Holistic Approach to Wellness Earns Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe Culture of Health Prize


For years, tribal members drove 70 miles from their reservation on the coast of Washington to see a doctor. In the late 1980s to early 1990s, miscarriages and infant deaths plagued the Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe. When epidemiologists studied the troubling rate of infant mortality, they found no single cause, just a glaring lack of healthcare access.

That’s when the tribe committed to a holistic approach to transforming the community’s state of health. For its dedication to improving and maintaining the physical, social, emotional and spiritual health of its people, the Shoalwater Bay Indian Community has won a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Prize, and $25,000 to put toward community wellness. Seven 2016 winning communities were chosen from a group of nearly 200 applicants.

Today, after overcoming numerous obstacles, a Wellness Center provides medical, dental, and mental health services for the tribe and surrounding community. Since 1992, at least 42 children have been born on the reservation, home to about 84 members of the less than 400 total tribal members. And tribal elders are grooming a next generation of leaders by encouraging youth to get involved in tribal government and policies.

The tribe is also relocating its rural, one-square mile reservation from a floodplain and tsunami zone to higher ground. “The health and safety of our tribal members are my primary goals,” said Charlene Nelson, the tribal chair.

The tribe meets monthly in a Pulling Together Wellness Group, and relies on culture to inform prevention. “We have 10,000 years of history and culture in this area, and in the last 150 years, it’s almost been completely wiped out,” says Earl Davis, who coordinates cultural programs for his tribe. “I feel like there’s a lot of ground to be made up for.”

Davis, a former Marine and a master woodcarver, teaches youth how to carve characters of tribal legends into logs and planks.

In summer, Shoalwater tribal youth participate in a canoe journey along with thousands of people from tribes in Washington, California, Oregon, Alaska and Canada. Last year, the tribe joined the Chinook Indian Nation, paddling their canoes over 200 miles in eight days. A rite of passage, the physically, emotionally and mentally challenging experience binds the generations. “With that comes self-esteem and pride, which is hard to come by,” Tony Johnson, the tribe’s manager of education programs, told the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “You cannot overstate it.”

Woodcarver Earl Davis specializes in Salish style carvings.

Woodcarver Earl Davis specializes in Salish style carvings.

The tribe’s approach to life, fed by its rich and deep history, reflects the core values of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Prize. “Our elders and our ancestors taught us that health is a holistic thing,” Davis told RWJF. “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.”

RWJF Culture of Health Prize

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation awards seven Culture of Health Prizes annually to communities that are catalyzing and sustaining positive change. The prize recognizes whole communities, not work performed by individual organizations and initiatives.

Each winner receives a $25,000 cash prize and joins a network of prize-winning communities. They share their inspiring stories of challenges met, successes achieved, and lessons learned with other communities building a Culture of Health across the country.

The six criteria for evaluating the winner of the Culture of Health Prize are: Defining health in the broadest possible terms; committing to sustainable systems changes and policy-oriented long-term solutions; cultivating a shared and deeply-held belief in the importance of equal opportunity for health; harnessing the collecting power of leaders, partners, and community members; securing and making the most of available resources; and measuring and sharing progress and results.

Essentially the RWJF team is looking for communities approaching health with diverse strategies. They’re seeking a “balanced portfolio” of activities and initiatives that clearly address healthy behaviors (factors 30 percent in RWJF evaluation) like not smoking, and access to and quality of clinical care (20 percent weight in the decision). Strong emphasis (40 percent weight in the decision process) is placed on social and economic factors that affect health, like improving high school education and job training and community safety. The committee also considers the community’s physical environment (10 percent weight in the decision), like housing and transit, and air and water quality.

While the 2017 RWJF Culture of Health Prize call for applicants closed on September 22, 2016, this video can help guide communities interested in vying for the 2018 prizes:

Learn more at www.rwjf.org/Prize.