Swinomish Tribe Studies Effect of Climate Change on Community, Culture

rainbow bridgeClimate change threatens not only the environment, but also tribal communities whose culture, livelihood and identities depend on natural resources.

“Current climate change assessments omit key community health concerns, which are vital to successful adaptation plans, particularly for indigenous communities,” said Jamie Donatuto, environmental health specialist for the Swinomish Tribe.

“Recent assessments show that indigenous communities, especially coastal communities, are disproportionately vulnerable to a number of climate impacts as reservation boundaries are fixed and many aspects of their culture are so closely tied to coastal health” said Eric Grossman, coastal and marine geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and partner in the project.

Donatuto and Larry Campbell, Swinomish elder and tribal historic preservation officer, developed a set of indigenous indicators to evaluate aspects of community health that other assessments leave out. The indicators prioritize self-determination, community connection, natural resources security, and cultural use and practice.

“While community members intimately understand the many connections between humans, the environment, their culture and community health, it is difficult to explain to those unfamiliar with tribal communities,” Donatuto said. “It is even more difficult to equitably include the impacts that environmental changes may have on community health.”

Swinomish and USGS partnered with the Tsleil-Waututh First Nation of British Columbia to see how well these indicators can be used to assess community health. The team developed projections of environmental impacts expected with a few climate and sea-level rise changes.

One of these was the impact of sea-level rise on the distribution of shellfish and access to harvest areas, taking into account elevation and substrate preferences, and the influence of shoreline armoring on beach migration. After modeling changes to shellfish harvest areas at Lone Tree Point, the team met with Swinomish tribal members to evaluate how those environmental impacts are connected to community health.

The Swinomish group ranked cultural use as the most impacted indicator in the future scenario, followed by natural resources security, self-determination and community connection.

“Recognizing the indicators and talking about them is a way to start to deal with them,” said a member of the focus group. “These things, impacts to our way of life, are way down deep and you maybe cannot see it, but it weighs on your whole spirituality; you get fatigued, spiritually worn out.”

Findings at both Swinomish and Tsleil-Waututh showed that what happens to shellfish habitat affects indigenous community health, although not all indicators are equally affected. The indicators of highest concern were not necessarily the ones most likely to be impacted.

Swinomish also is using the indicators to assess the effects of sea-level rise, storm surge and shoreline development on first foods, coastal ecosystem habitats and culturally significant sites. The results will be integrated into the Swinomish Climate Change Adaptation Action Plan, which will in turn support coastal zone planning.

Based on the success of this project, other tribes should be able to tailor indigenous indicators to meet their needs and use them for baseline community health assessments, climate change impact assessments, natural resource damage assessments and health risk analyses.

The team published the results of the study last year in the journal Coastal Management.