Cherokee rocket scientist leaves heavenly gift
By Kara Briggs
WASHINGTON – The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian recently received notice of a bequest from Cherokee citizen Mary Golda Ross, who died in 2008 three months shy of her 100th birthday.
Ross joined 25,000 Native people who help open the museum in 2004. Now her gift, invested in the museum’s endowment, will help perpetuate the NMAI’s cultural and educational mission for future generations.
“She was a mathematician, and she knew if you gave a large scholarship it would be gone in a year,” her niece Evelyn Ross McMillan said. “But if you gave to endowment the principal would continue to give.”
Though no dollar amount was given, NMAI officials called the gift “generous.”
“She was a strong-willed, independent woman who was ahead of her time,” said Norbert Hill, chairman of the NMAI’s board of trustees.
Ross, whose Cherokee lineage includes former Principal Chief John Ross, was a rocket scientist who spent her 99 years of life looking mostly into the future.
Born in 1908 in the foothills of the Ozarks, she was one year younger than the state of Oklahoma. A gifted child, she was sent to live with her grandparents in the Cherokee Nation capital of Tahlequah to attend school. At 16, she enrolled in Northeastern State Teachers College.
“When I went to the college to enroll, they asked me what I wanted for my major subject. I said, ‘What’s a major subject?’” she said later in life. “The person finally said, ‘What did you have the most fun with when you were in high school?’
She said she answered math, of course and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1928. She taught math and science for nine years in nearby high schools. But by 1937, Ross asked herself if she was going to go out and see the world or stay in Oklahoma.
She took a civil service exam and was hired as a statistical clerk at the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. There, a Cherokee woman from the Department of Education noticed her.
“We can’t waste you here,” the official said. “You’re an Indian with a degree and experience in teaching. We need you in the field.”
In 1937, she was sent to Santa Fe, N.M., to work as the girls’ advisor at a school for American Indian artists. The school later became the Institute of American Indian Art. In the summers Ross pursued a master’s degree in mathematics at the University of Northern Colorado.
While there, she took astronomy classes and read every book about the stars. But it was while visiting friends in California when she heard that the Lockheed Corp., short of skilled workers upon the outbreak of World War II, was looking for people with her technical background. She was hired as a mathematician in 1942.
She was assigned to work with the engineering staff on the effects of pressure on the P-38 Lightning fighter plane as it neared the sound barrier and improving the aero elasticity of that first plane so large it had to be treated as a flexible body.
After the war, Lockheed sent her to the University of California at Los Angeles to get a professional certification in engineering. She studied mathematics for modern engineering, aeronautics and missile and celestial mechanics. By 1948, she was on the ground floor of what would become the space race.
In 1952, Lockheed asked Ross to be one of 40 engineers known as the Lockheed Skunk Works, a secret think tank. It was the start of Lockheed Missiles and Space Co., a major consultant to NASA based in Sunnyvale, Calif. Ross was 45, the only woman and the only Native American.
“Often at night there were four of us working until 11 p.m.,” she recalled later. “I was the pencil pusher, doing a lot of research. My state of the art tools were a slide rule and a Frieden computer. We were taking the theoretical and making it real.”
Ross retired from Lockheed at age 65 in 1973, and turned her attention to the next generation of Native Americans and women in engineering. She recruited high school and college students to the field.
A member of the Society of Women Engineers since the 1950s, she also took an interest in American Indian groups such as the American Indian Science and Engineering Society and the Council of Energy Resource Tribes.
“To function efficiently, you need math,” she said later in life. “The world is so technical, if you plan to work in it, a math background will let you go farther and faster.”
One of the regrets Ross mentioned was that she had spent much of her life apart from Indian people. Part of Ross’ longevity, her niece said, stemmed from her belief in “keeping old friends and making new friends.”
Among her newer friends was Tribal Councilor Cara Cowan Watts, who is also an engineer: “Just think, a Cherokee woman from Park Hill (Okla.) helped put an American on the moon.”
CLAREMORE, Okla. – Robin Williams joined top comedy entertainers of the late 1980s to pay tribute to Will Rogers, filming the HBO Special “Look Back in Laughter” on location at the Will Rogers Park and Ranch in Santa Monica, Calif.
Acknowledging the recent death of Robin Williams and his contributions to comedy, the entire 55-minute program, which premiered in 1987 at Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore, will show at 3:30 p.m. daily in the museum theater through the end of September. A short clip will also be available on the museum website at willrogers.com.
Narrated by Harold Ramis, who also died this year, Williams’ rare presentation shows not only his many talents, but has a poignant ending with some of Will’s famous quotes.
“Words he wrote way back then … Well they could have been written this morning,” Williams said.
“What Will Rogers said and did has lived on,” he added, citing issues of race, war and farming.
