8 Native American Scientists You Should Know

Nicole Mann
Astronaut Nicole Mann sits inside a T-38 trainer jet at Ellington Field in Houston, Texas, Nov. 15, 2018. NASA

"Medicine, engineering, astronomy, and math are as Indigenous to the Americas as the Native Peoples who practice them," says the National Museum of the American Indian website.

Still, most Americans are probably not aware of Native contributions in these fields, nor with the scientists behind them. Today, Native Americans and Alaska Natives make up 0.1 percent of scientists in the U.S., although they represent 1.2 percent of the population. One study found that they were also underrepresented in science and engineering faculty.

Fortunately, several organizations, like the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (see the "Now That's Cool" section) are seeking to change that and increase representation.

In this article, we celebrate eight men and women whose contributions to science, engineering and math were inseparable from their proud identities as Indigenous Americans. They are listed in chronological order of their births.

Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte
Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte was the first American Indian woman in the U.S. to receive a medical degree. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

1. Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte (1865-1915)

As a young child living on the Omaha Nation Reservation in rural Nebraska, Susan La Flesche witnessed firsthand the painful racism of 19th-century America. She watched a sick Native American woman die after a local white doctor refused to treat her, and La Flesche decided then and there that she would become a physician.

When La Flesche left the reservation at 14 to study at a girls' school in New Jersey, there was not a single licensed Native American doctor. She attended Hampton Institute in Virginia (now Hampton University), one of the first colleges for non-white students, and enrolled at the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania with scholarships from the U.S. Office of Indian Affairs.

Not only did La Flesche graduate early, but she was No. 1 in her class.

After becoming the first female Native American physician in U.S. history, La Flesche moved back to Nebraska and set up a practice to serve both Omaha Nation and white patients, about 1,300 people in all. She married Henry Picotte in 1894, and in 1913, she opened the first private hospital on a Native American reservation.

2. Bertha Parker Pallan Cody (1907-1978)

Bertha "Birdie" Parker was born to be an archeologist — she was literally born in a tent on an archeological dig. But the self-taught scientist didn't always get the credit she deserved.

Parker's father was a folklorist, archaeologist and historian from the Seneca tribe, and her mother was a stunning actress from the Abenaki Nation who appeared in early films like D. W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation." Parker dabbled in acting and modeling after her parents divorced and she moved with her mother to Los Angeles, but she found her way back to her first love, archaeology.

Parker's uncle by marriage was Mark Raymond Harrington, director of the Southwest Museum in LA. He hired Parker as a secretary and cook for the museum's excavations of Pueblo Indian sites, but Parker wasn't satisfied with "women's work." She learned quickly on the job and was willing to go where other scientists feared.

In 1930, Parker made a groundbreaking discovery when she squeezed through a tight crevice at Gypsum Cave in Nevada. She found the skull of a giant sloth next to early human tools: proof that ancient Indigenous peoples had existed alongside the extinct animal.

Parker published several important papers, including ethnographic explorations of California tribes like the Maidu, Yurok, Pomo and Paiute, always careful to include the names of the Native men and women she interviewed, an unusual practice at the time. Sadly, Parker herself was often only credited as the daughter, niece or wife of her male archeologist relatives.

Later in life, Parker married "Iron Eyes Cody," the Italian American actor who made a career playing Native American roles. Cody is (in)famous for his appearance in the 1974 "Crying Indian" ad.

Portrait of Mary Golda Ross
“Ad Astra per Astra,” a portrait of Mary Golda Ross, by America Meredith, is from the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian/NASA

3. Mary Golda Ross (1908-2008)

Great-granddaughter of a legendary Cherokee chief, Mary Golda Ross became a legend in her own right as an engineer on cutting-edge projects.

Ross was the first woman and the first Native American engineer hired by Lockheed Martin. In the 1940s, Ross was one of two women on Lockheed Martin's storied Skunk Works team that designed next-generation fighter aircraft for World War II. She's credited as a lead developer of the twin-tailed P-38 Lightning, but much of her wartime work is classified.

NASA also considers Ross one of the "hidden figures" of the 1960s space race. As a mathematician and engineer, she was an essential part of the Apollo program and even authored a volume of NASA's Planetary Flight Handbook with trajectory calculations for flights to Mars and beyond.

4. Fred Begay (1932-2013)

Born on the Ute Mountain Indian Reservation in Colorado, Fred Begay (also known as Clever Fox) grew up learning traditional Navajo stories and ceremonies from his parents, both of whom were healers and spiritual leaders. Throughout his accomplished career as a physicist, Begay credited his upbringing with allowing him to think abstractly about the universe.

Begay hadn't even heard of physics before he returned from service in the Korean War. Then he started taking classes at the University of New Mexico during the day while finishing up his high school degree at night.

