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New book shapes environmental health through storytelling

A fairytale-like account of a Native American woman and her baby is serving as a new kind of teaching tool.

“The Return,” a 32-page comic-book created by the UW Center for Ecogenetics and Environmental Health (CEEH) and the Northwest Indian College, seeks to help more young people understand environmental health.

Jon Sharpe, CEEH administrator, said environmental health is about the connection between the environment and human health.

“It’s not a very well known field,” Sharpe said, “so part of what we were working on is trying to get kids to at least have some idea of what this field is about, so that they might consider going into it when they’re in college and we get more environmental health scientists doing this important research.”

Told from a Native American perspective, the story was developed through research funded by a grant from the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences. Tribal college students participated in surveys and focus groups to produce three core values of the native concepts of environmental health – the importance of community, wellness, and interconnection.

Janice Brendible, a former faculty member of Northwest Indian College who led the project there, narrated the story. The tale represents the next generation’s ability to restore and renew the core values into their communities.

According to Sharpe, one of the important components in the development of the story was determining what environmental health looks like from a native perspective and how that differs from a western scientist’s point of view.

Michelle Montgomery, senior fellow at the UW Center for Genomics and Healthcare Equality, helped develop the project.

“I’ve always had a passion for trying to find ways of developing communication and outreach through a traditional lens,” Montgomery said. “One of the ways we do that is not only through our traditional language but also our cultural expressions, which is a very strong artistic form.”

Sharpe and Montgomery worked together to edit the text and format layout in the story, while Nicolas Salazar, a student at the Institute for American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M., illustrated the book.

“I think that the story can relate to everyone,” Salazar said. “You don’t necessarily have to be Native American to understand the concept, because we all have mothers. The earth is like our mother in that she takes care of us, and when we get older we have to return that to her, just like we would take care of our own parents.” 

Montgomery said putting the information in comic book form has a profound effect on K-12 students. The end of the story features an interactive section in which students answer questions, and even create their own comic to depict the influence of environmental health on their own communities.

“I think that this is very powerful because it’s a hands-on activity, and not someone spoon feeding you a lot of information in ways that don’t resonate,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery said the indigenous way of life is by no means more important than another, but this is just one story of many that can help us to understand environmental health and how it affects us.

“I do think in many ways indigenous communities around the world have had such accelerated ill effects from their environments being taken away from them,” Sharpe said. “They’re a microcosm in some ways to what we’re all doing to the planet we share. So telling that story from their perspective has benefits for everyone because it’s an eye-opener.”

The book was distributed at the 2013 American Indian Higher Education Consortium Student Conference in Green Bay, Wisc., and at the Institute for American Indian Arts.

Sharpe and Montgomery said they hope to do some more follow up in the future, and are excited to see the types of conversations that the book with start among students and adults alike.

Reach contributing writer Kaylan Lovrovich at development@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @kaylanlov

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