August 17, 2016

Teaching Climate Change and Cultural Heritage in American Samoa

The edges of our country are eroding. From Alaska to Louisiana, centuries of culture, tangible history, and dynamic communities are being battered by stronger storms and sea level rise—raising difficult questions about adaptation, relocation, and what it means to be an American experiencing climate change today.

Over the next year, Victoria Herrmann, a National Geographic Explorer, will chronicle America’s Eroding Edges, helping you explore the challenges of all those facing the impacts of climate change on their homes, livelihoods, and cultures. Join us on this journey as we discover the breadth and depth of what stands to be lost in America—and what we as a nation can do about it.

Climate change mitigation and adaptation in America seeks to ensure that this nation’s peoples, landscapes, and cultures are preserved for the benefit of future generations. We pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and armor our coastlines for the promise of a viable tomorrow—one where the public spaces of Manhattan are not inundated and the great farmlands of our heartland do not again turn to dust. At its heart, the goal of reducing emissions and adapting built environments is to save places from sea level rise, wild fires, and extreme storms. While historic preservation goes beyond environmental hazards to address threats like demolition and neglect, the shared motivation to save places in both climate and heritage communities is an important intersection—but not the only one.

National Park Service education staff lead a hike through Tutuila's National Park and talked about the Junior Ranger program, in-classroom visits, and cultural heritage sites along the way. | Credit: America's Eroding Edges

The more my research for America’s Eroding Edges straddles the two fields, the more I notice another similarity: both are forward looking and dedicated to securing a future world that connects to its past not through recollections but by preserving tangible and intangible historic assets. However, climate change and cultural heritage professionals alike often overlook the future-looking nexus of climate change and historic preservation that focuses on the next generation. But there is one place in America—on the edges of its history, geography, and identity—that is embracing this overlap.

Programs That Protect Places in American Samoa

American Samoa is the United States’ southernmost territory. Located in the Pacific Ocean about 2,500 miles and a five-hour flight from Hawaii, the tropical territory consists of five volcanic islands and two coral atolls. The main island, Tutuila, is home to nearly 60,000 American nationals, who comprise 95 percent of the territory’s population. It is also home to a handful of educational programs that engage youth simultaneously in the preservation of Samoan cultural heritage and in climate change awareness.

In January 2016, as part of the America’s Eroding Edges project, I spent just over three weeks in American Samoa to learn about community experiences of shoreline erosion, sea level rise, and climate change on the island. While there, I interviewed the leaders of four educational programs that succeeded in connecting climate change with Samoan cultural heritage and traditions:

  • The Coastal Management Program of the American Samoa Department of Commerce engages youth in a Fautasi Boat Race to monitor shoreline erosion in villages.
  • The American Samoa Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources’ education and outreach programming teaches students and community members the importance of a healthy ocean and coastline.
  • The U.S. National Parks Service (NPS) invites students to learn both in and outside of the classroom through its Junior Ranger program.
  • And the Boys and Girls Club of American Samoa is teaching the local causes of, effects of, and solutions to climate change.
  • Each is noteworthy for weaving together climate and heritage education through hands-on experiences, and they all work with youth to ensure that key pieces of American Samoa’s past are preserved for the benefit of future generations.

Between Consciousness and Comprehension

While auxiliary programs provide valuable best practices regarding how to combine tangible and intangible historic preservation training with climate change education, don’t go far enough, and their shortcomings exemplify a more universal gap in preservation youth education across the United States and its territories. These programs are opt-in and ad hoc and, therefore, unevenly distributed. By design, their lessons do not reach all students in American Samoa—they are only available to those whose teachers actively engage in alternative lesson planning or whose parents provide them with opportunities to participate in afterschool or summer learning experiences.

Beyond demographic discontinuities, there are also knowledge gaps. Because these programs are offered through particular government agencies or organizations, they focus on those entities’ specific mandates, thereby missing important lessons fundamental to understanding what climate change is and how Samoan heritage is affected. The Fautasi Boat Race teaches youth to build an annual observation network to document coastal erosion trends while fostering the preservation of heritage through the building and racing of the Fautasis. The Boys and Girls Club teaches students what they and their families can do to limit their pollution footprint and partners with the NPS to help students understand the consequences of climate change for native plant species used in traditional meals. And the Department of Marine and Wildlife’s outreach programs on how to become good stewards of the reefs that protect the island show students how life, economy, and culture are all connected to the health of the ocean.

As a result of these important hands-on programs programs—as well as news reports and personal observations of flooding in their villages and changes in growing seasons—there is a strong climate consciousness among students in American Samoa, and by extension, across the island’s population. But consciousness is not to be confused with comprehension, and no one is training youth to restore, adapt, and potentially relocate historic sites and heritage when flooding and extreme weather events increase.

When more than 100 8th graders in the village of ‘Ili’ili on Tutuila were asked whether they knew what was causing the changes in climate and weather in American Samoa, only two or three students raised their hands. The future leaders of American Samoa do not have the necessary education to understand the reason for global and local climate changes, nor do they have the training to effectively preserve and adapt their culture and historic sites to those changes. Relegating climate change and cultural preservation education to supplementary programming contributes to a critical gap of fundamental knowledge about major challenges students will have to address in the decades to come.

In order to bridge the chasm between consciousness and comprehension in American Samoa, climate change education and preservation training must be brought into the classroom. By incorporating lessons on the causes and consequences of—and adaptation tools for—climate change and cultural heritage into the curriculum, teachers can empower and engage a new generation in preserving their island’s culture, history, and landscape.

My research partner and I end each interview with the same question: What is the most pressing action that needs to happen to address the consequences of climate change? Over and over again, interviewees in American Samoa gave the same response: education. Across the United States and its territories, students need more exposure to the nexus of climate change and cultural heritage in their formal education. Programs like the ones in American Samoa are a vital first step, but as a network of preservation leaders, we must advocate for and work toward the inclusion of climate change and heritage preservation lessons in local and national education curriculums. As communities watch important historic sites and cultural heritage assets succumb to rising tides from coast to coast, climate heritage education cannot be consigned solely to ancillary programming. The stakes are too high.

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Victoria Herrmann is the lead researcher for America's Eroding Edges, which she works on with the help of research associate Eli Keene, as well as president and managing director of the Arctic Institute, where she leads the Institute's research on climate change and community adaptation in Arctic communities.

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