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Indigenous Institutions and Their Role in Disaster Risk Reduction and Resilience: Evidence from the 2009 Tsunami in American Samoa

Andrew Rumbach, University of Colorado Denver
Dolores Foley, University of Hawaii, Manoa


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Indigineity has emerged as an important area of focus for research and policy making on disaster risk reduction (DRR) and resilience. Most research on indigeneity and DRR centers on indigenous knowledge and its integration with western scientific understandings of hazards and risk. Through a detailed case study of the 2009 tsunami in American Samoa, we argue that indigenous institutions also play a critical role in disaster risk reduction and resilience. Based on original data from semistructured interviews, village planning meetings, and focus group discussions, we describe how the indigenous institutions of fa’a Samoa, or the culture of Samoa, operated in a time of crisis by: (1) structuring emergency decision making and authority; (2) assigning roles and responsibilities during crises; (3) building effective lines of communication between villages and outside actors; (4) providing a system of accountability for vulnerable people; and (5) acting as gatekeepers to villages and mobilizing social groups to act. We then suggest some ways that indigenous institutions could be better leveraged to help create more resilient communities.

Key words

American Samoa; disaster management; disaster risk reduction; indigenous knowledge; institutions; resilience; tsunami

Copyright © 2014 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087