Native Environmental Health Stories Project at the University of Washington

Native TEACH tribal researchers gather around Tribal Liaison Valerie Segrest (seated, center)
The Center for Ecogenetics and Environmental Health (CEEH) at the University of Washington in Seattle partnered with the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center (SWEHSC) at the University of Arizona for the Native Environmental Health Stories project, a supplement grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). The activities at the UW CEEH were a continuation of its Native TEACH (Tradition, Environment And Community Health) Project that began in 2009.

The purpose of the original Native TEACH project was to identify the core concepts of Native environmental health science, as distinct from the mainstream western understanding of environmental health science. The current project was based on what was learned previously about Tribal members’ knowledge, beliefs and understandings of human interactions with their environment, and the value of traditional storytelling as a way to communicate complicated ideas.

CEEH hired a Tribal Liaison, Ms. Valerie Segrest, to lead the project. Valerie is an enrolled member of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe whose reservation is located south of Seattle at the base of Mt. Rainier. She is a native foods educator and community nutritionist.

Ms. Segrest invited seven Native researchers from six Washington Tribes to attend a kickoff meeting at the University of Washington. The group learned about the Native Environmental Health Stories Project, participated in group exercises about environmental health, and brainstormed what groups in their tribal communities to bring together to talk about the question: What does environmental health mean in our community?

Over the next month, the researchers led conversations in their own tribal communities, which included Chinook, Muckleshoot, Lower Elwha S’Klallam, Port Gamble S’Klallam, Puyallup, Spokane and Yakima. The conversations took place in a tribal college class, Mom’s group, Team Teach, and an artists’ panel at a public art show.

These are some of the products that grew out of the tribal community conversations:

A public Art Exhibit, “Freeing the River”, was held at the Lower Elwha S’Klallam Tribe Heritage Center and featured four Lower Elwha tribal artists who displayed works based on the removal of two 100-year-old dams on the Elwha River. Restoring the Elwha River to its natural flow has helped restore historic salmon runs.

Native TEACH researcher and Lower Elwha S’Klallam tribal member Roger Fernandes, said, “I was taught that the salmon is the source of life for all beings, animals, plants, and the earth itself. The spirit of the salmon and the Salmon People allow us to live a life of abundance and gratitude. The art I have included in this show focus on the salmon and the return of the salmon with the removal of the dams. I was taught that the Elwha River was dammed against the wishes of the Lower Elwha S’Klallam people and that they have been fighting for the removal of the dams for several decades. Because the dams had no fish ladders, they were designed to essentially destroy the wild salmon runs. Because of the work of many of our ancestors and elders we have seen the dams removed and the salmon’s return. Life is in order again.” Photos of the art and a summary of the art show can be found on the CEEH blog

The Native TEACH researcher from the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, Tleena Ives, is involved with a home visiting grant for expectant and new moms. Ms. Ives held her community conversation with the Mom’s group. She collected quotes from the moms and created a children’s book, t̕aʔt̕ə́wəsnaʔ in the S'Klallam language. 

The story goes like this: “You are a Star, This is my wish for you. This is my dream. This is my hope.” Tleena says that the conversation and the children’s book “helps bring power to our people, keeps our traditions alive, highlights what’s important and what we value, and what we want to pass on.” CEEH will publish the children’s book to share with the families in the Mom’s group and with the tribal Head Start families. Tleena and the Mom’s group have generously offered to share the children’s book with CEEH.

The Native TEACH researchers also created two overarching products to summarize the Native Environmental Health Stories project: 

  •  A 10-minute Native TEACH Digital Story. Each of the researchers is interviewed in their home setting talking about their research and the projects they created, one of which is an original song featured in the video.  
  • A year-long calendar blog posted month by month. Each month focuses on a tribal community and includes 4 topics: An Environmental Health Challenge, Community Art Project, Traditional Food, and a Call to Action. A new blogpost appears each week. 
    
    
The CEEH Community Outreach and Engagement Core (COEC) looks forward to future collaborations with our new tribal partners.
--Marilyn Hair


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