Excerpted From: Jordan K. Medaris, The Impact of Climate Change on the Cultural Identity of Indigenous Peoples and the Nation's First “Climate Refugees”, 47 American Indian Law Review 1 (2022-2023) (288 Footnotes) (Full Document)


JordanMedarisFijalkaWhether it is your childhood home, town you grew up in, or state you were born, there is a sense of attachment to the locations and places that shape who we are and the memories made there. Some can trace back their roots to a town for a few decades, others several generations. For Indigenous people groups, the ties to the land and environment go deeper than mere connection to place. Their land provides not just memories of their past but also provides a sense of purpose, belonging, sustenance, and cultural significance that encompasses who they are. It is sacred and to be protected at all costs. But for many Indigenous peoples, their sacred land is under threat and at risk of disappearing. Global climate change is causing disastrous effects around the world, including land loss, rising sea levels, and more frequent and longer periods of extreme heat. These effects are not temporary; just as the current rate of greenhouse emissions is on the rise, the global temperatures are expected to continue rising. While many of us in the United States have not seen the immediate effects of climate change, Indigenous people groups are some of the first to face the fatal impacts. Tribal communities are often situated in remote and coastal areas making rising sea level and changing temperatures disastrous for their livelihood and self-determination. Alaskan Native villages and tribes located on coastal Louisiana are forced to decipher how to protect their communities and culture while making decisions to either adapt and mitigate the damage, or migrate as their land is disappearing before their eyes. Although tribes are the first dealing with climate change, they are the last invited to participate in climate conversations on the federal and global level. Where they seek to lead by creating partnerships and influencing federal climate policy, their sovereignty is disrespected and has routinely been excluded.

This Comment focuses on the desperate impact of climate change on Indigenous peoples groups' right to self-determination, culture, traditional knowledges, and protection of these rights under the federal trust responsibility. The federal government can change course and uphold its responsibility to Indigenous people groups by passing the Respect Act; implementing protocols for tribal consultation; incorporating tribal lead adaptation and mitigation strategies; and recognizing the need for a federal framework for climate migration.

First, Part II discusses the history of the federal-tribal relationship and its impact on tribal sovereignty. Tribal self-determination is the ability for tribes to have autonomy over their land and people; therefore, the effects of climate change fall directly on tribes, which can severely impact a tribe's welfare. Part III explains the disparate impact that climate change has on tribes. Part IV examines the United States' first climate refugees and the conflicting goals of tribal and state leadership. Part V analyzes the legal and political responses from the Choctaws and other tribal communities including the potential human rights violations that are occurring. Part VI seeks to provide solutions involving tribal lead adaptation and mitigations strategies that start with a cohesive federal plan involving representation of tribes at all levels of discussion. Lastly, Part VII offers closing remarks and challenges the federal government to formulate solutions by including Indigenous voices. This Comment highlights in detail the issues that the Choctaws are facing as our nation's first climate migrants with the understanding that it does not end with them--the Alaskan Native villages are next, the Navajo Nation in the Southwest is next, the Quileute Nation in the Pacific Northwest is next. Everyone is next to face the impacts of climate change.

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The Choctaws of coastal Louisiana have received notoriety across the nation as the first climate migrants in the United States, but it is certain that they will not be the last. As the temperatures continue to rise and we continue seeing more and more environmental changes because of climate change, we will also see more and more people groups affected. Indigenous people groups are the first to feel these impacts because of their cultural and subsistence reliance on the land. The federal government must uphold their trust obligation to support tribes as they work to protect their citizens and livelihood. The first step is passing the Respect Act and implementing measures for effective consultation and inclusion of Indigenous voices. There is a lot to be learned from the adaptation and mitigation strategy plans based in traditional knowledges that tribes are already creating--all that is left is for the federal government to listen.

Third-year student, University of Oklahoma College of Law.