November 29, 2005 Feature

Connecting Culture and Community

Washington State University Builds Partnerships With Northwest Tribes

Building connections to culture and community-Native American students tell us that these connections are essential to their academic and clinical success. Washington State University (WSU) as a whole and the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences specifically have stepped beyond traditional institutional boundaries to make these connections happen.

University Level Connections

WSU began its quest to build partnerships with northwest tribes by recognizing their status as sovereign, self-governing nations. This recognition required that the university work with tribes by first establishing government-to-government relationships. In 1997 a memorandum of understanding (MOU) was officially drawn up and signed by the highest level administrator for the university, the president, along with representatives of the highest level of governance for specific tribes. To date, nine tribal nations have established a formal government-to-government relationship with WSU. Students have seen their tribal leaders treated with respect and their status as members of sovereign tribal nations honored.

To provide a mechanism for ongoing communication between the tribes and WSU, the MOU stipulated that a Native American Advisory Board to the president of the university be formed. One of the first actions taken by this board was to recommend that a Plateau Center for American Indian Studies be established. Understanding that this Plateau Center could only be successful if tribal representatives were actively involved in its development, university representatives, including administrators, staff, and faculty, began visiting tribal reservations. These visits provided an opportunity for tribal people themselves to share their values, strengths, needs, and concerns. As university representatives, our role was primarily to listen-and learn.

Reservation visits allowed a small number of us to learn from our tribal partners, but a means for a more broad-based information exchange that included students was needed. One way to accomplish this was through a conference. Thus, we began inviting Native scholars, including elders, to join us in putting together our first Plateau Conference. This conference was unique in that it focused on providing a forum for Native people to speak about who they are, what is important to them, and how we might work together. It was an educational-and emotional-experience as university personnel together with students heard about some painful historical experiences. At the same time, hope for the future was communicated through the tribal programs and initiatives that were presented. Potential areas to build collaborative and mutually beneficial relationships became apparent. Bringing Native American scholars to campus sent a strong message to students that the scholars' traditional knowledge and ways of interacting with the world were valued by the university community.

Department Level Connections

For the past 19 years the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences at WSU has made special efforts to recruit, retain, and graduate Native Americans who are prepared for professional careers in speech-language pathology and audiology. Throughout this journey of almost two decades, we have learned much about connecting culture and community to student learning. Perhaps of prime importance has been the opportunity to complete observations, clinical practicum, and internships in Native communities. Students have seen first hand the needs of their communities and brought back the hard questions like, "How do I serve individuals with disabilities in my community, when disability is not even a word in my tribal language?" Or "What if a disability is perceived as a gift?" Or "How do differences in perceptions of time impact the assessment process?" Questions such as these have led to associated research projects.

For the most part, Native students have a strong desire to "give back" to their communities. Thus, carrying out research that can potentially benefit their specific home communities, as well as more broad-based Native populations, can be an important element in Native American student success. Some students have collaborated with faculty on research. For example, several students participated in the development and evaluation of a multimedia curriculum unit portraying Native perspectives of factors that should be considered in service delivery. Other students have chosen to interview their elders and other community members to identify perceptions of disabilities or perceptions of time and space. Several students have examined the English spoken by individuals in their communities to explore the existence of dialects that could be mistaken for language disorders.

An upcoming event sponsored by the Plateau Center for American Indian Studies will bring Native American graduates back to WSU to present their research findings as part of our first Native American Culture and Research Exposition. The Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences will be well represented as our graduates return to complete the circle. They will have started as undergraduates with a vision of "giving back" to Native people, moved on to graduate school where they developed the means to "give back" through clinical and educational service delivery and research, and now return as professionals and role models for our current Native students-"giving back" to their university and society. As faculty, we will have the opportunity to continue learning from our graduates and to further broaden our understanding of how to build programs that contribute to Native American student success in higher education. Connections with alumni now serve as the foundation to help us, as educators, in linking professional preparation to culture and community.

More information about the Native American professional preparation program in the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences can be found at Washington State University Web site.

Ella Inglebret, is an assistant professor and director of the Native American Personnel Preparation Program in the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences at Washington State University. Contact her at 

cite as: Inglebret, E. (2005, November 29). Connecting Culture and Community : Washington State University Builds Partnerships With Northwest Tribes. The ASHA Leader.

A Student Perspective

by A. Noelle Phillips

When I discovered I needed to observe practicing SLPs in the school system, I knew just where to go-back home to Alaska's Kenai Peninsula. That's why, halfway through spring break and with ears dutifully plugged, I found myself in a droning six-seater Cessna banking steeply over Kachemak Bay, en route to the Native village of Nanwalek. Danielle Thompson of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District had been kind enough to let me tag along on her itinerant day.

I knew that the area of Alaska that I grew up in has some unique needs and communities, and I wanted first-hand experience within that environment for my observations. I want to go back to Alaska and practice in rural communities when I'm finished with graduate school, and I feel that the more exposure I get from the point of view of an SLP in that setting, the better practitioner I will be for those communities.

The experience was fascinating and eye opening: I sat through a bilingual class in Aleut, interacted with kids at different Head Start programs, and saw a lot of great therapy. Our plane landed on a "runway" that washed out in storms and high tides and had to be re-bulldozed each time. I also got a heads-up on the school district policies and regulations and saw how different communities perceived an SLP at work. I exclaimed at the intricacies of bringing together traveling special educators, school psychologists, teachers, and SLPs for an IEP meeting in a community only accessible by plane or boat. When one considers the thousands of miles covered and the e-mails involved, it appeared miraculous!

The best thing about going home to observe was that I got excited. I got excited about being an SLP, about helping people (what it's all about, right?) and about going home to do those things. I know there are huge needs for SLPs all over the country, not just in Alaska, but when I think of those porcelain volcanoes and gap-toothed smiles I know right where my heart is, and that's where I'm headed.

A. Noelle Phillips is a first-year graduate student in the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences at Washington State University. An Alaska Native, she grew up on a homestead and is interested in rural service delivery and Native issues.


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