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Native Scientists Taking Off




With the help of the
American Indian Science & Engineering Society,
a National, Nonprofit Organization



By Daniel Gibson

Native Americans are renowned as great artists. Their history as proud and courageous warriors is well known. And they are with equal measures of romanticism and reality revered as mystics exploring the edges of human consciousness and being. But today, laboring in obscurity, they are also electrical, aeronautical, software and materials engineers, research biologists, oil geologists, hydrologists, doctors of medicine, inventors and even astronauts. While not entirely new-for instance, Ely Parker (Seneca) was an engineer, as well as war secretary to Ulysses S. Grant, while Susan LaFlesche Picotte (Omaha) became the first Native American woman doctor of medicine in the late 1800s-these individuals are rapidly expanding the commonly held definition of who and what an Indian is.

Since a meeting of the minds one dark and stormy night on the Winrock Ranch, Arkansas, in 1977, many of this emerging class of Indian professionals have been united under the banner of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES). The rise and development of AISES provides a window into a unique corner of the American Indian experience of our contemporary era.

When Everette Chavez (Santo Domingo Pueblo) was growing up in New Mexico attending the local public high school, he was steered toward pursuing a vocational or mechanical career. "Indians were told they were not capable of learning math and sciences. Hogwash," he says. Instead he enrolled at the DeVry Institute of Technology in Chicago, where he obtained an associate's degree in electrical engineering. "It was major culture shock," he recalls. "It took every ounce of perseverance to stay there," but he did, then went on to obtain an advanced degree from the University of New Mexico, which led to many years of employment as a highly skilled technician, and his role today as AISES' executive director.

The founding members of AISES included hydrologist Al Qoyawayma (Hopi, see accompanying profile), engineer and educator George Thomas (Cherokee), geologist and educator Carol Metcalf Gardipe (Penobscot/Passamaquoddy), chemical engineer Andy Anderson (Mohawk) who spent most of his career with Union Carbide, geologist Jim Shorty (Navajo) who works at Sandia National Laboratory, and NASA technology manager Jerry Elliot (Osage/Cherokee). It is an illustrious group.

Why form AISES? Notes Gardipe, who was one of the few women geologists of her era of any race, with a career spanning the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and roles in higher education as a professor and administrator, "There was a great need, as American Indians were largely absent from the science and technology fields."

Explains Thomas, who served as AISES' second chairman in the early 1980s and is once again on its board, "It was obvious at the time that technical expertise was needed to make wise, intelligent decisions about resource development on Indian reservations that would benefit tribes. Over time, we've seen that some people are going back to work with their tribes, while others are pursuing careers in industry. We're only going to get a certain percentage back, and so we needed, and still need, to create a larger pool." The former White House fellow, chief of staff for the Cherokee tribe, director of education for the Council of Energy Resource Tribes and an ARCO executive for many years adds, "One of AISES' biggest contributions has been to dispel this attitude that we can't point Native American students into engineering fields because they can't grasp math and science. They can. We've proved that, and helped to produce a cadre of role models."

Can Indians make good scientists? "I feel it's actually a natural thing for Native Americans," says Elliot, "because of our relationship to the Earth, our spiritual beliefs, and respect for The Creator's great laws. Science is really just a way of understanding what The Creator has put here. It's not just an academic pursuit for us; science and theology are one and the same. It is also a mistake to assume that technology is exclusive to one culture or another. Take for example the teepee. It's a very aerodynamic shape that can withstand high winds and snow loading, with strong convection heating and cooling properties." Elliot put such insights to use for more than 36 years with NASA, serving in the space shuttle program and in the flight control programs of the Gemini and Apollo programs. Elliot served as the retrofire officer on Apollo 13, helping to guide that troubled space craft back to a safe return to Earth.

But can such extraordinary Natives also manage to retain their ties to their people and traditions? AISES director Chavez still participates in all the traditional ceremonies at his pueblo. "It hasn't compromised my tribal identity; it has strengthened it," he says. Elliot joins his tribal dances every June and took a vision quest in the past. "There's no separation in life," he says. "We must view life as a whole as we probe the Great Mystery."

Bob Whitman (Navajo), AISES chairman, obtained his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Colorado and is an assistant professor of engineering at the University of Denver. He concludes, "If we want to, we can pursue almost anything. It's just a matter of setting a goal and working toward it. With our cultural background, we think of the world in slightly different terms and we can bring that perspective and diversity in outlook and approach to the table. This is of great value."