His closing Will Rogers’ quote agreeably could have been written this morning.
“When big nations quit meddling, the world will have peace.”
Williams, cast as “Ranger Tad,” takes guests on a tour of the house and Will’s life as a roper, “biggest star in movies,” “highest paid” radio broadcaster, “whiz at public speaking” and great humanitarian.
The presentation includes clips from Will’s movies and family events.
Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase and the late Rodney Dangerfield also make appearances in the production. Ramis was in Claremore for the premiere.
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Sunday Plumb of Tahlequah was named Miss Cherokee 2014-15 at a leadership competition held Aug. 23 at the Cornerstone Fellowship Church.
Plumb, a University of Arkansas senior, receives a $3,000 scholarship, and for the next year will represent the Cherokee Nation as a goodwill ambassador to promote the government, history, language and culture of the Cherokee people.
The 21-year-old competed against four young women for the crown. During the Miss Cherokee Leadership Competition, contestants were judged on their use of the Cherokee language, cultural and platform presentations as well as impromptu interviews.
“It was such an honor to compete with all of these women. I truly believe every single one of them would be an awesome candidate, but I’m really excited I won,” Plumb said. “It’s such an awesome feeling to be able to represent the Cherokee Nation as Miss Cherokee.”
Plumb is the daughter of Loyal and Susan Plumb of Tahlequah. She is studying animal science at Arkansas. She is a member of the university’s Native American Student Association and volunteers for Girls Scouts of America. She enjoys gathering traditional foods, shooting blowguns, weaving baskets and making Cherokee tear dresses.
For her cultural presentation, Plumb explained the history and cultural significance of the tear dress using a dress she made.
“It took be approximately 41 hours to complete my tear dress,” she said.
For her platform, she wants to tackle the issue of low graduation and retention rates of Native Americans in college compared to other ethnicities. She said a program that brings together Cherokee college students with high school juniors and seniors to tell them what they can expect in a college environment, both socially and academically, would help retain Cherokee students and help them graduate.
“The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that for every 100 Native American or Alaska Native kindergarteners, only seven will earn a bachelor’s degree, opposed to 34 out of every 100 Caucasian kindergartners. Although academics are an issue, I don’t think it’s the main cause of the high Native American dropout rate,” Plumb said. “I believe Native Americans have a hard time staying in college for many reasons – not being prepared to maintain your own schedule, adjusting to much less family time, not knowing how to properly study in a college environment, having too much or too little social time and encountering negative attitudes towards Natives that you’re not used to dealing with.”
She said many Native American students she has spoken to experienced surprisingly negative attitudes about Native American cultures. Instead of getting frustrated, she said it’s up to Native students to help change those negative perceptions.
“If I had prepared for these interactions, I would have had a smoother start to my college career,” she said. “Because Cherokees are very familial, it’s a hard transition from being around your extended family constantly to being around people you don’t know.”
Miss Cherokee first runner-up was Ja-Li-Si Pittman, 20, of Tahlequah, who earned a $2,000 scholarship. Second runner-up was Nina Ashley Hopton, 22, of Salina, who earned a $1,000 scholarship. The other contestants were Elizabeth Burns, 18, of Claremore; and Ashley Miller, 21, of Stilwell.
Pittman is attending Northeastern State University in Tahlequah and majoring in cellular biology. Hopton attended Rogers State University in Claremore and graduated in May after studying general liberal arts, Native American studies and elementary education.
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – The Cherokee National Youth Choir will host a free concert at 2 p.m. on Aug. 30 at the Tahlequah Armory Municipal Center during the Cherokee National Holiday.
The choir performs traditional songs in the Cherokee language and was founded in 2000 as a way to keep Cherokee youth interested in and involved with language and culture.
Interest in the Cherokee language has been rekindled among young people largely through the success of the youth choir. Several area schools now use the choir’s CDs as a learning tool and other schools are interested in developing curriculum to teach Cherokee language and music.
The CNYC is made up of 40 Cherokee young people from northeastern Oklahoma communities. The choir members are middle and high school youth between grades 6 through 12. The students compete in rigorous auditions every year for a place in the choir. The choir is funded solely by the CN.
Choir members act as ambassadors, their voices uniting to show the strength of the CN and culture 175 years after a forced removal from the tribe’s eastern homelands.
Since its founding in 2000, the choir has performed throughout the country including the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., at Ground Zero of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack and during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
People may listen to samples and purchase CNYC music at iTunes by searching the music section with the phrase “Cherokee National Youth Choir.” The choir’s CDs are also available on amazon.com.
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Cherokee Nation citizen Jeffrey L. Watt is a multitalented artist who excels at different artistic crafts despite being deaf. His wife, Cheryl Watt, signed to Jeffrey during the Cherokee Phoenix’s interview, and in turn, relayed his answers.
