Through tall cedar and fir trees on Eagle Hill, Charlene Nelson can spot the distant homes of the Shoalwater Bay Indian Reservation. If all goes as planned, those dwellings will someday move to this higher ground. Tribe members have voted to relocate their community to protect their families from tsunami hazards. “The health and safety of our tribal members are my primary goals,” explains Nelson, the tribal chair.
The will to survive and thrive propels the Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe. The federally recognized tribe has 373 members, of whom 84 live on the remote reservation in Pacific County, Wash., 150 miles southwest of Seattle. Although small in size, the tribe has big goals to improve and maintain the physical, social, emotional and spiritual health of its people. The community promotes healthy behavior and active living; invests in the lives and well-being of its youth; and tends all residents’ medical, dental and mental health needs with its wellness center.
The tribe’s approach to life, fed by its rich and deep history, reflects the core values of the RWJF Culture of Health Prize. “Our elders and our ancestors taught us that health is a holistic thing,” explains Earl Davis, a former Marine and a master woodcarver. “It’s not just whether you get up and exercise and eat right. It’s taking care of your mind, taking care of your body, taking care of your spirit and taking care of everything around you.”
Formed 150 years ago, the 1-square-mile reservation is located in a crook of coastline where tribes from the Pacific Northwest used to gather to trade. Much of the area is wetland or tidal plains with little room for the tribe to grow. Flooding and extreme erosion are constant threats. A neighborhood just north of the reservation on Highway 105 has seen houses and beachfront swallowed by the sea. In 2013, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rebuilt a mile-long dune barrier to protect the reservation. But everyone knows that even that would be insufficient to withstand “The Big One”—an anticipated offshore earthquake that could trigger a catastrophic wave within minutes. Up and down the coast of Washington, other communities have taken steps to relocate to higher ground in response to stepped-up tsunami planning in the Pacific Northwest. The Shoalwater tribe has purchased land on Eagle Hill, using funds from tribal businesses, including a small casino, a restaurant, a motel, a gas station and a convenience store. It also has constructed a multi-purpose building, 55 feet above sea level, that doubles as an evacuation center in case of a tsunami, earthquake or flood.