The Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe has received prestigious national recognition, one of seven communities around the country selected by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for the Culture of Health Prize.
The Shoalwater Bay Tribe, based in Tokeland, was chosen from among nearly 200 applicants nationwide, selected based on its work in three areas to build a “culture of health,” according to material from the foundation. Those areas include protecting lives by addressing the very real threat of flooding and tsunamis; addressing health issues by building and operating a wellness center and by preserving the tribe’s cultural heritage through the development of programs that celebrate and pass down historic tribal traditions.
Each winner receives a $25,000 cash prize. The winners were announced earlier this month.
The recognition is all the more impressive considering that in the early 1990s the tribe was the subject of publicity and federal studies because of a high infant death rate and failed pregnancies.
The one-square-mile Shoalwater Bay Indian Reservation sits on the eastern shoreline of Willapa Bay. It has been recognized by Presidential Executive Order as an official reserve for 150 years, marking that milestone on Sept. 22. There are 373 enrolled members, with 84 of those living on the reservation.
According to the foundation, the Culture of Health Prize honors communities for their efforts to ensure all residents have the opportunity to live longer, healthier, and more productive lives.
“The RWJF Culture of Health Prize communities show us that in towns and regions across the nation, individuals are coming together to find powerful ways to help people achieve the best health possible. These communities are connecting the dots between health and education, jobs, housing, and community safety,” said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, RWJF president and CEO in a news release announcing prize winners.
Lying adjacent to the eastern edge of Willapa Bay, flooding and extreme erosion are constant threats to tribal lands, lives, businesses and homes.
In 2013, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rebuilt a mile-long sand dune barrier in front of the reservation to help protect it from flood waters. That berm will receive federal maintenance as needed, but will not serve as protection should a tsunami of any significant height hit the shoreline following an offshore earthquake.
After assessing their situation, tribe members voted to relocate their community to higher ground to protect their families from tsunami hazards. Joel Blake, a fifth-generation tribe member who has two children ages 5 and 3, told interviewers from the foundation, “The main reason why we want to move up the hill is because we don’t want our kids to have to go through the worry and stress that we’re going through now. We have to offer them a place that’s safe.”
A long-term project, it is expected that it will take 15 to 20 years for the move to be completed.
As a first step, a few years ago, land 55 feet above sea level was purchased on Eagle Hill at the northern end of the reservation. With federal funding, a multi-purpose building was constructed on the site. It is outfitted and stocked for use as an evacuation center in case of a tsunami, earthquake or flood. The center has a full-service kitchen, a generator and a back-up computer server for tribal government.
Last summer, the tribe purchased a mobile command unit and outfitted it with a built-in satellite system to handle emergency communications.
The Shoalwaters emphasize that their emergency preparedness and wellness plans include not only members living on the reservation, but also surrounding nearby communities where residents are as isolated as they are, as well as including visitors to tribal businesses.
There’s also the Shoalwater Bay Wellness Center, which opened in 2005. Open to the public, the center offers medical, dental, behavioral health counseling and alternative medicine services to not only tribal members, but also to many South Beach community members.