There are countless scientific breakthroughs and advancements over the years that have significantly shaped our world for the better. Many dedicated, brilliant, and diverse trailblazers have illuminated our path and brought their findings to the forefront of humanity.
Among these pioneers in science are many indigenous people whose remarkable achievements have not only expanded the frontiers of knowledge but have also instilled a profound sense of wonder and appreciation for the diversity of human ingenuity.
Let’s delve into the extraordinary accomplishments of four such Native American scientists, whose work has not only broken barriers but also built bridges between indigenous wisdom and the ever-evolving world of science.
Jerry Chris Elliott – Physicist
Jerry Chris Elliot is one of the first Native Americans to work for NASA. A member of the Osage-Cherokee tribe, Elliot was the first indigenous person to obtain a degree in physics from the University of Oklahoma. He began working for NASA 1966 immediately after graduation.
During the Apollo program he held several important management and leadership positions, including the lead Retrofire Officer on the Apollo 13 mission. He served on the mission control team during Apollo 11’s successful Moon landing, and played an instrumental role in computing the trajectory and successful recovery back to Earth during the events of Apollo 13. Elliot was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Richard Nixon for his role in saving the lives of the three endangered astronauts.
While at NASA, Elliott also pushed for furthering telecommunications infrastructure between reservations. He implemented the American Indian Telecommunications Satellite Demonstration Project, linking the All-Indian Pueblo Council and the Crow Indian Reservation with the federal government at Washington, D.C. His testimony before Congress culminated in the establishment of the First Americans Commission for Telecommunications.
At the age of 5, Elliot said he had a vision that he would one day help men land on the moon. He held onto that vision and credits all of his success in life to this spiritual guidance. Elliott worked at NASA for a total of four decades.
Dr. John Herrington – Astronaut
John Herrington is a retired United States Naval Aviator, engineer, and former NASA astronaut. He is a member of the Chickasaw Nation.
Herrington received his commission in the U.S. Navy from the Aviation Officer Candidate School in March 1984, and a Master of Science in aeronautical engineering in June 1995.
Herrington was selected by NASA in April 1996. He completed two years of training and evaluation, and qualified for flight assignment as a mission specialist. Herrington was assigned to the Flight Support Branch of the Astronaut Office where he served as a member of the Astronaut Support Personnel team responsible for shuttle launch preparations and post-landing operations.
In 2002, Herrington was selected as a mission specialist for STS-113, the 16th Space Shuttle mission to the International Space Station. He became the first enrolled member of a Native American tribe to fly in space. Herrington honored his heritage by carrying six eagle feathers, a braid of sweet grass, two arrowheads, and the Chickasaw Nation’s flag into space.
During the mission, Herrington performed three spacewalks, totaling 19 hours and 55 minutes. These spacewalks are commemorated on the reverse of the 2019 Sacagawea dollar coin. The total mission duration was 13 days, 18 hours and 47 minutes.
Herrington retired from the Navy and NASA in July 2005.
Bertha Parker Pallan – Archeologist
Bertha “Birdie” Parker was born in a tent on an archeological dig – some would say that she was born to be an archeologist. She is believed to be the first indigenous female archaeologist. She was of Abenaki and Seneca descent.
Parker’s uncle by marriage was Mark Raymond Harrington, director of the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles, California. He hired Parker as a secretary and cook for the museum’s excavations of Pueblo Indian sites. Parker wasn’t satisfied with what she considered “women’s work,” so Harrington taught her archaeological methods in the field.
Parker learned quickly on the job and was willing to go where other scientists feared. In 1929, during a solo excavation, she discovered the Pueblo site of Scorpion Hill.
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. Harrington noted that the find was the most important one of the expedition because it helped prove 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. Unfortunately, despite her work, Parker was often only credited as the daughter, niece, or wife of her male archeologist relatives.
Even without a formal education, Parker made some of the most important discoveries in archeology.
Dr. Lori Arviso Alvord – Surgeon
Lori Arviso Alvord was born and raised on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico. Alvord is the first Navajo woman to become a board-certified surgeon.
After studying medicine at Stanford University, Dr. Alvord returned to her Navajo reservation in New Mexico only to learn that, despite the importance of her technical proficiency in surgery, simply “fixing” the physical problem was not sufficient to fully cure a patient. Addressing the psychological and spiritual aspects of healing was important as well. This led to a more holistic approach to medicine that took into account the patient’s environment and relationships, and also incorporated artwork and nature into the hospital’s design.
As she explained, “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 wrote a book on her experiences, titled, The Scalpel and the Silver Bear which discusses this desire to combine Navajo healing philosophies with western medicine. In 2013, she was a nominee to become the U.S. Surgeon General.
These are just four of many Native American scientists who have demonstrated the remarkable impact of indigenous perspectives and wisdom on the scientific world. Their achievements are a testament to the rich knowledge and innovative thinking that tribal communities bring to various scientific fields, from environmental science to epidemiology, botany, and education.
As we celebrate their accomplishments, let us also recognize the ongoing need for diverse voices and perspectives in the scientific community to address global challenges and foster a deeper understanding of our world.
Ashley Marranzino, “Bertha Parker, the Trailblazing First Indigenous North American Archaeologist, Taught Herself How to Excavate a Site,” June 6, 2019 for massivescience.com.
“Changing the Face of Medicine: Celebrating America’s Women Physicians: Dr. Lori Arviso Alvord,” retrieved Nov. 7, 2023 from https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov.
Dave Roos, “8 Native American Scientists You Should Know,” Nov. 3, 2023 for science.howstuffworks.com
Jerry C. Elliott-High Eagle, Oral History, interviewed by David Zierler Oct. 2, 2020, for AIP.org.
John Bennet Herrington, “Notable Native Americans,” American Indian Education Fund, nativepartnership.org and aiefprogram.org.