“Our Bodies and Our Spirits”

Swinomish Indian Tribal Community members during the annual “Paddle to Swinomish” event, a long-standing community tradition (Photo: ©Swinomish Indian Tribal Community)
Swinomish Indian Tribal Community members during the annual “Paddle to Swinomish” event, a long-standing community tradition (Photo: ©Swinomish Indian Tribal Community)

Traditional foods are more than meals for North America’s Tribes and First Nations; they are a way of life. But due in part to climate change, these natural and cultural resources are at risk. Here in the Northwest, Indigenous communities and several regional climate research organizations are hoping to change that.

Along the shores of Skagit Bay in western Washington and Vancouver Harbor in British Columbia, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community and Tsleil-Waututh Nation have teamed up with the U.S. Geological Survey, North Pacific Landscape Conservation Cooperative (NPLCC), and the Northwest Climate Science Center (NW CSC) to pilot a project aimed at preserving the traditional resources of Tribes and First Nations as they face a changing climate.

Our story begins several decades ago in northwestern Washington. At the time, Swinomish community member Larry Campbell, now a tribal elder, was just a young man. One morning, Campbell joined a friend for a shellfish gathering on Puget Sound’s Whidbey Island. All day Campbell, his friend, and other community members gathered traditional foods, including shellfish and salmon. That evening, the tasty foods were prepared for a large feast, a celebration of food, community, and tradition that brought together friends and family from throughout the Swinomish community.

As the feast carried on into the night, Campbell noticed something intriguing. His friend’s mom was taking allergy pills as she ate her meal. She was allergic to the traditional food. Confused, Campbell asked her why, if they could harm her, she was eating the shellfish. “Because my spirit demands it,” came her reply.

This was the moment, Campbell says, that he began to understand the real importance of traditional foods; how they weren’t just for eating, but a way to celebrate and give thanks for what the Earth had provided.

“Traditional foods feed our bodies and our spirits,” explains Campbell.

Today, Campbell is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Swinomish, an appointed position he’s held for the past 15 years with the goal of preserving traditional foods and other resources so that future generations will be able to enjoy them and carry on traditions that the Swinomish community has celebrated from time immemorial. Campbell is being aided in his current efforts by Jamie Donatuto, the Swinomish Tribe’s Environmental Health Analyst.

This collaboration began when Donatuto was an undergraduate at Western Washington University, also Campbell’s alma mater. At the time, Donatuto had just received an Environmental Protection Agency grant to study toxins found in shellfish eaten as traditional foods by northwest Washington Tribes, something Campbell, who had been a fisherman for most of his life, first noticed, along with other community members, decades earlier. Campbell, seeing the potential in Donatuto and her project, introduced her to Swinomish community members and helped acquaint her with the history and culture of the Swinomish people.

After years of working together, in 2012 funding from the NPLCC and NW CSC supported the continuation of Campbell and Donatuto’s work. This project, titled Correlation and Climate Sensitivity of Human Health and Environmental Indicators in the Salish Sea, pilot-tested a method that can be used the world over as a way to evaluate the health of Indigenous communities and their traditional resources.

Through research and interviews with community members, Campbell and Donatuto tailored a series of indicators, developed together over the past ten years, called Indigenous Health Indicators (IHIs), to help frame the context of climate change in Swinomish Tribal Community and the Tsleil-Waututh Nation of British Columbia. The indicators are as follows: community connection, natural resources security, cultural use, education, self-determination, and calm mind. While particular to the two communities, the process of selecting indicators showcases the intent of the project: to provide a working blueprint for other communities to utilize.

From the start, this project has been different from many past tribal/non-tribal collaborations because it was led first and foremost by the voices of tribal communities.

 “I think the community [involvement] aspect of this project really caught the eye of the other Tribes,” says Campbell.

Next in the project, Campbell and Donatuto evaluated how the two communities were experiencing climatic changes through the lens of the IHIs and outlined the impacts for community members. With this community members could rank levels of concern for each IHI based on potential changes. Projected risks to IHIs and community health—in this case threats such as sea-level rise, storm surges, and shellfish habitat loss—will help determine what aspects of community health tribal governments should first focus on, explains Donatuto.

While this work on the Northwest coast remains close to Campbell’s heart and home, he hasn’t given up taking the project global. Here he is already seeing some success. Minutes before his interview for NW Climate Magazine, Campbell had been talking about his project to a group of interested parties from around the globe.

“We have even heard from a group as far as Australia who were looking to develop a model, and then they found out we are working on one,” he says, full of excitement.

Campbell says he has high hopes that his and Donatuto’s project will be able to help other indigenous communities as they respond to climate change and other environmental impacts. 

Campbell and Donatuto’s current project is a small piece of the larger Swinomish Community Climate Change Initiative. This initiative began in late 2007 with a proclamation from the Swinomish Indian Senate directing a response to climate change. The Swinomish Community acted on their proclamation by assessing local impacts, identifying vulnerabilities, and prioritizing planning areas and actions to begin addressing potential effects of climate change. Since 2008, the Swinomish Tribal Community has been a leader in climate change response efforts, not just in the Pacific Northwest but across North America and around the globe.

In 2014, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community was honored for outstanding tribal governance success with the Honoring Nations Award from Harvard University’s Project on American Indian Economic Development. The award recognizes American Indian governments that display positive social, political, cultural, and economic prosperity. Each year, a number of tribal governmental programs are nominated. Finalists are chosen by a diverse panel, made up of individuals from public, private, and nonprofit sectors. Ten programs are then chosen and awarded “Honors” or “High Honors.”

In being selected for an award, recipients receive funding to support continuation and expansion of their efforts. The award also promotes the recipient’s work to other tribal programs, enabling other communities to learn from and replicate the work. 

As the Swinomish Climate Change Initiative continues to move forward, Campbell and Donatuto regularly travel far and wide to share their project structure, results, and successful community engagement with other tribal communities.

 “We want this to be a model others can take and revamp as they see fit,” says Campbell. “I think we’re getting there. The project has opened up new ideas for Tribes and First Nations. It’s a way to change how non-tribal agencies look at indigenous health and connections to natural resources; it’s a model that can be shared through different cultures around the world.”

The NPLCC and NW CSC supported this work in recognition of our government-to-government relationship with Tribes and First Nations, Indian trust responsibilities, and co-management relationships over many natural resources in the region. This is part of a larger effort in the Pacific Northwest to assess the impacts of climate change on resources important for the cultural and subsistence values of our region’s native communities. For more information, visit northpacificlcc.org and nwclimatescience.org or contact Jamie Donatuto at (360) 466-1532.

Traditional shellfish are an important cultural resource of the Swinomish Community, from harvest to ceremonial dinners. These traditional foods represent the Swinomish way of life, and the community seeks preservation of these resources for generations to come. 
Shellfish gathering is a tradition passed on from generation to generation in the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community. (Photo: ©NWIFC)
Community members celebrate traditional foods at a community clambake. (Photo: ©NWIFC)
Close-up of a cockle, one species of shellfish inhabiting the shores in the Salish Sea region (Photo: ©Rob Banes, Swinomish Indian Tribal Community)