2021 Indigenous Communities Fellowship


WE - Digital Ecocultural Mapping Project

Mapping cultural and biological data at traditional village sites in the Salish Sea to support thriving cultures and ecosystems

Team Lead

Shirley Williams

Solution Overview

Solution Name:

WE - Digital Ecocultural Mapping Project

One-line solution summary:

WE will map cultural and biological data at traditional village sites in the Salish Sea to support thriving cultures and ecosystems for all.

Pitch your solution.

Whiteswan Environmental (WE) is an Indigenous-led 501(c)(3) committed to preventing epistemicide and supporting knowledge democracy. WE are working with Traditional Local Knowledge keepers to document the natural stewardship systems of the Salish Sea. Digital media includes visuals and audio placed into an eco-cultural GIS mapping technology that integrates Indigenous and Western knowledge. The resulting map will serve as an educational tool to support WA State Senate Bill 5433 Since Time Immemorial, which mandates teaching history, culture, governance, and language in common schools. Community members, educators, and ecologists are contributing to the goal of sustaining and preserving the biological diversity and Indigenous cultural vitality of the Salish Sea. This supports the long-term vision of an Indigenous-led Coast Salish Tribal Heritage Field Institute, 7 longhouses in the San Juan Islands, and 7 longhouses in the Gulf Islands. This model can be replicated globally, to support thriving cultures and ecosystems for all.

Film your elevator pitch.

What specific problem are you solving?

WE honors respected tribal elders from Lummi and Saanich nations who say, the Creator gave us the sacred responsibility to the land, water, reef net, salmon, and language that belongs to it, and if it is not supported it is cultural spiritual genocide. In the last 165 years, Indigenous peoples of the Salish Sea were forcefully removed from ancestral homelands and placed on federally reserved lands, violating our inherent right to clean food and water. The reef net, an aboriginal fishing technology outlawed by settlers, is today considered the most respectful, sustainable way to produce the highest quality salmon. Wild salmon are endangered and out of 60 tribal nations at the Royal BC Museum, the salmon people’s language is at 4.1% of hanging on. Today, we all face a climate and global health crisis.

WE aims to address this ambiguous loss. Heal the people. Heal the land. Our ecocultural mapping project is part of the solution. Recent efforts towards cultural resurgence and revitalization provide a means through which Traditional Local Knowledge (TLK) can survive as we combine with modern technological advances to support thriving cultures, ecosystems, and knowledge democracy for all residents of the Salish Sea.

What is your solution?

The Digital Ecocultural Map brings to life the region as it was traditionally lived in by Coast Salish people before colonization. It uses local traditional ecological knowledge to define places and biological species, as well as oral history, storytelling, and song. The digital map will be an audio-visual record of our ancestral village sites, camps, and 13 moons food sovereignty. It will serve as an educational tool, as well as generate philanthropic support to rebuild our longhouses so we can preserve and protect the intimate connection between our language and natural environment. According to Healthy People 2020, new Social Determinants of Health, place is where health begins. 

“Rather than treating Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) as an adjunct or element to be quantified or incorporated into Western scientific studies, TEK can instead ground our understanding of the environmental, social, and biomedical determinants of health and improve our understanding of health and disease” (Finn et al 2017, National Institutes of Health).

GIS mapping technology provides the framework for the map prototype. The map is interactive and populated visually with photos and video clips, and with sound recordings of traditional songs and storytelling.

Strong preference will be given to Native-led solutions that directly benefit and are located within the Indigenous communities. Which community(s) does your solution benefit?

WE co-founders are Lummi tribal members and residents. WE are building a Spirit of the Sxwo’le (Reef Net) Coalition, bringing together kin from tribal nations to honor and record narratives of history, natural resource management systems, and cultural resurgence. Aboriginal reef net societies want to restore ancestral village sites including at: Pe’pi’ow’elh (English Camp), San Juan Island (SJI) National Historical Park; Lhe lhin q'welh (Henry Island), San Juan County Land Bank; and Xwotqwem, (Whatcom Creek), Bellingham, Washington. Over the past 165 years, this region’s aboriginal rights holders were separated by international borders and thrown into 4th world poverty through displacement and environmental degradation. This is Indigenous-led project offers engagement, empowerment, funding, and solutions for the original inhabitants of the Salish Sea. WE anticipate epistemic justice and community healing as we bridge the Native and non-Native divide on this collaborative transboundary (US and Candian) endeavor. 

