Panelists for “Native American Women in STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) at a Society of American Indian Government Employees (SAIGE) conference held June 3-8 in Denver, Colorado. They are, from left, Lisa Lone Fight, Dr. Tolani Francisco and Robbie Hood.

Native Women Tackle Science and Win

Carol Berry
6/14/12

From earth to sky, there’s no frontier Native American women haven’t crossed, from mapping the earth to flying through hurricanes to mastering animal science and promoting indigenous knowledge.

Lisa Lone Fight, enrolled in the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara (Sahnish) Nation, is the great-granddaughter of Buffalo Bird Woman, an expert in Native agricultural science whose gardening techniques have been the topic of conversations about sustainability and of at least one book, Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden, originally published as Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians: An Indian Interpretation by Gilbert Livingstone Wilson (University of Minnesota, 1917).

Lone Fight believes she’s carrying on Buffalo Bird Woman’s traditional knowledge of the earth through research on mapping and the commonalities of traditional knowledge, geospatial science and land change over time.

Science is definitely in her background—her adult name is Takes Care of the Wind and the elders told her she was supposed to learn about it. It’s one of the many things she’s studied on her path to her current studies in remote sensing in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Science at Montana State University.

One of the topics of remote sensing, co-researched with elders, has been the change in soil quality since the Garrison Dam changed the lives of many people and it hasn’t been possible—at least yet—to be “restored to how we used to live,” as her father hoped.

The dam flooded more than 150,000 acres of fertile river bottomland—most of the land that had sustained tribal farming and ranching operations for generations. Families were relocated, and timber, wildlife habitat and mineral deposits were submerged, as were graves of family members.

Lone Fight’s father recalled that “As water was rising around us, we were still negotiating about whether we’d build the dam or not.” The elders came together and said, “Where should we build the dam?” Lone Fight said, adding that if the decision had been made in the traditional way, the tribal members would have been able to continue living there as before.

She wants to share with youth. At the Wind River Native Science Field Center on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, she would ask students what they thought a scientist looked like. Predictably, they described an Einstein-like man with disheveled white hair in a lab. However, when asked the same question at the end of the program, they responded, “me.”

It was a life-change she cherished of the kind Robbie Hood, Cherokee, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), was initially afraid could not apply to her. She is now the director of the NOAA Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program.

Hood said her mother was a Cherokee in the 1950s when it was “not cool,” and she had “a lack of confidence” because she was Indian. But her father, an aerospace engineer and farmer, told Hood, “You’re no better than anyone else, but you’re no worse than anyone else.”

With that gift of confidence, she flew through “five or six” hurricanes in aircraft that were testing earth science instruments, and later with NOAA also monitored changes in ice, tsunami effects, and marine debris.

Hood feels “people skills” were her strong suit—she knows she may be the one “who gets people to sit at the table and gets it off the ground.”

If Hood’s were people skills, Dr. Tolani Francisco, Pueblo of Laguna/Catawba Nation, excels at animal skills, all the way from traditional veterinary medicine in the U.S. to trying to develop a foot-and-mouth disease vaccine in nearly roadless areas of Bolivia.

Although only about five Native women are veterinarians, her family told her to go for it: “I want you not to stay at home and just have babies,” one member said.

She has worked at Yellowstone National Park on brucellosis among bison, on the foot-and-mouth outbreak in England and Scotland, and in other places and, after joining the Air Force following 9/11 was U.S. Air Force Public Health Officer. Hers has been a highly modern career that evolved from helping out on a traditional ranch in New Mexico.

Overall, there’s been continuity across generations.

When Lone Fight went to the Museum of the Rockies in Montana, museum staff opened a drawer and she exclaimed, “These are my grandmother’s tools!”

Among them was a buffalo-shoulder implement with which she dug the hard soil “and fed a nation,” Lone Fight said. “We have always been scientists.”

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