Jeffrey took an interest to art when he was 7 years old. He said that’s when his teacher opened his mind about the art world and what it had to offer.
“I started doing my art and I grew up and I saw other people’s art and I really liked it. I just started learning it all,” he said. “The teacher taught me how and he showed me and he opened up my mind to make me understand. I know I’m really happy doing my art and it’s hard.”
It wasn’t until 2012 that Jeffrey learned to carve. That’s when Cherokee artist Levi Springwater gave Jeffrey a Dremel tool and showed him how to carve.
“It looked hard, but whenever I started doing it, it was easy and I’m really fast at it,” he said. “In my mind, I know things. I know how to make things. I use my imagination when I carve and it’s really cool.”
[BLOCKQUOTE] He said his first carved piece was a feather from abalone shell. From there, he said he carved animals, knife handles, necklaces and other items from deer or elk antlers.
“He’s perfect with eagles,” Cheryl said. “His clan is the Bird Clan. So I thought that was pretty cool that, that’s his favorite.”
Jeffrey said the carvings that receive the most attention are his rose necklaces carved from deer antlers.
Aside from his carvings, Jeffrey creates necklaces, wood burnings, paintings, gourd art, emu egg shell art, murals and even paintings on old windows that can be hung inside the house.
Cheryl said people appreciate Jeffrey’s art because many times it holds sentimental value for the buyer.
“Some people cherish it because when he does the wood burnt portraits, a lot of times their parents or their child has passed away and they want to remember that person,” she said.
Cheryl said Jeffrey is a visual artist – if he sees it he can replicate it. Jeffrey said he believes that he has a special talent and is thankful for it.
“When I was little growing up and doing my art and learning it, and in my mind, I knew that God wanted to give this gift to me to open up my mind and my heart to do all kinds of different artwork so that I can help other people and show other people and support other people and to teach people and to help kids,” he said.
As his fan base grows, he said he feels more humble by the people who take interest in his art.
“Thank you so much for supporting me,” he said. “I appreciate you so much and thank you so much for supporting me.”
Cheryl said she is proud of her husband and how he has progressed his life.
“When I first met him, he showed me his art, but nobody else had seen his art,” she said. “I want the world to see how amazing this man is with his art, and he’s so sweet and sincere. Not only has he grown as a person, but he’s grown as an artist. He’s just a better person.”
In the future, Jeffrey said he would like to produce kids books that teach how to create different types of art and illustrate an art book that would tell different Native American stories.
Jeffrey’s art can be found at the Cherokee Heritage Center in Park Hill and at the Cherokee Gift Shop, Light Eyes Beads and One Feather Books in Tahlequah. His art can also be found online at eBay and Pinterest by searching Jeffrey L. Watt.
For more information, visit his Facebook page <a href="http://www.facebook.com/jeffreylwatt" target="_blank">www.facebook.com/jeffreylwatt</a> or <a href="http://www.jeffreylwatt.com" target="_blank">www.jeffreylwatt.com</a>.
BY STAFF REPORTS
PARK HILL, Okla. – The Cherokee Heritage Center will offer free admission during Labor Day weekend, Aug. 30-31, as the center takes part in the annual Cherokee National Holiday.
During the weekend there will be more than 60 Native arts and crafts booths, fair-style vendors, Cherokee games and an opportunity to see the permanent Trail of Tears exhibit in the CHC’s museum.
Also, the annual Cherokee Homecoming Art Show will be on display in the museum. The show features authentic Cherokee art and is considered one of Oklahoma’s most prominent art shows. Cherokee artwork is judged in traditional and contemporary divisions. The traditional division is defined as arts originating before European contact and consists of four categories including basketry, jewelry and beading, pottery and traditional arts. The contemporary division is defined as arts arising among the Cherokee after European contact, and consists of five categories including paintings, sculpture, pottery, basketry and textiles.
Tours of Diligwa, a Cherokee village set in 1710, will be offered for $2 every half hour. Diligwa features 19 wattle and daub structures, 14 interpretive stations. Visitors can witness daily Cherokee life in 1710 as they are guided through the interpretive stations where crafts are demonstrated, stories are told and Cherokee life ways are explained.
Diligwa is a name derivative of Tellico, a village in the east that was once the principal Cherokee town and is now underwater. Tellico was the Cherokee Nation capital and center of commerce before the emergence of Echota in Monroe County, Tenn.
The CHC has been committed to telling the story of the Cherokee since 1967. The center was built on the original site of the Cherokee National Female Seminary, the first institution of higher learning for women west of the Mississippi River.
Offering exhibits, cultural workshops, living history and events throughout the year, the CHC also includes the Adams Corner Rural Village, Nofire Farms, Cherokee Family Research Center and the Cherokee National Archives.
