Native American Heritage Month
In honor of Native American peoples and their diverse cultures and histories, the OVPR is pleased to share the following resources and information.
National Museum of the American Indian (Smithsonian, Washington DC)
NOTABLE SCIENTISTS, ACADEMICS AND INVENTORS of NATIVE AMERICAN HERITAGE
Mary G. Ross, Mathematician and Engineer, Cherokee (1908-2008)
Mary Golda Ross is considered the first known Native American engineer and is the first female engineer to work for Lockheed. Her great grandfather John Ross was one of the longest serving chiefs of the Cherokee Nation. She received a Master’s degree in mathematics and was hired by Lockheed in 1942. The company sent her to study aeronautical engineering at UCLA. In her time, men dominated the corporate world; nevertheless, she worked her way up in Lockheed, most notably helping to develop plans for the P-38 Lightning Fighter plan and eventually went to work for NASA. Since NASA’s early spaceflight expertise relied on technology being used by the military and since Ross was an expert in this field of knowledge, she contributed greatly to their program. Although much of Ross’s work on testing top secret rocket and missile systems at NASA remains classified, it is known that she made important contributions to the Apollo Program and helped write NASA’s Planetary Flight Handbook, which is the agency’s guide to space travel.
Fred Begay, Nuclear Physicist, Navajo/Ute (1932-2013)
Fred Begay is the first Native American to receive a Ph.D. in Physics, specifically Nuclear Physics. As a young boy (age 10), he was taken from his reservation home and placed at the Bureau of Indian Affairs Boarding School where he was trained to become a farmer and therefore did not graduate from high school. He served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War (1951-1955) and was assigned to the Air-Rescue Squadron in Korea. After serving in Korea, he attended the University of New Mexico where he received his B.S. (1961) in math and science, his M.S. (1963) in physics and his Ph.D. in nuclear physics (1971), after which in the same year, he joined the Phyics research staff at Los Alamos National Laboratory and studied thermonuclear fusion. Additionally, he was part of the space physics research team funded by NASA that studed the origin of high energy gamma rays and solar neutrons. Of note, Dr. Begay received a number of awards and honors in his lifetime and was elected to the New York Academy of Sciences in 2004 for his contribution to physics research.
Susan LaFlesche Picotte, Physician, Omaha Tribe (1865-1915)
Growing up on Nebraska’s Omaha reservation, Susan LaFlesche witnessed an incident that influenced her destiny: a white medical doctor refused to treat an ill Native American woman who then died of her illness. Because of this, she decided to become a medical doctor to help her people. In 1889, she became the first female Native American to earn a medical degree in the United States. Her father Chief Joseph LaFlesche (Iron Eyes) had always encouraged his children to educate themselves. While working at a Quaker School, Susan took care of ethnologist Alice Fletcher who worked there and who encouraged her to go on to higher education. Susan enrolled in the prestigious Hampton Institute and then at went on to complete her M.D. at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania where she completed a three year program in two years, finishing as valedictorian of her graduating class. After completing her 1 year intern position in Philadelphia, she returned to the vast Omaha reservation, which was over 450 square mile, and served about 1,300 patients. On call night and day, she became the sole physician when another physician left and was not replaced. In 1894 she married Henry Picotte and left her position on the reservation when she and her husband moved to Bancroft, Nebraska. There they raised two sons and she continued to practice medicine in a private practice serving both native and non-native patients. She helped raise money to build a hospital and in 1913, she opened Wathill Hospital, the first private hospital on a Native American reservation, in Walthill, Nebraska, a town within the reservation. After her death in 1915, the hospital was renamed the Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte Memorial Hospital. A museum was established within the hospital dedicated to Dr. Laflesche’s work and includes a history of the Omaha and Winnebago tribes.
Lori Arviso Alvord, Surgeon, Navajo (1958- )
Dr. Lori Arviso Alvord, a graduate of Stanford University Medical School (1985), is the first Diné (Navajo) woman to become board certified in surgery. After graduating from Dartmouth (1979) with a double major in psychology and sociology, she took a job as a research assistant in a neurobiology lab at the Veterans’ Administration Clinic in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where a neurologist in the lab encouraged her to become a physician. She returned to school to take pre-med courses at the University of New Mexico and then was accepted at Stanford Medical School. After she finished her training in 1985, she completed a 6-year residency at Stanford University Hospital and earned her board certification as a surgeon in 1994. After completing her studies at Stanford, she returned to her Navajo reservation in New Mexico to care for her people at one of the Indian Health Services’ facilities in Gallup, New Mexico. She understood at the outset that Western medicine and its technical capacity was not enough to treat her people; she needed to include the spiritual and psychological aspects of healing that are important to the Navajo. Her efforts to combine the two ways of treating her patients resulted in a more holistic approach. Her autobiography, The Scalpel and the Silver Bear, tells her intense and difficult journey as she followed the path of being a surgeon trained in Western medicine while simultaneously working to combine Navajo healing traditions and beliefs in the treatment of her people. In turn, her approach in medicine lead to a more holistic ‘treatment’ of the hospital environment for the patients where artwork and nature, gardens, outdoor porches with views were incorporated into the design to heal and soothe the patients. Dr. Alvord has received a number of awards, honorary degrees and held important positions. Of note, at the level of national recognition, in 2013, Dr. Alvord was nominated for the position of U.S. Surgeon General.
