Citing discriminatory practices, the Tribe urges the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to intervene in the disastrous Isle de Jean Charles relocation plan.
December 21, 2023, Washington, D.C.–Today, EarthRights International filed a complaint under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on behalf of the Jean Charles Choctaw Nation to the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), asking that it investigate the Louisiana Office of Community Development’s (OCD’s) implementation of the Isle de Jean Charles Resettlement Program, which is undermining the human and cultural rights of the Tribe. The complaint alleges that OCD is violating HUD’s Title VI regulations by unilaterally changing the Jean Charles Choctaw Nation’s Tribe-led Resettlement Program in a way that forces members to relocate to new homes that are structurally unsound in a new area that lacks critical disaster and cultural protections, excludes the Tribe from decision-making, and deprives members of the Tribe from accessing the benefits of the Resettlement Program.
The Tribe is considered the first climate refugees in the U.S. In January 2016, HUD awarded the state of Louisiana $48.3 million in Community Development Block Grant funds for the resettlement of the Jean Charles Choctaw Nation. Forced to relocate from their ancestral lands on the Isle de Jean Charles, the Jean Charles Choctaw Nation conceived of and spearheaded the original plans for the Resettlement Program, which aimed to reunite the Tribe and promote climate resilience for their community. However, Tribal members report they’ve been subjected to serious and ongoing racial and ethnic discrimination in resettlement decision-making by OCD.
Once OCD received HUD funding, it changed the Resettlement Program, shifting from a Tribe-led reunification plan to a cost-cutting and bare-bones relocation of Isle residents. OCD made these changes unilaterally, cutting Tribal leadership out of decision-making and failing to meaningfully include Tribal members or provide language support for members with limited English. The OCD also downgraded the Tribe’s status as a grant beneficiary to that of a mere stakeholder, requiring participants to sign away rights to Island properties, and removing many of the disaster resilience and cultural aspects of the Resettlement Program. The actual construction of homes on the New Isle has been shoddy, with residents already reporting drainage and sewage issues and flood vulnerability.
“Forty-eight million dollars, 512 acres, and they built 32 homes with mediocre construction? This has been a failure,” said Démé (Jr.) Naquin, Chief of Jean Charles Choctaw Nation. “We put our hopes in the resettlement as a way to reunify our Tribe in a safe new home where we can pass on our culture. Instead, they disrespected us, violated our sovereign rights, and made it harder to steward our ancestral lands. OCD and HUD have to make it right for our Tribal community to be whole, as originally planned.”
The Jean Charles Choctaw Nation is a Louisiana-recognized Indigenous Tribe comprising nearly 800 members of Biloxi, Chitimacha, and Choctaw ancestry. The Tribe traditionally inhabited the Isle de Jean Charles in the bayou on the boundary between South Terrebonne and Lafourche Parishes. Some residents trace their ancestry there back to the 19th century when following the Indian Removal Act of 1830, many Choctaw nationals relocated to southern Louisiana. Others trace their roots in the area back several millennia.
The Jean Charles Choctaw Nation has been seeking federal recognition since the 1980s. While federally recognized Tribes can work directly with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other federal agencies to access funding and expand education and other opportunities for their members, the federal government’s refusal to recognize the Jean Charles Choctaw Nation means it must rely on state and local governments to access federal funding. This, according to the complaint, has left the Tribe vulnerable to the discriminatory behavior of Louisiana state agencies.
“OCD’s discriminatory actions violate Title VI and HUD’s Title VI implementing regulations,” said Maryum Jordan, climate justice attorney for EarthRights. “The agency took advantage of the Tribe’s resettlement design and then imposed unprecedented, draconian restrictions on Tribal members’ use of their Island properties once HUD awarded millions of dollars to OCD. OCD’s removal of disaster and climate resilience components from New Isle design has been calamitous for tribal members, forcing some to live in unsafe, subpar housing, while others have fled the area altogether, causing them to lose their sense of community. With the effects of climate change pummeling coastal Louisiana, this situation is only expected to further devolve, which is why we are urging HUD to investigate OCD.”
Coastal Louisiana is losing ground to climate change faster than any region in the U.S. Every 100 minutes, the state experiences a loss of land approximately equivalent to that of a soccer field. Terrebonne Parish, where the Isle is located, has lost 502 square miles of wetland since 1932. In 1955, the Isle consisted of 22,000 acres. By 2015, its mass had decreased by 98 percent. Today, only 320 acres remain. In the next 50 years, sea level rise in the Parish is expected to increase between 2.85 and 4.85 feet.
Severe storms driven by climate change have also plagued the Isle. From 2010 through 2018, 11 storms hit the area, each causing widespread devastation, flooding, and property damage. Hurricane Ida in 2021 was particularly devastating–the storm destroyed most homes on the Island, leaving only 10 members living there.
Extractive industries such as fossil fuels are also changing the landscape of Louisiana. In addition to carving canals through the state’s coastline to support oil exploration, fossil fuel extraction has also facilitated the dislocation of Tribal communities. Starting in the early 20th century, oil companies and the state government engaged in land theft against Tribal communities, using complicated and untransparent legal processes to obtain mineral and land rights from the tribes. A 2018 study published in PLOS ONE found that between 1900 and 2017, the state issued permits for more than 35,000 oil and gas wells.
Jean Charles Choctaw Nation urges HUD to:
- Investigate OCD’s discriminatory actions;
- Require the State of Louisiana to provide a transparent account of how the Resettlement Program funds have been allocated;
- Directly fund the Jean Charles Choctaw Nation’s Tribe-led Resettlement Program, with funds going directly to the Tribe without State involvement.
- Require that OCD fulfill the original Resettlement Program plan of a Tribe-led relocation of the Jean Charles Choctaw Nation, as described in the State of Louisiana’s grant application which HUD approved. This includes:
- Providing all Tribal members, including members who were forced from the Island before 2012, with no-cost housing in the New Isle;
- Constructing new homes and other New Isle infrastructure with disaster resilience measures and green components that were contained in the original Resettlement Program plan;
- Building cultural components from the original plan, including the disaster-resilient community center, powwow grounds, gardens, and a locally-owned market;
- Require that OCD ensures that the Tribe can continue to steward ancestral homelands;
- Require that OCD correct the disaster-resilience insufficiencies of homes already constructed on the New Isle, including drainage issues and poor construction;
- Compel OCD to provide meaningful participation opportunities for Tribal members, including by engaging in government-to-government consultation with the Tribe, informing Tribal leadership of all meetings and allowing them to accompany Tribal members, and designing participation processes that address language, educational, Internet, and geographic access barriers;
- Consult with communities that have received federal community relocation assistance, including Jean Charles Choctaw Nation, to create a federal framework and executive order for future community relocations. This framework should address lessons learned from the challenges that the Jean Charles Choctaw Nation experienced working with OCD;
- Refer these matters to the U.S. Department of Justice for further enforcement.
Elaine Godwin (they/them)
Communications Coordinator, EarthRights International
Chantel Comardelle, Executive Secretary of Jean Charles Choctaw Nation