Coast Salish Indigenous Science Linked to STEM Learning

The Swinomish Tribe’s indigenous science program is being expanded into a model other tribes can use to educate tribal members about food sovereignty.

Since 2013, Swinomish has partnered with Oregon State University (OSU) to create an informal environmental health education curriculum using indigenous knowledge. Named for the tribe’s 13 Moons calendar, the program incorporates cultural practices passed down from elders, and links them to relevant science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curricula.

“One of the challenges of teaching environmental sustainability is that existing curricula are not culturally appropriate or relevant to tribal members,” said Jamie Donatuto, an environmental health analyst for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and the project’s lead investigator.

The 13 Moons curriculum used the calendar to plan lessons about first foods, such as digging camas bulbs, picking huckleberries or carving the ironwood sticks used to cook salmon. Activities were integrated into community events such as clam bakes, instead of offered in a classroom setting. Among the benefits was engaging youth with the land, their elders and community values.

“Food and medicine provide an avenue for the elders and young people to maintain a connection that leads to health and well-being,” said Larry Campbell, Swinomish community health specialist.

The program was inspired by work pioneered by Valerie Segrest, who coordinated the Muckleshoot Tribe’s Food Sovereignty Project, and is now with Feed Seven Generations, an organization focused on revitalizing native food culture in the Northwest.

“Food sovereignty is at the core of tribal sovereignty,” Segrest said. “My ancestor who signed the Medicine Creek Treaty made sure that access to native foods was ensured for generations to come. These foods have sustained our people’s physical health, cultural integrity and spiritual wellness since time immemorial. Our project builds community food resources and offers platforms for knowledge keepers to share their gifts in order to sustain a healthy food system for the future.”

The National Science Foundation recently awarded $1.6 million for Swinomish to work with multiple communities to assess existing environmental health curricula. The work will bring Coast Salish tribes together to develop a toolkit for environmental education in their communities.

In addition to OSU and Segrest, partners include Rose James of the Urban Indian Health Institute and Elise Krohn of Garden-Raised Bounty, an Olympia, Washington-based nonprofit focused on growing healthy food, people, and community.

“Many tribes across the country are focused on self-determination and sovereignty, and part of that is food sovereignty,” Donatuto said. “Not just food for consumption, but food for medicine and food as a way of sharing knowledge and culture.”

Swinomish tribal member Latesha Guerrero-Gobert strings camas bulbs harvested from Martha’s Beach. Photo: Myk Heidt