Featured Member: Jamie Donatuto

Image by Jacob Tully

Photo : Jacob Tully

Jamie Donatuto is a community environmental health analyst for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, located in the beautiful Salish Sea region in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. For 20 years, Jamie has been conducting investigations on behalf of the Tribe.

Her work includes researching chemicals and other toxicants in local traditional foods and tribal health-related impacts from climate change, launching an environmental health education program, and developing community-based Indigenous health indicators. 

The Indigenous Health Indicators project is a collaborative effort with long-time colleague and Swinomish Elder Larry Campbell. Jamie and Larry most recently launched the Swinomish Community Environmental Health Program, and they work extensively with community education and outreach projects.

Jamie completed her doctoral studies at the University of British Columbia in the interdisciplinary graduate program of Resource Management and Environmental Studies. She became a member of the Center for Health and the Global Environment (CHanGE) in August. 

Q: What interests you about community environmental health? How did you get into this area of research?

Jamie headshot
Jamie Donatuto

It’s a long story! The short version is that 20 years ago, I was finishing an undergraduate degree and started working for the Swinomish Tribe researching a toxicology project. We went to the Tribal Senate with the results, and there was an awkward silence. The Chairman then said that the Tribe doesn’t define health on an individual, physical level or on probabilities, and I needed to go back to the drawing board. It was this light bulb moment that made me realize that not every culture defines health in the same way, so if this research was meant to be for this community, we needed to completely reframe our project. I was very lucky to have a connection to a Swinomish Elder, Larry Campbell, who took me under his wing and taught me a lot about Swinomish culture. Together, we developed health indicators that are non-individualistic, non-physical, and are often missed in health assessments in many applications, not just toxicology. In this particular context, we see climate change assessments that do not even include health, but when they do, they are often based on individual, physiological outcomes such as rates of asthma or heatstroke. We feel that there’s an aspect of health that isn’t defined and that has been driving our work for the past couple decades.

Q: What projects are you currently working on with UW?

Our main project is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-funded project that is a primary award to the Swinomish Tribe. It is a climate health solutions project to look at how we use Indigenous health indicators to assess health impacts in a climate impact report. We are determining three things: 1) if the health indicators are accurate and useful within the Swinomish community, 2) if they could be useful for other Indigenous communities, and 3) what is the probability of a broader inclusion of Indigenous health impacts in climate work. I’m working on this with Drs. Jeremy Hess and Nicole Errett, both at the UW Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences (DEOHS) and CHanGE, and Marnie Boardman from Washington State Department of Health. We are also working with a Tribal advisory group with representatives from all over the country. That has been interesting because different regions are affected differently by climate change—for example, sea level rise and storm surges aren’t applicable in Montana. We are also interviewing policy makers and managers at local, state and federal levels to understand how broader aspects of health could be included in decision making or policy. The project started in July 2019 and is slated to end next summer.

Q: What is the number one thing you want people to know about your research area?

The first and best thing that you can do is step back and understand that there are different worldviews from what is taught in academia. Conceptually, we understand this but in practice, it’s difficult to implement. For instance, like I mentioned earlier, the definition of health is different across cultures. Who are you intending your research to support? Learn about the worldviews and priorities of that community with whom you hope to work (in my case it is climate and health) before developing ideas to move forward. Check your ego at the door and listen to the community. 

Q: How can academic researchers learn from Tribes and Tribal knowledge?

There’s a lot of interest in this topic lately, which is great. But step back and ask yourself, why do you want to know? If your main goal is to learn Indigenous knowledge for use in other contexts, or to publish a paper, perhaps take a different approach. But, if you’re willing and interested in working with Indigenous communities, be really open with them about what you’re able to do and then see if they are interested in your expertise. The project shouldn’t be conceived before you speak with them—you need to work with them from the very start to develop the project. You should also learn about the nuances of intellectual property (IP) and be aware that you may never be able to share or publish the findings you developed with that community because what happens to that data is up to them. Listen to community priorities and be respectful.

Q: What’s important to you about being a member of CHanGE?

I spend a lot of time on the ground and in community—this is where my heart is and where my personal and job opportunities align. It’s also important as a researcher to connect with other researchers who are in a broader field so we can learn from each other. CHanGE provides that opportunity for peer-to-peer learning and collaboration. I’m excited to share the projects I’m working on and learn from others about projects that could benefit the Indigenous communities with whom I work.

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Jamie sits on the committee for this series, presented by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine