As in many tribal communities, the Swinomish relationship with the environment is complex. The Northwest coastal tribe not only uses the land for food, medicine, and material goods, but many cultural traditions like ceremonies are land-based.
The federal government has long attempted to sever tribes from the land — their source of knowledge, culture, and health. Through war and forced relocation, tribes were physically removed. Policies such as the 1887 General Allotment Act forced many to adopt sedentary lifestyles and use Western agricultural techniques. And contemporary legal restrictions on centuries old fishing, hunting, and gathering techniques means that tribes are still limited in how they can gather foods and medicines.
Food sovereignty — efforts to re-create local, sustainable, and traditional food systems that prioritize community need over profits — has been one of the major ways tribal communities are combating disparities driven by colonial policies. Food sovereignty looks different in every tribe, as it is based on community need and tribal tradition, and it isn’t just about food. Swinomish efforts have focused on the impacts of climate change, which is already threatening their community health.
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History led many reservations to become food insecure, and federal support is limited. Hundreds of tribes utilize the Federal Distribution Program on Indian Reservations — which since 1973 has distributed bulk food items to rural Native Americans who don’t have access to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-eligible stores — but the food often doesn’t meet basic dietary standards and sometimes arrives spoiled.
Loss of land and traditional foods has caused myriad health problems in tribal communities. Native Americans have the highest rates of diabetes of any racial group, as well as disproportionately higher rates of cancer, heart disease, and stroke. Mental wellbeing has also been impacted: Some scholars argue that colonial violence like displacement and spiritual disconnection from the land has led to cross-generational trauma and unresolved grief for Native individuals and communities.
Climate change is making this worse.
Historically, the Swinomish harvesting calendar revolved around 13 moons. The calendar corresponds to seasonal shifts throughout the year, with each moon bringing a new set of ceremonies and foods to be collected and processed. The first moon of spring, moon when the frog talks, is when herring and smelt are harvested and sitka spruce, red cedar, and Oregon grape roots are collected. In the moon of the sacred time, during the end of December and January, cultural traditions are passed from elders to younger community members.
The seasonal changes associated with each moon are becoming less predictable with climate change. Extreme heat waves in the normally moderate climate stress plants and may stunt root development. Less predictable or extreme tides (whether too high or too low) hamper clam digging and other shorefront gathering.
Public health leaders, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, recognize that climate change has direct impacts on human health. These impacts may be even more acute for the Washington tribe: the reservation is 90 percent surrounded by water, and salmon, crab, and clam are major sources of food. The sea is of intimate importance.
Yet Western measurements of health and climate impact do not take cultural history, interdependence, and connection to the land and non-human world into consideration, often focusing exclusively on individual, physiological health impacts. For example, a toxicologist may look at pollutants in seafood and advise the Swinomish to eat less. Yet when taking into consideration food security, ceremonial use, and transmission of traditional knowledge, the removal of seafood would be detrimental to Swinomish conceptions of health; climate change is threatening the tribe’s autonomy.
To address this disconnect, in 2003, Dr. Jamie Donatuto, the environmental health analyst for the tribe, set out with elder Larry Campbell to develop indigenous health indicators, which they hoped would bring a more holistic and culturally relevant lens to public health policy, climate change predictions, environmental risk assessment, and the tribe’s food sovereignty work. After interviewing more than 100 community members, they determined the Swinomish health indicators to be: self-determination (healing and restoration, development and trust); cultural use (respect and stewardship, sense of place); natural resource security (quality, access, safety); resilience (self-esteem, identity, sustainability); education (teachings, elders, youth); and community connection (work, sharing, relations).
One of the first challenges they wanted to tackle using these indicators was climate change impacts. After gathering data on predicted storm surge, sea-level rise, sediment movement and more, they led a series of workshops with elders, youth, clam diggers, and fishers, to gauge which beaches they should focus their limited resources on. They identified several that were both culturally significant to the tribe and at high risk for climate impacts, and focused their workshops on traditional foods to contextualize these problems.
“It’s not about outreach, it’s not unidirectional. It’s about really engaging them,” Donatuto reflected. Now, based on community input, the tribe is developing clam gardens that are more resilient to climate impacts such as sea level rise, storm surge, and possibly ocean acidification. Clam gardens are a traditional way of managing a beach ecosystem to create optimal habitat for clams while ensuring food security for the tribe. Dr. Donatuto’s team also shared community feedback with the Swinomish Senate, who valued their priorities equally to scientific data when constructing the tribe’s climate change adaptation plan.
Beyond policy changes to address climate change impacts, elders were also concerned about a generational disconnect in traditional ecological knowledge. Using the 13 moons as a guide, in 2015 the tribe developed an informal curriculum to educate youth on the lunar calendar and traditional foods. Though it has attracted interest from local schools, Donatuto stressed that it is a land-based, community-led curriculum. The tribe hosts dinners and other events in which elders and educators lead community members outside to learn, for example, tree identification, how to collect tree resin, and how to process it. Participants not only learn about traditional foods, but learn it through traditional methods of knowledge transmission.
Swinomish food sovereignty and climate change adaptation efforts are reflective of national movements in Indigenous reclamation and resistance. Tribes recognize that in many cases, disparities that face Native communities are borne from and exacerbated by systemic colonial and racial violence, including the devaluation of Indigenous knowledge. So how could the same system that produced these disparities be a source of the solution?
Resistance and reclamation take many forms. The White Earth Band of Ojibwe recently recognized the “personhood” rights of wild rice in an effort to thwart oil pipeline construction through their habitat. Some tribal courts are beginning to draw from traditional gender and familial beliefs instead of U.S. federal law in domestic violence, divorce, and custody cases. And studies have found that Native students in schools that teach entirely in tribal languages are often higher performing than their counterparts that attend English-only schools, including on English language standardized tests.
As these and Swinomish efforts reflect: Revitalization of Indigenous knowledge, politics, and land relations is not just about remembering traditions, but solving urgent contemporary issues.