Sarah Cline Pytalski: On Becoming a Steelhead

Sarah Cline Pytalski has more than a decade of experience in rural community advocacy with a strong background in research and writing, project management, evaluation and strategic communications. As Senior Associate at Burness, she supports the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, with a focus on rural, data, and community power-building initiatives. Prior to Burness, Sarah served as Policy Research & Evaluation Manager at the National Congress of American Indians and as Policy Program Manager for Rural Dynamics. She has a Master of Public Policy with a rural policy concentration from Oregon State University and a bachelor’s in international development from McGill University.

Steelhead called my father to Glide, Oregon. As a child, I would marvel at his patience as he’d cast his line, over and over, from the banks of the North Umpqua River— waiting for a fish to reply. The Umpqua has always been where he feels most at peace.

This deep love of place, this reverence for the river, hooked me. Yet there wasn’t always a tug.

Early days on the North Umpqua River

When I was young, I loved the wild freedom of life in Glide. I spent summers gathering wildflowers, swimming in the river, and catching crawdads and tadpoles. In the winter, we raced down the slopes at Diamond Lake and drank hot cocoa out of the back of a minivan. I learned that the steelhead had cycles of their own— beginning their lives in the Umpqua, growing and maturing in the Pacific Ocean, and ultimately returning home to the river.

As a young adult, I sought out new rivers— the St. Lawrence in Montreal, where I studied at university, and the Missouri in Great Falls, Montana, where I worked at a nonprofit as an AmeriCorps*VISTA. In each place, I learned more about myself and what was calling me.

In 2010, I had the opportunity to attend the first-ever National Rural Youth Assembly. It was a profound experience—connecting me with inspiring young leaders from rural and tribal communities across the nation.

One of the presenters shared a poem by Luci Tapahonso titled, “It Has Always Been This Way.” It spoke of Navajo traditions in child-rearing. I’ve carried this part with me ever since:

The baby is born and cries out loud, and the mother murmurs and nurtures the baby.
A pinch of pollen on the baby’s tongue for strong lungs and steady growth.
The belly button dries and falls off.
It is buried near the house so the child will always return home and help the mother.
It has been this way for centuries among us.

When I later shared the poem with my mother, she joked, “I should have buried your umbilical cord.” Sometimes you leave to remember home.

At another Rural Assembly gathering, a mentor helped guide me to the rural policy program at Oregon State University. The Willamette River brought me much closer to home than I’d been in years, but I still felt called to serve other communities— using whatever skills I had.

I committed to tribal nations— taking a position at the National Congress of American Indians. After years of working with tribes in the Northern Plains and Northwest, I was excited to learn more from Indian Country and support tribal research and advocacy. 

It was at the 2018 Rural Assembly that I had yet another experience that profoundly impacted me. I met a woman from the Umpqua Valley and she took my hand and said, quite simply, “Come home.” 

What was I waiting for? I’d grown and matured across an ocean of time, but now, the tug became strong and relentless. Sometimes you leave to remember home. 

It’s hard to know whether that instinctual memory would’ve kicked in were it not for the constant guidance of my family, as well as my friends and mentors with the Rural Assembly. At each critical bend, someone wiser than me was there.

You are here.
Your parents are here.
Your relatives are here.
We are all here together.

It is all this: the care, the prayers, songs, and our own lives as
Navajos we carry with us all the time.
It has been this way for centuries among us.
It has been this way for centuries among us.

And so I’m beginning my homecoming— much like the steelhead. 

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