Indigenous coastal communities are interdependent with the environment and families are vulnerable to the environmental changes that disrupt culture, continuity, and livelihood. The purpose of this study was to elucidate meaning from shared cultural perceptions of experiencing repeated disasters and other environmental changes among a United States Indigenous coastal community. This study is part of a larger community- engaged study and reports results from phenomological semi-structured in-depth qualitative interviews (n=19). Participants were enrolled tribal members with a strong ethnic identity and earned a majority of their income from subsistence activities. The results highlight that discrimination, which is part of the broader context of historical oppression, has set the stage for heightened vulnerability in Indigenous communities. Indigenous families are highly connected to their place and environment, yet environmental changes (e.g. repeated disasters, chronic land loss, and climate change) creates barriers for many elder participants pass on traditional knowledge and lifeways to their grandchildren and future generations. Indigenous peoples’ relationship with the land is spiritual, cultural, and place-specific. Interruption of Indigenous Peoples’ ability to interact with the land acculturation, lack of self-determination and discrimination are contemporary forms of trauma.

Key Take Away Points

  • Results indicate the complex relationship between Indigenous peoples' connection with the land and their ability to pass on their knowledge.
  • Participants' shared cultural perceptions of exposure to environmental changes illuminate the cyclical interconnectedness of place and human activities.
  • Their experience of place is also informed by structural and persistent discrimination. This shared knowledge informs how tribal member perceive exposure to environmental changes.
  • This study advances research by presenting shared cultural meanings of place and culture. Future research could explore place and culture as pathways between the physical environment and wellbeing.

Author Biography

Shanondora Billiot (United Houma Nation) is an Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois. She earned a Ph.D. in Social Work from Washington University in St. Louis. Prior to assuming this role in 2017, she was a Henry Roe Cloud Fellow at Yale University. As a master’s of social work student, Dr. Billiot led an epidemiological study in a small Ecuadorian parish to discover the incidence rates of persons living with disabilities who were exposed to volcanic ash. Her current research uses mixed methods to explore gaps in knowledge of how chronic health issues, non-communicable diseases, and mental illness disproportionately burden indigenous peoples. Experiences of historical trauma, discrimination, poverty, violence, repeated disasters, and chronic environmental changes have been shown to exacerbate the onset and severity of health conditions among indigenous peoples. Her contribution to indigenous health disparities science is through three levels of influence factors: physical environment, sociocultural, and historical. She is focused on developing community-based adaptations to environmental changes to promote wellness and circulation of Indigenous knowledge among youth and families. Soonhyung Kwon has a Master Degree in Social Policy from the University of York in the United Kingdom and Master of Social Work from the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor, MI. His research focuses on older adult’s mental health in a community. His experience working at the O-Jung Senior Welfare Center in South Korea has inspired him to research on how caregiver’s social support affects their mental health and well-being. Currently, he is interested in integrated theoretical approach on older caregiver’s chronic stressors formed by their social role. Catherine Burnette was drawn to health disparities research related to Indigenous Peoples (e.g. Native American, American Indian, Alaska Native, and/or Native Hawaiian in the U.S.) due to many of the distinct strengths demonstrated by these peoples as well as the high disparities related to violence, mental, and physical health. After conducting research on “how to conduct culturally sensitive research” she began working with tribes of the Southeast to address disparities in violence, mental health, substance abuse and health. Her work now extends cross-nationally. Dr. Burnette approaches her research using a wellness approach, incorporating mental, physical, social, and spiritual aspects of health. She is currently developing an intervention model of family resilience, this research aligns with the centrality of family in Indigenous support systems, and builds upon existing strengths within this underserved population.


We declare no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this manuscript. This manuscript is original work and it has not been published or submitted for consideration elsewhere. The authors thank the dedicated work and participation of the community advisory board and council members who contributed to this work. This work was supported by the Council for Social Work Education Minority Fellowship, Kathryn M. Buder Center for American Indian Studies, Yale Group for Native Studies Henry Roe Cloud Fellowship, and the Center for Social Development Doctoral Dissertation Grant Award.