Welcome to this week’s installment of Geek Girl Authority Indigenerd Wire, wherein we shine a spotlight on the indigenous people in pop culture. This bi-monthly column will feature the people, shows, movies, art and books that celebrate the progress of indigenous perspectives in mainstream pop culture and STEM.

If a little kid from rural Oklahoma can achieve his childhood dream of flying in space, these students should believe they are capable of achieving their dreams, whatever they may be. It certainly doesn’t come easy, but every positive step forward along their life’s journey will improve their chances for success. – John Herrington, Ada News

To Boldly Go Where No Native Has Gone Before

Six months ago, NASA launched the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport spacecraft, or InSight in a mission to retrieve samples from  the planet Mars.  The spacecraft finally landed on Mars this past week.  The landing was an exciting spectacle, with millions of people tuning in to a live stream to watch. A member of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory team is a Navajo engineer by the name of Aaron Yazzie.  

It is actually very rare to hear about a Native American working for NASA.  Native Americans are the most underrepresented in STEM fields.  In the 2012 study by the National Science Foundation, “American Indians and Alaska Natives received 1.3% of science and engineering associate’s degrees and less than 1% of science and engineering bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees.”  And take into account the field is highly competitive and not every engineer, mathematician, technologist, or scientist will get the opportunity to send a spacecraft to Mars.

Yazzie’s story has reached hundreds of Native youth through social media, making him a role model.  Not only because he is a successful engineer, but because he is a kid from the Rez. I wanted to know more about his story and found that he’s not the Native first engineer to make an impact in the Space program.

“Landing Successful!!! I have stuff on Mars!!!”
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Aaron Yazzie stands in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) in Anaheim, California. Submitted photo

Yazzie grew up in Holbrook, Arizona in a traditional Navajo home.  He attended Stanford where he graduated with a bachelor of science in Mechanical Engineering.  Yazzie immediately went to work for the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and after ten years, became a part of the most recent team to land a spacecraft on the Mars surface.   After the landing, Yazzie immediately texted his brother, stating “Landing successful!!! I have stuff on Mars!!!”  He also jokes how Mars looks like the Navajo reservation because they’re both red. 

So what did Yazzie actually do?  Yazzie created the pressure inlet on the auxiliary payload sensor subsystem. It’s an important part of the mission because the auxiliary system reads the temperature, pressure difference and wind speed on Mars.  It will also monitor the planet’s static atmospheric pressure and filter Mars wind as the spacecraft collects its data. So it’s kind of a big deal.  Yazzie is getting a lot of attention these days, but he’s not the first Native American to help send NASA to space.  The first was a Cherokee engineer in the 1940s. 

RELATED: Indigenerd Wire: Native Realities’ Lee Francis IV Talks Reclaiming Indigenous Narratives in Comic Books

Hidden Figure
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“Ad Astra per Astra” Portrait of Mary Golda Ross, by America Meredith, acrylic on canvas, 30″ x 40″, 2011, from the collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian

Mary Golda Ross, a member of the Cherokee Nation, was the first Native American female engineer and a mathematician from Oklahoma. Ross taught math in Oklahoma for almost a decade before pursuing a master’s degree in 1938.  She moved to California and began working for Lockheed Martin in 1941. Lockheed Martin works closely with NASA to research, design, develop and manufacture aerospace technology systems. After World War II, Lockheed sent Ross to UCLA to get a professional certification in Engineering.  

Ross worked on many projects for NASA, including the rendezvous and docking trials during the Gemini program of the 1960s. Gemini was the second human spaceflight program that had four objectives. Ross worked to help advance the Agena rocket upper stage. Basically, she helped to connect a spacecraft to a rocket already in orbit.  Ross’ work on the operational requirements for a spacecraft would help to develop the Apollo project. She also wrote NASA’s Planetary Flight Handbook, the agency’s comprehensive guide to space travel to Mars and Venus and so much more.

You can read more about Mary Golda Ross at the Smithsonian website.

Historic Save
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Jerry Elliott holds one of his logs from his days working at NASA Mission Control. Photo by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman

Jerry Elliott, Osage and Cherokee is a physicist from Oklahoma. He was one of the first Native Americans to receive a physics degree from the University of Oklahoma in 1966.  He was hired by NASA as a flight mission operations engineer and and worked his way into the mission control room.

Elliott is best known for his work on the Apollo flights, helping in the moon landing in 1969.  He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States for his role in the Apollo 13 mission. As seen in the movie Apollo 13, the mission was aborted due to system failure.  Elliott calculated the trajectory to get the crew home safely. “Apollo 13 was a test of real leadership and how we took a potential tragedy and turned it into a success.  All of us had a conviction to ride Apollo 13 to the end. We never thought we couldn’t do it.” Elliott told the Cherokee Phoenix in 2016.

Elliott co-founded the American Indian Science and Engineering Society in 1977. AISES is an organization that encourages Native American students, at all levels to pursue careers in science.  The organization has over 180 chapters in colleges and universities across and 158 affiliated school in the K-12 education system. The organization provides millions in scholarships to students in the STEM fields.

A New Frontier
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John B. Herrington (Photo: NASA)

John Herrington is a member of the Chickasaw Nation and the first Native American astronaut.  Herrington obtained a bachelor of science in applied mathematics and a master of science in aerospace engineering before entering the Navy.  He served three deployments in the Pacific before being chosen by NASA an astronaut candidate in 1996.  He has flown one space mission in 2002 aboard the STS-113 Endeavour.   Herrington flew 330 hours in space. He carried the Chickasaw tribal flag, an eagle feather and a flute on his trip, as seen in the feature photo above.

According to his NASA biography, the Endeavour mission was the 16th shuttle mission to visit the International space station.  Herrington’s mission was to deliver the Expedition-Six crew, delivery, installation and activation of the P1 Truss and cargo transfer.  The Endeavor also brought home the Expedition-Five crew after 6 months aboard the space station. Herrington retired from the Navy and NASA in 2005.  

Herrington earned his PhD in education in 2014 and currently works to improve the number of Native American in STEM.  He tours the country speaking to Native youth about opportunities in STEM. In October 2018, Herrington was among the inaugural class of the National Native American Hall of Fame in Phoenix, Arizona. 

Memorialized in Coin
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The 18 designs for the reverse, or tails side, of the U.S. Mint’s 2019 Native American $1 coin. (U.S. Mint)

In 2019, Mary Golda Ross, Jerry Elliott and John Herrington will be featured on the United States dollar coin.  The coins are a part of a series highlighting Native Americans in the space program.   “American Indians have been on the modern frontier of spaceflight since the beginning of NASA,” April Stafford, director of the Mint’s Office of Design Management, said at a Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee meeting.  There will be eighteen designs, depicting both images of space exploration and Native American symbols.  


Going from a small Native community to a large, predominantly white college or university can be quite a culture shock.  And then to go into an industry with little to no Indigenous representation is intimidating.  These four individuals not only conquered racial and gender biases, they also conquered their own fears.  That takes more courage than you think. 

I am in awe of these individuals, especially Ms. Ross.  If I had heard her story when I was younger, I might have chosen a different path in life.  I hope the native youth of today hear about these four individuals and know that these STEM opportunities are attainable.  And maybe one day, an indigenous person will walk on Mars.

Chokma’shki (thank you) to these great explorers for their inspiration and leading our people to a new world of discovery. 



Noetta Harjo
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