Charles always lived in the swamps and mixed their languages with Cajun French. Climate change, redirection of river water upstream, and oil companies cutting though the plant life for pipelines are conspiring to return Isle de Jean Charles to the Gulf of Mexico. How fast is the Louisiana coastline falling into the salt water? A football field per hour.

According to CNN, the island used to be the size of Manhattan. Now, it would make about a third of Central Park, reachable by a two-lane road that disappears with high tides and winds, let alone hurricanes. Louisiana has applied for and received a federal grant to relocate the community to safer ground.

RELATED: Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Get $48 Million to Move Off of Disappearing Louisiana Island

Chief Albert Naquin hopes to reassemble the community on higher ground, but many of the elders don’t want to leave the only home they’ve known. State officials told CNN nobody would be forced to leave.

Unlike their ancestors in removal times, the Indians of Isle de Jean Charles will not have to contend with white men forcing them out at gunpoint. Scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) anticipate that the island will be gone within 50 years or in the first direct hurricane strike, whichever comes first.

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