John Herrington, Astronaut, Chickasaw (1958- )
John Herrington is a retired U.S. Naval Aviator, engineer and former astronaut. While climbing cliffsides as a surveyor as a young man, a friend and mentor encouraged him to pursue mathematics and engineering. After he graduated from University of Colorado, he pursued a Master’s degree in aeronautical engineering at the Naval Postgraduate school. In 1996, he was selected by NASA to join the astronaut program. Two years later, he was assigned as a mission specialist for the Endeavor. In 2002, he was part of the 16th shuttle mission on the STS113-Endeavor to the International Space Station, becoming the first enrolled member of a Native American nation/tribe to travel to outer space and to walk in space. To honor his Chickasaw heritage, he carried 6 eagles feathers, a braid of sweetgrass, two arrowheads, a carved flute and the Chickasaw Nation’s flag. Today, the flute and the flag are on display at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. He has noted that even though many of the wonders of the Native world were built by ancestral Indigenous engineers, a very low number of students pursue higher degrees in STEM fields. John is committed to changing this and does this actively through his work with the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES).
Edna Paisano, Statistician, Nez Perce/Laguna Pueblo (1948-2014)
Edna Lee Paisano was a demographer and statistician. She received her bachelor’s degree and her Master’s from the University of Washington. Her Masters was in sociology and as part of her research, she studied statistics. She began working at the US Census Bureau in June, 1976 and was the first full time Native American hired by the Bureau. As a Native American, she was the primary statistician to advocate developing an inclusive US census program for the American Indian and Alaska Native governments and populations in order to improve representation of Indigenous peoples. She advocated using statistics and computer programming to obtain accurate counts of minority populations so that they could receive the right proportions of resources and program funding. In so doing, she identified a systemic undercounting of regions where large proportions of people were Native American. This was an important step since accurate census data is crucial to the tribal governments and organizations in their development of reservation or urban social and economic resources as well as land areas. Along with evaluating American Indian and Alaskan Natives, her program area also developed the data on other race groups including Asian, Pacific Islander, Black, and White populations. Edna is credited with substantially increasing the accuracy of the Indigenous population by about 38% between the 1980 census and 1990 census. Apart from her work with the Racial Statistics Branch in the Population Division of the Census Bureau, she worked on the Interagency Task Force on American Indian Women. After 20 years at the Census Bureau, Paisano had a one year job with the Environmental Protection Agency and afterwards, went on to become the chief statistician of the Indian Health Service within the Department of Health and Human Services.
Thomas David Petite, Inventor, Chippewa (1956- )
Preferring to be called by his middle name David, Petite’s full Native affiliation is the Fond du Lac Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa Nation. Petite’s father Robert Eugene Petite was a Chief of the Chippewa in Wisconsin, who relocated to Atlanta, Georgia where David was born. His father taught him about his cultural heritage and imbued him with a deep sense of values and great pride for his heritage. Petite is considered a great visionary/ scientist/engineer with business knowledge skills. He is best known for his work in developing wireless mesh technology that enables all mobile phones to work today and much of his work revolves around the networking, remote control, activation or monitoring of wireless enabled devices. Additionally, he is the founder of the tech start-up company, SIPCO (the Smart IP Company), which has successfully licensed his wireless mesh technology to several hundred companies. Petite has received over 50 patents and has more than 100 U.S. patents pending, dating back to 1995, primarily on ad hoc networks. He is the founder of the Native American Intellectual Property Enterprise Council (NAIPEC), a non-profit organization that helps Native American inventors and communities. Among his honors, of note on a national level, he was invited to be present at the presidential signing of The America Invents Act, in September 2011.
Bertha Parker Pallan Cody, Archaeologist, Seneca (1907-1978)
Bertha Cody is considered the first woman Native American archaeologist and ethnologist in the United States. Since many of her family including her mother worked in the film industry in Los Angeles, Bertha tried to work in this field. Later, she went to work as a secretary and cook for her uncle Mark Raymond Harrington, an archaeologist. On digs, she gradually began to learn the science on the job and though not formally trained, she became an extraordinary archaeologist, who impressed the formally trained archaeologists with whom she worked. She was involved in some significant discoveries; of note, she discovered a number of important Pueblo sites including the Scorpion Hill site, which she excavated completely alone, and the Corn Creek Campsite. In 1930, she discovered the skull of an ancient ground sloth next to ancient manmade tools in the famous Gypsum Cave in Nevada. This small find proved to be one of great consequence. At this point in time, the question of human migration across the Bering Strait into North America was a highly contested issue. Her discovery at Gypsum Cave challenged the prevailing scientific opinions with hard evidence that substantiated that humans were actually on the continent even earlier than the majority of scientists believed, nearly 10,000 years earlier. From the 1930’s to the 1960’s, Bertha published several archaeological and ethnological papers in the Southwest Museum’s journal, MasterKey. To honor the legacy of this gifted archaeologist, the Society for American Archaeology (in November 2020) established the Bertha Parker Cody Award for Native American Women. This award is open to all Native American, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian women who are undergraduate and graduate students in the fields of archaeology or museum studies and will fund their professional training, internships, and research institutions.
Warrior of the People: How Susan LaFlesche overcame racial and gender inequality to become America’s first Indian Doctor, by Joe Starita.
Native American Scientists: Includes Fred Begay, Wilfred F. Denetclaw, Jr., Frank C. Dukepoo, Clifton Poodry, Jerrel Yakel
The Scalpel and the Silver Bear: by Lori Arviso Alvord, MD co-written with journalist Elizabeth Cohen Van Pelt