The CHC is located at 21192 S. Keeler Dr. For information, call 1-888-999-6007, email <a href="mailto: email@example.com">firstname.lastname@example.org</a> or visit <a href=" http://www.CherokeeHeritage.org" target="_blank">CherokeeHeritage.org</a>.
BY STACIE GUTHRIE
TULSA, Okla. – The musical “Nanyehi – Beloved Woman of the Cherokee” makes its second stop in Oklahoma in late August. In 2013, the musical ran at Northeastern State University Center for the Preforming Arts in Tahlequah. On Aug. 21-23, it makes its 2014 debut at The Joint inside the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tulsa.
The two-act musical focuses on the life of Nanyehi, later known as Nancy Ward. She was born into the Wolf Clan in Echota, Cherokee Nation, which is in now present-day Georgia. She was later given the title of Beloved Woman of the Cherokee when she took her husband’s place on the battlefield after he was killed. She later married white trader Bryant Ward and was known as a peacemaker before dying circa 1822.
Becky Hobbs, a Bartlesville native and direct descendent of Ward, co-wrote the musical along with playwright Nick Sweet in 2008.
“I started playing the piano and writing songs when I was 9 years old in Bartlesville, Okla., and through the years I played music,” Hobbs said. “Back in the early (19)90s I was really compelled to write a tribute album to Nancy Ward and I wrote a handful of the songs.”
Hobbs is an award-winning songwriter and recording artist in Nashville. She has recorded seven studio albums and has had Loretta Lynn, George Jones, Conway Twitty and Alabama record her songs.
Hobbs said the musical first premiered in Hartwell, Ga., in 2012. Since then it has made it to Tahlequah in 2013 and now to Tulsa in 2014. Hobbs said it takes devotion to put on the musical.
“It takes people that have devoted many more years to musical theater than I have,” she said. “We’re going to have a cast of probably around 30 (people). It takes a lot of commitment, a lot of energy and sweat.”
Rehearsals for the musical started in Tulsa in mid-July and were expected to continue until before The Joint dates, said Hobbs.
She said she added a new song to the performance to be sung by Lawton native Rudy Ramos, who will be representing Cherokee leader Attakullakulla.
“Since we ran the musical last year in Tahlequah I’ve added a new song to the musical and it’s called “Love Doesn’t Come In Colors.” Attakullakulla sings it when Nanyehi falls in love with Bryant Ward,” she said. “It strengths Attakullakulla’s character and it gives him a little flair.”
Ramos has appeared in films such as “Beverly Hills Cop II,” “The Enforcer” and “The Driver” and television shows such as “JAG,” “NYPD Blue” and “Hawaii Five-O.”
Hobbs said the proceeds from the musical would go to the Cherokee Heritage Center in Park Hill.
“We’re just tickled to death and highly honored. Chief Bill John Baker has been so supportive of this musical,” she said.
Leading lady Michelle Honaker, a New York-based actress who plays Ward from ages 14 to 84, said this would be her third time depicting Ward.
“It’s been an experience to share this journey with the audience, also a challenge as well,” she said. “I think the biggest challenge is to depict it with honesty and to be true to the Native culture as well.”
Honaker said it is a challenge but an honor to portray Ward.
“It’s really a nice challenge to be able to try to imagine Nanyehi’s voice sing through me and let her sprit be played through my voice,” she said. “I really want her message to be heard, the message of hope and peace. I really want the audience to be able to go away wanting to make the world a better place.”
The musical offers aspects of the Cherokee culture still practiced today.
“We refer to basket weaving, and we also have a stickball game in the musical, which is really fun,” said Honaker.
The musical also has characters spanning from Native warriors to white settlers to the Nunnehi, who are known as immortal spirit people in Cherokee legend.
For this performance Donnie Tate, a fight choreographer from New York, has brought in a new viewpoint for the battle scenes, which take place throughout the musical.
“He has just brought such an epic dynamic to the battle scenes,” she said. “We’ve got platforms that people are getting thrown across and getting their heads bashed in, not for real.”
She said under Tate’s direction fight scenes have proved to be a challenge.
“Being able to use that with stage props and tomahawks, it’s just been a real challenge, a lot of physical activity, a lot of movement,” she said.
Honaker said she is excited to see how the audience reacts to the new battle scenes.
“I think this year is going to be a step up from all the prior battle scenes that we had before. I’m excited to hear what the audience thinks,” she said.
This year, aside from Honaker, Travis Fite returns as Dragging Canoe. Dragging Canoe was a Cherokee war chief and son of Attakullakulla.
Tickets are on sale for $15. CN citizens and children under 12 will receive a $5 discount. This is the first time The Joint has allowed people under 18 years old to enter the venue. Tickets can be purchased at 918-384-ROCK or online at <a href="http://www.nanyehi.com" target="_blank">www.nanyehi.com</a>.