Ecosystem Pen Pals: Indigenous youth connect communities through action

July 1, 2016

Coastal indigenous people, who have relied on the ocean for sustenance and cultural connections for millennia, are feeling the negative impacts of climate change and ocean acidification to their way of life. Youth represent community decision makers of the future, so working with students to increase their ability to understand and adapt to changing ocean and coastal conditions is essential. Using the marine environment as a context for sharing, Ecosystem Pen Pals students connect with their surroundings, fostering local knowledge, cultural responsibility, and community resilience across the Pacific Ocean. 

Students from Chief Kitsap Academy provide a cultural performance at the Indigenous Youth Summit on Climate Change and Ocean Change.

Meaningful place-based educational experiences provide unique opportunities for students to explore these natural and cultural connections. The Suquamish Tribe provided these experiences through an environmental and cultural exchange program called Ecosystem Pen Pals. The program was funded by a NOAA Pacific Northwest Bay Watershed and Training Program (B-WET) grant and reached 190 high school students in the Hawaiian Islands, American Samoa, and the western coast of Washington state. Ecosystem Pen Pals helped promote awareness and understanding of how changes in the marine environment are affecting indigenous ecosystems, culture, economy, and traditional ways of life, and explored ways communities can take action to protect these precious resources for future generations.

Students participated in a series of year-long meaningful watershed educational experiences and pen pal activities focusing on food sovereignty and the global issues of climate change and ocean acidification. Students studied and documented their own natural ecosystem by producing field guides, videos, and posters. Students and their families also put together “ecosystem suitcases” filled with natural and cultural artifacts that they gifted to their partner schools. Students exchanged letters and corresponded through social media throughout the year, sharing ideas and information about their local ecosystems, while reinforcing writing and communication skills. 

Makah tribal youth take a closer look at plankton while studying Harmful Algal Blooms (HAB).
Makah tribal youth take a closer look at plankton while studying Harmful Algal Blooms. (EarthEcho International)

Students came together virtually and in person on Earth Day for the “Indigenous Youth Summit on Climate Change and Ocean Change,” hosted by Suquamish Tribe, NOAA Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and EarthEcho International. The summit was a celebration of our blue planet and concentrated on the urgency for solution-based conversations and actions. Students from each school provided short presentations on ocean and climate change and the impacts facing their cultural and natural resources. This exchange encouraged students to consider their own local experience with climate change, as well as global implications through the experiences of their peers in indigenous communities living near National Marine Sanctuaries from across the Pacific Rim.