After earning his doctorate — becoming the first Native American to earn a Ph.D. in physics — Begay was hired by the Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1972. His primary research area was controlled thermonuclear fusion as a potential source of clean energy.

5. Jerry Chris Elliott (1943 - )

As a young boy in Oklahoma City, Jerry Chris Elliott had a spiritual "vision" that guided the rest of his life. He heard a voice from the sky saying that he would one day help land men on the moon. His parents, of Osage and Cherokee heritage, knew how sacred and special the vision was and told him to always hold it close.

In 1966, Elliott was a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma when he spotted a life-changing announcement on a bulletin board: "NASA Hiring Today." He became the first Native American to work for NASA, joining the Gemini program as a guidance engineer.

Elliott's childhood vision was fulfilled on June 20, 1969, when, as a member of the Mission Control team in Houston, he watched Neil Armstrong take mankind's first step on the moon.

Elliott played crucial roles in 11 different Apollo missions, including Apollo 13, when he was part of the team that helped guide the damaged craft safely back to Earth. In 1970, Elliott and the rest of the Apollo 13 Mission Control team were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In recognition of his work at NASA, the Cherokee Nation honored Elliott with the name High Eagle, a reference to the traditional saying, "The Eagle-that-flies-highest is closest to God."

John Herrington, Lucasti and Caibiya Tsabetsaye
Astronaut John Herrington (member of the Chickasaw Nation), is pictured here with Lucasti and Caibiya Tsabetsaye (young members of the Zuni Pueblo) in front of the NASA Artemis banner at the 2019 American Indian Science and Engineering Society’s national conference. NASA/Caroline Montgomery

6. John Herrington (1958 - )

A member of the Chickasaw Nation, John Herrington was selected by NASA in 1996 as the first Native American astronaut, and in 2002 he became the first Native American to conduct a spacewalk. To commemorate his historic foray outside of the International Space Station, Herrington carried six eagle feathers, a braid of sweet grass, two arrowheads and the flag of the Chickasaw Nation.

Like other NASA astronauts, Herrington's resume is a combination of brains and bravery. He earned a degree in applied mathematics before joining the Navy to become a pilot. He logged more than 3,000 hours in 30 different aircraft while earning a master's in aeronautical engineering.

After joining NASA in 1996, Herrington was chosen as a mission specialist for the 16th shuttle mission to the International Space Station in 2002, where he completed three space walks.

7. Dr. Lori Arviso Alvord (1958 - )

Lori Arviso Alvord is a Stanford-trained surgeon and the first Navajo woman to be board certified in surgery. But after she started working in hospitals in her native New Mexico, she recognized that her medical training wasn't enough to truly heal her Native American patients.

Alvord, who was raised on a Navajo reservation, turned to traditional healers and spiritual leaders to augment her modern surgical practice with Navajo wisdom. In her 1999 memoir, "The Scalpel and the Silver Bear," Alvord explained how she learned to help her patients find greater healing and strength with Navajo principles of a balanced and harmonious life through connections between humans, spirit and nature.

Today, Alvord practices at Astria Toppenish Hospital in Toppenish, Washington state, which houses a Native American Spiritual Center in addition to state-of-the-art medical facilities.

"Hospitals need to have places where you can see trees and grass and sky and sun ... animals nearby, and not just for children and the elderly. Beauty is so important — artwork on the walls, gardens, outdoor porches with a view. A hospital should also have the right smells, the right foods, the right sounds, the things in life that soothe us. We should also avoid the things that are wrong, that cause stress — no harsh sounds, no bright lights, no invasive overhead paging," she said.

8. Nicole Aunapu Mann (1977 - )

Nicole Aunapu Mann, a member of the Wailacki branch of California's Round Valley Indian Tribes, became the first Native American woman in space when she served as Mission Commander of a SpaceX flight to the International Space Station in 2022.

Mann holds a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the United States Naval Academy and a master's in the same subject from Stanford. She began her historic ascent to space as a Marine Corps fighter pilot who flew 47 combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan and was a test pilot for the F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet aircraft. She got the call to NASA in 2013.

Like astronaut John Herrington, Mann brought some personal reminders of her heritage to the International Space Station, including a dream catcher from her mother, as well as her wedding rings. Mann is also part of NASA's Artemis mission to return men and women to the moon. Something tells us her list of "firsts" isn't over.

Now That's Cool

In 1975, astronaut Jerry Elliott and engineer George Thomas, a Cherokee, cofounded the organization now known as the American Indian Science and Engineering Society to encourage Native American students in the fields of science, engineering, math and technology. The group currently has 5,900 members and has awarded $12 million in scholarships.

Original article: 8 Native American Scientists You Should Know

Copyright © 2023 HowStuffWorks, a division of InfoSpace Holdings, LLC, a System1 Company