Daniel Gibson is editor of Native Peoples. His most recent book is Pueblos of the Rio Grande: A Visitor's Guide (Rio Nuevo Publishers).


More than 200 Americans have flown in space, and now these esteemed ranks will finally include a Native American. John Herrington of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma will become the first enrolled Native American to fly in space when SST-113 lifts off the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center on November 10 (schedule current at press time).

Herrington is a mission specialist on a major assembly flight for the International Space Station. He will be the flight engineer, assisting the pilots during launch and landing, and will also perform three space walks.

Surprisingly, Herrington didn't realize he was the first enrolled Native American to become an astronaut until NASA informed him. He notes, "I didn't intend to be a role model, but I think it's very important. It means a lot to a lot of people. If what I do makes a difference to somebody and they can realize their dreams, that's what's important." As an astronaut, Herrington has made public appearances in front of more than 50 groups, with thousands of people listening to him speak about what it's like to be an astronaut.

The fact that he is an astronaut testifies to his immense personal drive. Herrington grew up in the 1960s when many Native Americans were discouraged from associating with their heritage, and it wasn't until the 1970s that his mother told him, "You are a Chickasaw; let's get you enrolled in the tribe." Born in Oklahoma on September 4, 1958, his family left the state when he was one. As a kid growing up in Riverton, Wyoming, he would play in a cardboard box, transforming it into a rocket ship on a flight to the moon, and he built miniature rockets with beetles tucked into tiny payload compartments. His dreams of flight, however, were punctured when a teacher told him he wasn't smart enough to take algebra. After graduating in 1976 from Plano High, in Texas, he went on to college, but was dismissed because of poor grades. He took up work as a chef, and began partying hard. As he once noted in an interview with the Billings (Montana) Gazette, "I was going down the wrong path."

But he eventually returned to college, to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, where he obtained a bachelor's degree in applied mathematics in 1983. He then enrolled in the U.S. Navy's Aviation Officer Candidate School, where he trained as a pilot. He was then assigned to duties that included searching for Russian submarines, serving as a patrol plane flight instructor, and finally as a test pilot. In 1995, he received his master's degree in aeronautical engineering, and in 1996, was one of 2,500 people to apply for 35 astronaut spots with NASA. The man who was told he couldn't master algebra as a kid was selected.

Astronauts actually spend very little time flying in space or even training for a specific mission. Most of their time is spent working with engineers and scientists, acting as the "voice" for the astronaut corps, recommending what astronauts in space would prefer. Herrington's first assignment after he finished astronaut training was to work with engineers developing global positioning systems (GPS) for the shuttle and space station. Before permanently installing GPS units on the shuttle and relying on them for critical functions, NASA needed to check them out on noncritical experiments. He recalls, "The work was directly related to what I did in graduate school, so that was great. Based on this work, I was assigned to work on motion control systems development for the space station. I worked with engineers developing the displays and procedures, and how to operate and run the system."

The STS-113 mission has two key tasks-rotate the long-duration space station crews and add a 30,800-pound, 42-foot truss to the space station's exterior. The later work will require Herrington to perform three space walks. He describes the task as a "glorified wrench turner," modestly failing to mention that metal tools and parts of the station will be 200 degrees in the sunlight, making prolonged contact difficult. "We're doing crew rotation and major assembly tasks in the same flight with a very limited number of crew members, combined with all of the overhead associated with the transfer ops. It's going to be a major effort."

AISES has presented Herrington with three eagle feathers, and a fourth feather was given to him by a Cherokee medicine man. Herrington will carry three of the eagle feathers with him into space. After the mission he plans to give one back to AISES and one to the Smithsonian's museum of the American Indian. Herrington has said he hasn't decided what to do with the third feather but he'd like to give it to a special organization that would put it on display where it could be viewed by the public. He will also carry an arrowhead that his aunt found, and will fly flags for the Chickasaw and Crow Nations, proudly raising the banner of Native Americans in outer space.

Philip Chien has written about the space program for the past 12 years for a variety of publications. He has presented numerous papers at technical conferences about the aerospace industry.