Which dimension of the Fellowship does your solution most closely address?

Support language and cultural revitalization, quality K-12 education, and support for first-generation college students

Explain how the problem you are addressing, the solution you have designed, and the population you are serving align with the Challenge.

The Digital Ecocultural Mapping project uses Indigenous and Western nomenclature to describe and name places and species. The process of gathering these data is as empowering for Indigenous project participants as it is for those who access the digital map because this work supports language and cultural revitalization. Additionally, this project will generate and provide curriculum materials that are desperately needed by our state’s requirement to teach regional Native history, culture, governance, and language. This pilot project is sustainable, as there is no limit on the cultural assets that can be added to the digital map.

In what city, town, or region is your solution team headquartered?

Bellingham, WA, USA

What is your solution’s stage of development?

Pilot: An organization deploying a tested product, service, or business model in at least one community.

Explain why you selected this stage of development for your solution.

Our pilot project emerged through a partnership between WE and the Institute of Multidisciplinary Ecological Research in the Salish Sea (IMERSS), who created the GIS framework for the digital map. Our partnership has enabled the map prototype of Galiano Island in British Columbia to grow into a pilot project; on the US side, WE are preparing to conduct research and mapping of ancient village sites in the San Juan Islands. Whiteswan Environmental’s involvement creates shared access to the TLK held by just a few surviving elders and TLK keepers. Once we have conducted ecocultural mapping on San Juan Island, we will prove our concept and show the ecocultural digital map as an excellent tool for teaching and learning, exploring, protecting our fragile marine ecosystem, and supporting cultural revival. 

Who is the Team Lead for your solution?

Shirley Williams, RN/WE Executive Director

Please indicate the tribal affiliation of your primary delegate.

Lummi Nation, Enrollment #1860

Is your primary delegate a member of the community in which your project is based?

More About Your Solution
About Your Team

What type of organization is your solution team?


How many people work on your solution team?

1 full time

4 part-time

How long have you been working on your solution?

Since 2015, Digital Ecocultural Mapping since 2019.

Why are you and your team well-positioned to deliver this solution?

Our multidisciplinary team of Indigenous health professionals will accomplish our objectives. Historically in the US, research has functioned according to a strict hierarchy through which Western scientists conduct research on Indigenous territories. Instead of alleviating disparity, this extractive form of research contributes to political, economic, cultural, and health inequity.  The Spirit of the Sxwo’le has uplifted and centered TLK keepers. These efforts are supported by transboundary partners who contribute their expertise in support of reef net society resurgence. The Spirit of the Sxwo’le harnesses cutting-edge methodologies while engaging and empowering those who have the most to gain from the research.

A persistent challenge for reef net societies to continue practicing and heal is that there are no culturally safe places to do so. Incorporating Indigenous views, beliefs, and values in the present day requires the appeasement of dominant social and philanthropic structures that gatekeep land, knowledge, wealth, and science. To meet the challenge of cultural survival amid global crisis, our team marries a Western scientific framework with Indigenous approaches to knowledge production and dissemination. Our findings will be disseminated through both traditional Straits Salish events at which knowledge sharing has always occurred, as well as through Western approaches like open-source online educational resources and academic publications and presentations. Our Spirit of the Sxwo’le proposal is sustainable: “There is a lifetime of curriculum in learning the old ways,'' says Troy Olsen, Lummi reef net captain, and inherent rights holder.

What is your approach to building a diverse, equitable, and inclusive leadership team?

WE support knowledge democracy in educational systems and this digital eco-cultural mapping project will support all people to include their knowledge as it relates to the biodiversity associated with the land. This will then be shared with the eight compact tribes of Washington State who are contributing curriculum to support Senate Bill 5433, in which common schools are mandated to teach tribal history, culture, governance, and language. In this way, this serves diversity and equity for all people.

Solution Team

  • Shirley Williams Co-Founder, Whiteswan Environmental
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