This article was originally published by the UW College of the Environment and features UWCHR’s Indigenous Rights and Environmental Sustainability project.
In 2023, a journey to build trust and affect positive change in our world led to a collection of transformative storytelling videos about the Salish Sea and Indigenous culture centered on student voices.
A collaboration between the University of Washington’s School of Marine and Environmental Affairs (SMEA), Jackson School of International Studies (JSIS) and Chief Leschi Schools (CLS) led by professor of marine and environmental affairs Patrick Christie, professor of international studies Jonathan Warren and Binah McCloud, Director of Student Success and Culture at CLS, the project sought to simultaneously create leadership opportunities for students and cultivate a lasting partnership between the academic community and the largest of seven tribal schools in the state of Washington.
“This was not a unilateral education project,” said Christie. In 2021, he met with CLS to discuss what a collaboration might look like and aimed to emulate the concept of reciprocity while exploring participatory research, perspectives of Indigenous peoples and environmental justice.
With the support of Washington Sea Grant, the Jackson Foundation and UW’s Center For Human Rights, Christie, Warren, a team of SMEA graduate students, and CLS educators and leadership decided upon a participatory storytelling project centered on the recovery of the Salish Sea. Together, they created a trust document featuring eight principles to abide by while working together to ensure that CLS students would maintain ownership of their stories and feel protected in the process.
“Native Americans are the caretakers of the Earth, so it felt like an important opportunity for these students to engage and raise awareness,” explained McCloud. “Look at the things happening today, with climate change and the impacts on people and the environment. Our students working with UW and sharing stories about the environment is important for their future and for future generations.”
UW SMEA graduate student Kris Thompson wanted to help facilitate storytelling that would authentically represent the perspectives of tribal students. Thompson had previously produced a digital story on the Qwuloolt restoration project, which revolved around his own experiences on the JSIS student task force. In approaching this project, Thompson recognized the importance of inclusivity and community engagement in storytelling and sought to emphasize the broader connections and perspectives that can be uniquely highlighted through video. Through this approach, the project gained an added layer of authenticity and impact with outcomes that extended far beyond the tangible digital stories.
“I didn’t see a lot of projects diving into the deeper community connection,” said Thompson. “That trust development, and the idea of the project that was co-developed, that’s why I was interested. We went through a change of what we wanted these stories to be and realized that if it was centered around the students and what they had to say it would be that much more powerful.
“We came in with this idea that these stories would be about the environment, that’s what we were focused on coming into it,” Thompson continued. “We did a lot of journaling, we used Atlas TI to formulate thought processes. But it’s not about the outcome of the stories themselves. It’s about how we can grow these relationships. How we can shift the focus from the University benefit, a box ticked, to creating a deep partnership.”
In April 2023, a Burke Museum event called “Finding Common Ground” showcased the storytelling videos, and attendees participated in a discussion with UW students and CLS student filmmakers on their personal experiences and perspectives on the project. The videos are now showcased online at the Chief Leschi Schools website, with a dedicated online space to permanently showcase these stories in the works. With the completion of a capstone report for publishing in a peer reviewed journal, Thompson and the SMEA student team aim to inspire similar initiatives and promote a genuine understanding of the positive potential inherent in such partnerships.
“I hope that this is just the first rendition of this kind of project,” Thompson said.
McCloud is also open to working together with UW and SMEA in the future. “These stories will live on long after we’re gone. So working on these stories and bringing about awareness, it’s a good thing.”