Other Natives in the Space Program
Herrington is not the first and only Native associated with the space program. Engineer Jerry Elliott (Osage/Cherokee) has been with NASA since the mid-1960s, securing a Presidential Medal of Freedom in the process (see primary AISES story). Astronaut Robert Crippen, who flew on four space shuttle missions (including three as commander), is also of Native heritage (Cherokee) but was never an enrolled tribal member.


Al Qoyawayma is diversity walking. Potter. Poet. Engineer. Educator. His life is a series of stories that flow back and forth with quiet flair between two seemingly different worlds. He is a highly trained and respected engineer who moves easily among executive managers in corporate America and also a master potter with strong connections to his Hopi roots.

Ask a Native person a question and you are most often rewarded with a story. Embedded within the story lies your answer. When asked how he balances life in two seemingly different worlds I was rewarded with four hours of stories that revealed a highly inquisitive and creative mind that is not fenced in by the rules of any one culture or training. Qoyawayma's mind roams freely across the landscapes of mathematical theory, archaeology, nuclear physics, linguistics, architecture, history and many other fields. This highly refined ability to adapt "comes directly out of the psyche of being Indian," states Qoyawayma.

Al Q, as he is known to friends, grew up a single child in California where he freely explored the land. While in sixth grade he discovered his mother's college-level chemistry books and became hooked on making things. Smoke bombs matured into machine tools, which metamorphosed into building powerful car engines in high school, and then multiple degrees in mechanical, civil and environmental engineering. Described by peers as having a "charmed life," his resume flowers with great accomplishments. He co-holds patents on primary aircraft guidance systems. He formed and managed the environmental department of the Salt River Project (an Arizona-based energy company). He's received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Colorado, was awarded the Ely S. Parker Award from AISES (1986), and was the 1989 alumnus of the year at California Polytechnic State University.

To his credit, Qoyawayma has not let the techno-world control him. He has often paired his Coyote clan "do-right-by-the-people" character with his vast knowledge to help tribes by asking a single incisive question that has revealed a scam or someone who just hasn't done their homework. He played key roles in the Salt River Project and Central Arizona Project, making sure that information and understanding was available to affected tribes. He knows that if Indian people are treated fairly then there is hope that the world is being treated fairly.

While pursing an education in engineering, Qoyawayma often visited his Aunt Polingaysi, the potter and educator Elizabeth White. He credits her mentoring with many of the directions he's taken in life. Polingaysi would always tell him to "take the best from other cultures and blend it with what you already have. Reach out for it without fear."

Born in his aunt's words was a desire to serve Native people that led Qoyawayma to help launch and become the first chairman of AISES. "These engineer-warriors are builders and thinkers, attempting to preserve that which is valuable of the past, and to devise new ways for living in the present and future," says Qoyawayma. "There are damaged lands and damaged lives-which science and engineering can help with, if governed by educated Indian people who have not lost their ancient tribal values."

This inquisitive, gathering mind of the engineer has served art as well. Known for his brilliant white clay vessels, his newest body of work-the Sikyatki Series-honors the whole of his Hopi-ness. Using scientific thinking and the "art of making mistakes," Qoyawayma is close to replicating the clay mixtures used by his ancestors-the Hopi potters of Sikyatki. He's combined this knowledge with elegant designs and muted earth tone clay slips to create an eloquent pottery. Corn mothers appear in repousse next to astronauts as a symbol of cultural and intellectual continuity.

Qoyawayma's life seems to have come full circle and resembles words found in his own poetry: "The Potter breathes life into the lump of clay...and the clay says 'make me beautiful, make me what I am supposed to be....'" Qoyawayma has let the hands of the Great Potter/Creator mold him with purpose, integrity and a strong flame of creative thinking.

Bruce Hucko roams the West's physical and social landscapes from Moab, Utah. He authors and photographs books on ancient and contemporary cultures, including children's arts. His outstanding photos most recently graced the book Willeto Collective: The Visionary Carvings of a Navajo Artist (Museum of New Mexico Press, 2002).



In 1958, Mary Ross (Cherokee) stumped the panel on the popular TV show "What's My Line?" No wonder. Who would have guessed that the great-great-granddaughter of Chief John Ross of the Cherokee was a topnotch engineer for the high-flying Lockheed Corporation.

