Becoming a speech-language pathologist was a journey rooted in the humble beginnings of my childhood. It started at the kitchen table doing homework beside my parents who became first-generation college graduates despite battling dyslexia. It happened on the floor of my grandfather's living room when I asked him to teach me our native language, Chinuk Wawa, and because of the effectiveness of his boarding school experience, he could not remember how to pronounce the words.
SLP Sarah Ross uses per profession to stay rooted in tradition.
And it began when my grandmother lay in her hospital bed unable to speak at all, the result of a stroke. As a Native American child growing up in a family rich with oral tradition, I was deeply affected by the struggles my loved ones experienced when their words simply would not come.
Native American communities have historically struggled to receive adequate health care for their members, and my tribe—the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde—succeeded in resolving this disparity by creating a self-sustaining wellness center with a variety of medical services in the late 1990s. Notably absent was speech-language pathology, which patients were required to access in facilities 50 to 100 miles away. My investigations in 2009 demonstrated the need for a local and culturally integrated SLP, and by 2011 the facility had contracted me to create and manage the center's very first speech-language pathology position. I was not simply a Native SLP. Rather, I was an enrolled, active member who spoke the language of this culturally dynamic people. This exceptional treatment model is unique even among tribal communities.
My career and personal life are intimately intertwined because of my role within the tribe—as healer and student; advocate and participant; cultural liaison and canoe puller; traditional singer and bead worker. Integrating familiar cultural items, activities and traditions into my practice is my favorite part of being here. It's not only best practice for my profession. It is a holistic treatment model and essential to establishing trust and partnership among families as we build a healthier community.
The vision of my role within my tribe since childhood was to be a healer and a storyteller. I've since learned these were never my own stories that were aching to be told—they were those of my tribal brothers and sisters, the ones whose words would not come and whose voices could not be heard. It was through the voices of beloved professors, helpful colleagues and the echoes of my ancestors that this position grew to fruition.
I feel fortunate not only to represent my tribe within the field of speech-language pathology, but to walk in the footsteps of my ancestors while doing so, speaking our old words, telling our traditional stories and helping our youth find their voices.