Rob Gould is a senior communication strategist and a member of the George Mason University Health and Climate Solutions team.

The Swinomish Reservation is located on Fidalgo Island in Western Washington State. It is the home of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, a federally recognized tribe. For thousands of years, the Swinomish have been a fishing people, in spiritual relationship with the salmon, crabs and clams that are at the heart of both its economic and cultural life. Their approach to self-governance is guided by one question: “How will our decisions affect the next seven generations?”

 This long relational history to their land and waters puts the rapid climate-related changes they are facing in sharp relief.

With a culture intensely tuned to the connection between environment, health and well-being and values that prioritized far-sighted decision-making, the Swinomish recognized that—of all the many challenges they have endured in their long history of economic, social and health inequity—climate change now looms as perhaps the most direct and enduring threat they have faced.

Beginning in 2007, long before most communities in the United States, the Swinomish initiated a long-term and comprehensive effort to evaluate the multiple effects of climate change on their community and develop an action plan. This included assessments of long-term impacts on transportation and vital infrastructure, natural resources and habitat, and human and environmental health. Their process was community-led and inclusive, characterized by sharing information and seeking input from tribal members, inviting members of neighboring jurisdictions to participate and creating an ongoing partnership with local climate experts. 

Perhaps most important, their approach to planning took the most established climate resilience planning process—CDC’s Building Resistance Against Climate Change (BRACE) framework—and augmented or, as they say, “indigenized” it.

Jamie Danatuto, Environmental Health Analyst for Swinomish, and tribal Elder and health specialist Larry Campbell led the years-long process, which included the intense engagement of the entire Swinomish community in each new step of the development of the indigenized BRACE framework. They also recruited a Technical Advisory Board that represents a broad cross-section of regional tribal leaders and representatives and partnered with the Washington Department of Health and the University of Washington. One of the lead UW experts on the project is Jeremy Hess, who was one of the original developers of the BRACE framework while he was at CDC.  

What resulted from the indigenized planning process is an action plan aimed at preserving a way of life, sustenance and culture of a community that has thrived on hunting, gathering and fishing for hundreds of generations. The focus is on protecting the salmon, crabs and clams that are central elements of their health, wealth, history and culture. The plan’s core strategy focuses on educating the next generation of tribal members on achieving climate resilience, which is again consistent with a Swinomish culture that places the highest priority on the intergenerational transfer of its knowledge, history and culture. 

Swinomish will undertake an evaluation to assess how—and how well—the development and execution of the indigenized planning process worked to achieve community goals, what drove success (or its lack of), what impact it will have on health outcomes and advancing health equity locally and regionally, and how other communities might make use of this “values-based” approach.  

The answers to this last question – the broader applicability of the indigenized BRACE framework – will be pursued through a variety of in-person and mediated approaches, including photovoice (a qualitative research method where community members take photos that touch on research themes), workshops, dialogues and focus groups. The evaluation will provide insights on the value and challenges of engaging in a process that authentically engages a community to identify its own values and priorities in planning its response to the challenge of climate change.

What seems clear even now, however, is that any planning process for resilience to climate change would benefit by setting its sights on securing the wellbeing of seven future generations.


Suggested citation: Gould, Rob. “Understanding the Power of “Indigenizing” Climate Solutions: The Swinomish Reservation” Health and Climate Solutions Blog: George Mason University. September 24th, 2019.