Indigenous Health Indicators: What, where, when how, and why?

em>November is Native American Heritage month. Throughout the month, we are featuring blogs related to Tribal Science.

By Jamie Donatuto

The Youth Canoe is practicing for the Canoe Journey in the Skagit Bay, near Snee-oosh beach. Photo credit: Caroline Edwards

The Youth Canoe is practicing for the Canoe Journey in the Skagit Bay, near Snee-oosh beach. Photo credit: Caroline Edwards

For going on 15 years, I have been fortunate enough to be employed by the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, a Coast Salish Tribe in Washington. Like most tribal employees, I “wear many hats,” meaning that when an environmental health-related project comes up, I will likely be involved in some way. This makes for an ever-engaging work environment.

Some of my most meaningful learning experiences have come from working with community members, who have graciously shared their knowledge with me about the many, deeply-held connections between environmental and cultural health.

As an example, the annual Swinomish Blessing of the Fleet is a community gathering that occurs at the start of the fishing season and asks for the protection of the fishers. This celebration honors the aquatic natural resources that protect and sustain the people, especially the salmon. Also called the First Salmon ceremony by some Coast Salish communities, this gathering illustrates the strong relationships between people and the natural environment, as demonstrated through the culture.

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. It is even more difficult to equitably include the impacts that environmental changes may have on community health.

November is Native American Heritage Month.

November is Native American Heritage Month.

Larry Campbell, Swinomish Elder and Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, and I have worked together for many years developing a set of indicators, the Indigenous Health Indicators, meant to evaluate aspects of community health that are often left out of health impact assessments. The indicator set encompasses community health priorities such as self-determination, natural resources security, and cultural use and practice. The indicators can be tailored to individual communities and may be useful for a number of purposes, including baseline community health assessments, climate change impact assessments and planning, natural resource damage assessments, and health risk analyses. Larry and I enjoy working with other tribal communities and are excited to share our work and learn from communities.

The Swinomish Canoe Family sings a blessing song for the salmon and for the safety of fisherman.

First Salmon Ceremony and Blessing of the Fleet. The Swinomish Canoe Family sings a blessing song for the salmon and for the safety of fisherman. Photo credit: Caroline Edwards

At the moment, much of my focus is on our EPA-supported project, “Coastal Climate Impacts to First Foods, Cultural Sites, and Tribal Community Health and Well-being.” This work involves both biophysical and social science. We are building a wave model to assess potential sea level rise impacts to Swinomish shorelines—areas with important aquatic habitats such as juvenile salmon, crabs and clams. These areas have been considered culturally important to the Tribe for countless generations and are still regularly visited today.

Based on the model’s findings, we will work with Swinomish community members to evaluate possible community health impacts for use in the Swinomish Climate Change Impact Assessment and Action Plans. We applied for the EPA grant with several years’ worth of background research and pilot-testing, the internal capacity, and the desire to move forward in our community health and climate change research. These new projects, coupled with the fact that we have some of the most dedicated employees working with a great community, are rewarding.

About the author: Dr. Jamie Donatuto is an Environmental Health Analyst with the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, a federally recognized Tribe whose homeland is located in the Salish Sea (part of the Pacific Northwest). She and her colleague, Swinomish Elder Larry Campbell, collaborate on developing culturally meaningful and appropriate community-based indicators of indigenous health.

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