October 25, 2016

America's Eroding Edges: Traditional Knowledge and Historic Preservation

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 (AEE), 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.

As defined by the National Park Service, “historic preservation is a conversation with our past about our future.” Advocates for saving places know that preservation is about more than the physical conservation of at-risk buildings, landscapes, and built environments—it is also an opportunity to inform decisions about our future by learning from our past. Not only do we see the successes and shortcomings of past human construction and creativity but we also learn to build more resilient structures and communities today.

Learning from history has always been an important part of envisioning a better future. But recognizing and applying the lessons of the past has taken on a newfound urgency in the face of a changing climate. Rising sea levels, drought, and storms are threatening historic buildings, communities, and cultural heritage across America.

American Samoa's year-round tropical climate, with daily temperatures averaging 81 to 83 degrees Fahrenheit, supports a rich environment for sustainable, healthy agriculture capable of withstanding extreme weather and precipitation variations. | Credit: Nerelle Que

This is perhaps most true in places like American Samoa, a U.S. territory in the South Pacific Ocean, where all communities and built infrastructure are constructed along a rapidly eroding coastline. While some of American Samoa’s historic and cultural assets are facing unavoidable loss and damage from rising tides, residents are saving at-risk places and landscapes by studying historic building and farming methods to learn best practices of resiliency from past generations. American Samoans are using traditional architecture to build structures that can withstand more heat and storm surges and implementing traditional planting systems that allow crops to thrive despite volatile weather patterns. And they are applying intangible heritage associated with the island landscape to better prepare food systems for hurricanes and other natural disasters.

Traditional Knowledge: A Tool for Learning

There are many ways to have conversations with our past about our future. When building a case for saving an endangered property from demolition, archival research offers records documenting the building’s life story, which can tell us about its strengths and weaknesses in withstanding changes. The physical surveying of a building’s or neighborhood’s unique features is another method of discovering which elements have not only withstood the test of time but also improved the surrounding social, cultural, and ecological environment.

American Samoans use traditional knowledge and oral traditions as tools for connecting historic best practices with current decision-making. Traditional knowledge is defined as a living body of information that has been developed, sustained, and passed on from generation to generation. It is a set of practices and beliefs about the relationships of living beings to one another, their environment, and their culture that has both everyday applications and intergenerational relevance. In climate change research, traditional and indigenous knowledge is increasingly recognized as an important component of understanding weather patterns, ocean phenomena, and other ecological changes. It helps construct historical environmental baselines and provides observational evidence for modeling. It complements scientific data, filling in observation gaps and supplementing scientific findings on shifting atmospheric and oceanic systems.

Traditional knowledge can also help us adapt to climate change. Warmer waters have made storm events like hurricanes and cyclones more frequent, more intense, and more unpredictable in duration and timing. In American Samoa traditional knowledge has helped inform the construction of resilient homes to withstand wind and heat; the cultivation of crops in a tropical, stormy climate; and effective community response to the inevitable natural disasters of the South Pacific.

Traditional Architecture

For centuries villages in American Samoa harmonized their architecture with their environment to withstand a tropical, and at times extreme, climate. This resilient, traditional construction practice is best exemplified by the fale—an oval house characterized by a domed, thatched roof supported on pillars traditionally bound together by a plaited coconut fiber rope. Its open walls allowed in strong winds, both cooling the interior and reducing humidity. In extreme weather events, the fale allowed stronger gusts to pass through without jeopardizing the structural integrity of the home. The use of coconut fibers enabled buildings to bend and flex under pressure without breaking in tropical storms. Even if they suffered damage, replacement supplies were readily available around the island, and the lightweight materials caused minimal injury when structures did collapse.

Over the last century, the colonization of American Samoa by the United States and the import of Western lifestyles has eroded the intergenerational transmission and use of traditional building styles. The widespread trend of building Western-style housing has increased the vulnerability of buildings and people to storms. When strong cyclone winds meet the vertical concrete walls of Western-style buildings, they move upward and lift the roofs off, not only damaging the houses but also posing a danger to the people inside, who may be hit by the heavier materials.

As climate change is causing more extreme storms and increasing average temperatures, American Samoans are reincorporating traditional building methods back into contemporary vernacular architecture. Communities are using both historic practices and modern advances to build adaptable, resilient homes. “Adaptation is good,” says Sandra Fuimaono-Lutu, deputy director of America Samoa’s Chamber of Commerce. “But adaptation doesn’t mean to completely ignore one way and do another. Adaptation means to adapt—combine and adopt—areas and things and processes that will strengthen whatever it is that you need strengthened.” Architects are beginning to learn from historic buildings and building practices to design homes that harmonize with the surrounding environment.

Using the Natural Landscape

Beyond buildings, residents are also reincorporating other traditional knowledge to adapt to living in a changing climate. Much as it affected building practices, the introduction of Western lifestyles altered the diet of many American Samoans. Imported foods high in proceed sugar and fat offer an easy, relatively cheap alternative, while a balanced, healthier diet had become more expensive due to import prices. Not only has this resulted in adverse health effects—American Samoa has among the highest rates of type 2 diabetes in the world—but the reliance on imported food is also causing concern in an age of more extreme storms.

Fales are traditional Samoan structures characterized by domed, thatched roofs supported on pillars. In extreme weather events, fales allow stronger gusts to pass through without jeopardizing their structural integrity. | Credit: Nerelle Qu

For an island that relies mainly on imported food items for dietary staples, intense, unpredictable storms pose a real threat to food security. But by using traditional knowledge about cultivating the natural landscape, Sandra and others we spoke to, like William D. Pedro, are creating healthy, climate-resilient diets for themselves and their families.

“We may have hurricanes that’ll blow everything down,” says Sandra, “but then there are also rooted things like taro. Those are the mitigation methods that our forefathers have. That’s what I feel. They had uma tree, they had taro, they had yam, they had bananas. So if you had a hurricane, you still had the taro and the yam. If you didn’t have a hurricane but you had a flood or saltwater intrusion, then you had the uma tree. You know, there was a way to manage this. If the birds were all blown away, then there’s still fish in the sea. There’s always a way to understand that.”

Bringing Back the Past

While Sandra and William are applying traditional knowledge to build more resilient homes and diets, for most American Samoans the conversation with their past has been cut off. Western lifestyles and American public schooling diminished the role and application of traditional knowledge in culture and everyday decision-making, stymying its transfer from one generation to the next. “It wasn’t imparted to us,” Sandra says. But she wants to change that by incorporating the past into youth programming. “We need to grab it while it still exists. And if there’s any kind of huge project funded, I would love to do something like that. Grab that indigenous knowledge, capture it, put it in part of the curriculum, and show how it’s aligned with some of the scientific data.”

When we work in at-risk geographies like American Samoa, we do more than save places—we study their past successes and failures to develop a more resilient built environment for the age of the Anthropocene. By doing so, we can use the best practices of buildings that historically harmonized with the surrounding landscapes and weather to adapt to the impacts of climate change. Through preservation we have the opportunity to make endangered historic sites and communities at the front lines of climate change a vital part of the adaptation solution—we can both save and strengthen these resilient, culture-rich places.

Donate Today to Help Save the Places Where Our History Happened.

Donate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation today and you'll help preserve places that tell our stories, reflect our culture, and shape our shared American experience.

Victoria Herrmann bio photo square

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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