Today, at age 94-from her home in Los Altos, California-the strong-willed Ross notes that the life of her famous predecessor "continues to be an inspiration to all of his descendants." John Ross, who was principal chief of the Cherokee for 40 years, was also an education advocate who helped establish the first Cherokee institutions of higher learning in the 1850s. This emphasis on education became a family tradition, and, growing up, Mary did not want to miss a day of school.

In fact, she graduated from high school at age 16, and chose math as her main subject at college because she enjoyed it so much. After receiving her BA in 1928 from Northeastern State Teachers College (Tahlequah, Oklahoma), she continued the family heritage, spending nine years teaching math and science in public high schools in northeast Oklahoma. "Watching the young people develop gave me special satisfaction," Ross says. Then, continuing to heed her parent's advice "to get the best education you can," she earned a master's in math in 1938 from Colorado State College of Education, while working at an Indian boarding school.

In addition to getting a good education, Ross strongly believes that you should always broaden your horizons. In 1942, this philosophy led her to join Lockheed Aircraft Corporation (now Lockheed Martin), a global leader in aerospace engineering. After completing a research project involving the P-38 fighter plane, Ross received advanced training in aeronautical engineering, becoming Lockheed's first woman engineer-a major achievement in itself. She went on to conduct ground-breaking research that played a key role in the United States' race to the moon, including the development of the Agena rocket (the first launch vehicle), as well as work on missile and satellite systems.

"The best thing about being a research engineer was that you were discovering new things every day," says Ross. "I was working on designing vehicles that had never been dreamed of before-I felt immense satisfaction in this."

Another strategy the energetic Ross has followed in her life is to "get involved with what's going on." Only three years after the Society of Women Engineers was founded in 1950, Ross helped establish the Los Angeles section. She held most officer positions at both the section and national levels, and when she retired in 1973, she helped organize SWE's national convention. For these contributions and her engineering accomplishments, Ross was elected a SWE Fellow in 1982.

Over the years, she has also played a leading role with AISES. In 1984, Ross was honored with a life membership, along with fellow Cherokee and astronaut Robert Crippen, at the AISES national conference, and in 1985 the organization bestowed its Ely S. Parker Award on her (named after Ely Parker (Seneca) the first Native American scientist/engineer to gain widespread recognition).

Also in 1985, Ross received the Eagle Feather achievement award from the Council of Energy Resource Tribes. She was totally surprised when the council then renamed the award in her honor. "It was a real treat to meet the recipients that followed," says Ross. "They have been such outstanding examples of Indians." Almost three decades after she retired, Ross is still receiving honors and awards.

But of all her accomplishments, the modest woman considers her greatest engineering contributions to be the basic research on orbital and "fly by" space vehicles she conducted in the 1960s. "These vehicles have brought us new information about the universe," Ross says, "and we now know more about the planets than we ever did before. I feel very proud I helped achieve these discoveries."

Laurel M. Sheppard is president of Lash Publications International (, which provides writing and editing services. She is a contributing editor for the Society of Women Engineers and writes for a number of other publications.


AISES at a Glance
AISES' primary mission is "to help Native students in science and technology fields find their identity in the world," says executive director Everette Chavez. "We are a family." Dr. Clifton Poodry (Seneca), who is employed by the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, as a biologist and geneticist notes, "When I was a college student, I felt like an odd duck. When I discovered AISES in the late 1970s, it was so exciting and astounding; I felt like I'd found my community, like I was coming home."

· College scholarships (some $600,000 awarded every year to science and technology students)
· Affiliated K-12 schools (130 schools receive AISES-designed Native science curriculum)
· College chapters (160 chapters across the U.S. and Canada assist with keeping Native youth on a career
path; $10/year dues)
· Professional chapters (17 chapters provide networking and mentoring opportunities; $40/year dues)
· Teacher training (more than 100 teachers help design curriculum with a Native perspective)
· Summer internships (paid 10-week programs with government agencies)
· Winds of Change magazine (high-quality professional journal)
· Annual spring leadership conference (includes mentoring with Native elders)
· Annual Native American Science and Engineering Fair (more than 500 students grades 5-12, with winners going on to international competition; 2003 event, Albuquerque, March 6-10)
· Annual National Conference (students and professionals gather for workshops, career fair, speakers and socializing; 2003 event, Albuquerque, NM, Nov. 20-23)
· New associated fundraising foundation just launched to broaden financial base, which is currently focused on government and corporate support

Details: P.O. Box 9828, Albuquerque, NM 87119, 505/765-1052,