Courtesy SACNAS/Facebook
SACNAS President Antonia Franco with Jose Cabrera, Advisor for the SJCC SACNAS Chapter, with the chapter members after the lunch plenary STEM and media panel at the recent SACNAS conference in California.

After 44 Years, SACNAS Vital as Ever, Native Scientists Still Needed

Dina Gilio-Whitaker

Some 4,000 attendees recently gathered for the annual meeting of SACNAS, the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americas in Science. The organization’s 44th such event was held at the Long Beach Convention Center in Long Beach, California from October 13-15. The event began with a troupe of Aztec dancers giving the opening invocation in the form of dance, acknowledging the four directions and all the sacred elements of life.

According to the organization’s website, its mission is to support Chicano/Hispanic and Native American professionals and students to attain advanced degrees, careers, and positions of leadership in STEM. SACNAS was founded in 1973 in an elevator, at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). As the story goes, the elevator held a handful of Native American and Chicano scientists after a networking meeting, the only ones working in the sciences at the time. One joked that “if the elevator crashes, it will wipe out the entire population of Chicano and Native American scientists!”

Since those early days, SACNAS itself has become even more inclusive and ethnically diverse. By all outward appearances, the organization is enjoying success. But according to SACNAS Executive Director Antonia Franco, the STEM sciences have a long way to go in reflecting such diversity.

“While SACNAS is 44 years old, it is still very relevant, which shows that change is hard. The sciences are slow to welcome change, because it means the loss of power. It’s very similar to what we’re seeing in the current election,” she told ICTMN.

Franco believes that Native students gravitate toward science in order to have a positive impact on their communities, but that federal agencies have a way to go toward recognizing and supporting that. She also pointed out that there is no conflict between being Native and being a scientist.

“Native students blend science, culture, and community, demonstrating that you can [be a scientist] and still have your culture. You bring your whole self, and can feel a sense of renewal from that,” she said.

Gabe Montano, a biophysical chemist at Los Alamos National Laboratory and professor of chemical engineering at the University of New Mexico, and current SACNAS President, echoes Franco.

“The academy is [also] slow to move, and this is why SACNAS is so important. Embracing cultural significance is deemed to be a nuisance. Students are encouraged not to bring their whole selves, in effect compartmentalizing themselves. It may be unintentional, but that doesn’t excuse it,” he said.

Even more problematic in the hard sciences is the concept of multiculturalism, which has an assimilationist tendency. Montano explains that the concept of objectivity, which science values so deeply is in reality quite subjective, and there’s a lack of awareness that it’s even happening.

“Science is still dominated by white males. Color blindness is considered by them to be a good thing, but it really translates into assimilation. It results in a bias that is built into the system, especially when working with federal agencies. Assimilation is thought to be a process that dictates success. SACNAS tries to expose that as a myth,” Montano said.

He went on to point out the advantages diversity brings to science. “The fact is that diversity improves humanity by increasing the problem-solving capacity, because it brings different approaches. This is even known in the STEM community, but it’s not practiced. This is the conundrum. Dominant white culture doesn’t now how to break free from these patterns, because it’s gender and racially based,” he said.

SACNAS takes the form of a trade convention, occupying a central hall where representatives from universities and industry recruit students. Student poster sessions show off the most current work being done at all levels of higher STEM education. In side rooms, experts talk about professional development and leadership, and other scientific symposia are available.

Back in the dining hall, after the Aztec dancers conclude their performance, a keynote address was given by Gregory Cajete, chairman of Native American Studies at the University of New Mexico. Cajete is widely known in academia for his work in Native science, an approach that brings indigenous perspectives to the practices of science and education.

In his talk he traces his own journey as a biology undergrad from Santa Clara Pueblo, to where he is today as an internationally recognized and highly sought after speaker, and author of many books on the topic of indigenous knowledge. I am filled with pride because I am a former student of Dr. Cajete and recognize the great privilege I had to study with him. He tells this room of 4,000 of the best minds in the STEM world the same thing I heard in a class of 20: “It is only through looking at the mountain of our traditional knowledge and knowing where we’ve been, that we, and indeed all of humanity, can pave a path toward a good future.”

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