Gullah/Geechee Nation Surviving and Thriving as the Sea Rises

Queen Quet, , UCS | January 28, 2016, 3:23 pm EDT
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This post is a part of a series on Communities on the Front Lines of Climate Change

This post originally appeared on the Gullah/Geechee Nation’s web site.

Over the past five years, the Gullah/Geechee Nation’s leaders convened the members of the “Gullah/Geechee Sustainability Think Tank” to dialogue about a myriad of issues. Just as things come together and the sands shift around as the tides move in and out, so has the movement of the work of this group of Gullah/Geechee traditionalists, scholars, scientists, and lovers of the environment. At some point enough sands build up in an area and remain there and upon this one can build. Our dialogues have been no different. Over time we began building on the topic of seafood safety and human health.

As we continued to dialogue with one another and conduct field research throughout the Gullah/Geechee Nation from the Cape Fear region in North Carolina down to the Amelia Island/Fernandina Beach area of Florida, we started to engage more and more with those that were interested in what was part of our data sets that related to how the climate science and changes were affecting the waterways and creatures therein and ultimately, what impacts these had on or would bring to the Gullah/Geechee Nation.

Interestingly enough, many people that were within the local political arenas were not asking the questions that we were already seeking answers for, but then again, many of them were not from cultures that were inextricably tied to the sea as Gullah/Geechee culture is. They were not spiritual and culturally affected by people filling in and blocking off areas along the Intercoastal Waterway. They did not relate to why Gullah/Geechee traditionalists speak out and cry out against building in certain areas because of the ways in which we and our elders and ancestors have witnessed the waters flowing for the hundreds of years that we have been in this place called the Gullah/Geechee Nation which includes the Sea Islands from which we watch the tide flows each day and feel them in sync with the movements of our bodies and our communities.

It took the waters coming down over and over again as the seas rose day after day for people to begin to pay attention to what we spoke of generations ago about not building in certain areas and not building out into our waterways. It took the national and international media and social media to make people finally take a look at what can happen even when there isn’t a hurricane, but simply rising tides and steady rain.

queen-quet-looking-out-at-ocean

Photo: Queen Quet

However, no one was prepared for the supermoon to be coupled with all of this when the rain started falling and falling and falling in South Carolina and graves started to wash out and the sands started to move and as the tides rose, the roads collapsed and as more sands moved the houses fell and the streets flooded and what they had built came down.

Those of us on the Sea Islands saw these images of the destructionment all around us as we watched the high tides come over our causeways and cover some of our roads, but within hours, these waters subsided and we could yet move around. Trees fell, but we could yet move around. While we moved around we watched the consistent Tweets and Facebook postings of how our cousins in the cities up the road and up the creeks were being flooded out and were losing the the things that they worked for as the rain continued to fall.

Days later, I was already scheduled to fly out and over all of this to speak to people in the northeast at a summit on rising seas about the things that should be considered when working with communities of color and, as some call us, “underrepresented and underserved communities.” We are only categorized this way because those that were not listening as we spoke over the decades and stated what we were seeing did not invite us to the places where the other representatives of their communities would be as they calculated the cost of living along the coasts.

We were not served because our communities were not valued for culture in the the calculations used. The calculations used in regard to providing service tend to focus on the economic values and not the value of cultural heritage and the assets therein including the fact that the people of these communities are the assets that are now not insured. Thus, we are not part of the data pools and formulas used to determine where resources need to go until there is a reaction to the changing times and tides and the shifts that are taking place including the shifting sands and rising seas that are now causing millions of dollars of investments to tumble down or need to be moved from the waters edge.

As I prepared to present to a national group of those now interested in engaging in dialogue with those that were now considered “resilient,” I heard from partners of the “Gullah/Geechee Sustainability Think Tank,” the Union of Concerned Scientists, that they were releasing a report that the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition has long awaited concerning climate change and coastal communities.

They entitled this document “Surviving and Thriving in the Face of Rising Seas.” This report encapsulates in a scientific manner what the Gullah/Geechee Nation‘s leaders that are scientists (like myself) have been articulating in various ways over the years, but was not seen as a priority until South Carolina had to declare a state of emergency due to the waters that fell as the seas rose and got reported to the world as unprecedented.

Interestingly enough, the predictions that were in the report, were confirmed before our eyes on the numerous screens as the report from UCS was going to print. Now, we pray that people that are in the county, state, and federal governments will now come to the remaining sands of the Sea Islands and build with the natives that saw this coming and the scientists and scholars that have been sitting together and documenting the movements that we have been seeing first hand on the southeastern coast which is the Gullah/Geechee Nation.

Many have come to photograph us in celebration and to stage things that will be exciting for television viewership.  The numbers of those coming to actually help us keep our communities alive and to sustain a high quality of life along our coast is a much smaller number of folks. In either case, many come to take from the communities and leave us with areas where things once were not realizing what it will take for us to try to refill that space once they are gone. This is very akin to the sands that leave and the trees that fall when the maritime forest cannot hold up because the spartina grass and the oyster reefs that were all part of that ecological system were slowly picked away by folks that came in to take out without thinking about planting or replanting in that same space and with the people of that place. I reflected on this as I read through the report and saw my own words from an environmental equity meeting reflected within it:

“If my community has never seen you before a storm, why should we talk to you now the storm has come? Why not give us a stipend to come to a workshop on preparedness? [Government agencies] need to bring something to our communities first, beyond conversations in the aftermath and promises. People here are still waiting on promises summed up as ‘40 acres and a mule’.”
Queen Quet, head of state, Gullah/Geechee Nation 

About the author: Queen Quet is Chieftess and Head-of-State for the Gullah/Geechee Nation, which extends from Jacksonville, NC to Jacksonville, FL. She has spoken before the United Nations, the U.S. State Department, and a number of legislative bodies in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida; acted as an Expert Commissioner in the U.S. Department of the Interior; and was a participant in the White House Conference on Conservation. Queen Quet lives on St. Helena Island in South Carolina.

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