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Chickasaw environmental health pro helping tribes in Northwest


September 8, 2020

Ryan Sealy

Chickasaw citizen Ryan Sealy has a heart for helping Native Americans.

So much so, she earned her master's degree while also working for seven years at the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board. The knowledge she's gained from her studies, she said, will help her better serve those living in Indian Country.

She serves the Native American tribes of Oregon, Washington and Idaho in environmental health.

"I wanted to be better at my job and be able to do even more," Ms. Sealy said of her decision to pursue higher education. "I decided to go to graduate school at North Dakota State University. They are the only program in the whole country that has the American Indian Public Health for master's.

"It was a part of the work I was already doing," she said of her degree. "I wanted to be able to do better work and have more of a background, especially in Indian Country where everything is pretty nonprofit and you're always applying for lots of grants."

Environmental health is a new arena for Ms. Sealy. She has worked previously in various positions since she started at the health board, including sexual assault prevention, tobacco prevention and breastfeeding promotion.

"The opportunity came up," Ms. Sealy said. "I was sort of getting burned out on doing tobacco work because I'd done it for so long. I wanted to grow and learn more. When the job came up, I applied. It's a lot more of an interesting topic to me."

Ms. Sealy was hired for her current position as the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the U.S., so her job duties have shifted to help assist tribes with the pandemic.

"I'm working with tribes on their reopening plans and the protocol, elders' center and health centers and daycares," she said.

Working with Native American tribes, she said, was not a one size fits all model.

"In my area I work with 43 tribes," she said. "Every tribe that I go to is so specifically different. Their ideas are different, or what they are doing is different. When you talk about American Indian people, you're not talking about one group of people. You're talking about so many different, hundreds and hundreds of groups of folks who have different needs."

It was working one-on-one with tribes and their people that first showed Ms. Sealy that it would take listening to their needs to fully assist them the best she could.

"When I first started work, I didn't realize the depth of it all until I was in the field," Ms. Sealy said. "What I did with the last tribe isn't going to be the same as this tribe. It did humble me to just sit back and really be told what is it that they are focusing on and what do they need help with. What you think they need is not what they need. They have got to tell you what they need. It's really about putting community first."

As a Native American, Ms. Sealy understands the complexities and how important it is to handle each tribe and its needs with care and respect.

"For a lot of Native people, it's really important that we have more of our people doing the work for us," she said. "Building upon that, another thing that I really believe in is exercising the right of tribal sovereignty. It is so important and something we don't ever want to lose. Having that - more tribal people working in those positions for their people - will help keep that moving forward."

Ms. Sealy's devotion to Indian Country has grown thanks to the support she received from the Chickasaw Nation throughout her pursuit for education.

"I really want to give thanks to the tribe because they have been so supportive throughout my entire education career," she said. "It's really amazing that they put so much effort into lifting their people up and making sure that they're able to live a good quality of life."

It was the support from the Chickasaw Nation as well as close family and friends in her life that pushed Ms. Sealy to not give up.

"It takes a village to raise a kid and that's kind of how it was with me," she said. "It took all of the people I work with and the tribe encouraging me. I could not have done it by myself. I could not have done my journey, what I have done, without the support of so many different people and so many different organizations."

Her heritage is something that influences her daily life. It's important, she said, she was able to pass that on to her daughter and positively influence those she interacted with.

"Being Chickasaw really did lead me to want to work for Native people," she said. "You want to make the tribe stronger and you want to keep it going by doing work that helps honor that. I have an eight-year-old daughter and I want her to be proud of being Chickasaw and I want her to see what I'm doing so that she'll follow in my footsteps and do good things for her people, too.

"If you're not thinking beyond yourself, you're not thinking big enough. You have to think about what we are leaving to keep our tribe strong."


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