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Cherokee rocket scientist leaves heavenly gift

BY Phoenix Archives
12/18/2008 07:22 AM

By Kara Briggs
NMAI Newservice

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.”


03/15/2017 12:45 PM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Discover your family history and Cherokee ancestry at the Cherokee Heritage Center’s 16th annual Cherokee Ancestry Conference June 9-10 at the Tribal Complex. The event provides participants with the tools to research their ancestry with Cherokee historical records and features a variety of discussion topics, including historical events before and after the removal, inter-tribal relationships and advancements in social media and its effect on genealogy research. Participants will also learn about various CN records available online as well as resources available in their local area for Cherokee ancestry research. A discount is given to those who register before June 3. Pre-registration is $60 for Cherokee National Historical Society members and $75 for nonmembers. The deadline is June 3. Registrations after June 3 are $70 for CNHS members and $85 for nonmembers. The Cherokee Ancestry Conference will be held in the Osiyo Room at the Tribal Complex. It is located at 17725 S. Muskogee Ave. in the same building as Restaurant of the Cherokees. For more information, including accommodations and registration, call 918-456-6007, ext. 6162, or email <a href="mailto:"></a>.
03/09/2017 12:15 PM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Visitors to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., have the opportunity to learn about the history and culture of the Cherokees from March 31 to April 2.   For the fourth consecutive year, the Cherokee Nation, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians are partnering to host Cherokee Days at the museum, which is free to attend. “We have established an excellent partnership with the National Museum of the American Indian that annually celebrates the shared history and heritage of the Cherokee people,” Principal Chief Bill John Baker said. “This event is a unique showcase and educational opportunity focused on our tribal lifeways. Our artisans, culture keepers and historians from the federally recognized governments of the Cherokee are able to come together as family and share our rich story that is so prominent in America’s history.”  Cherokee Days shares the history of the Cherokees through a timeline exhibit, live cultural art demonstrations and cultural performances. Among the art demonstrations are pottery making, basket weaving, carving and textiles. “You will learn the tribal stories of the Cherokee Nation, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee. Our history is interwoven in the stories of survival, enrichment and the golden years,” UKB Principal Chief Joe Bunch said. “Cherokee Days at the Smithsonian promises to be a highly informative and enlightening learning experience. We have a wonderful opportunity to share our unique story and our culture with thousands of visitors in Washington, D.C.” As part of the event, there will be a make-and-take experience that provides children an opportunity to create traditionally inspired Cherokee items. “Cherokee Days is a unique opportunity for visitors and guests to experience the rich culture and history of the Cherokee people," Eastern Band Principal Chief Patrick Lambert said “At a time where there is increasing demand to learn more about the First Americans, working together the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the Cherokee Nation and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee weave an incredible experience in the heart of the nation's capital. We look to not only showcase our historical Cherokee values, we want to show how we have evolved and retained our culture in a modern world.” The Cherokee Phoenix will also have a booth at the museum with subscription forms during the three-day event. Those unable to attend can watch by visiting <a href="" target="_blank"></a>.  The site provides a detailed agenda of daily activities and performances, access to information and photos from each tribe’s social media accounts and live streaming throughout the event.
Assistant Editor – @cp_wchavez
03/07/2017 09:15 AM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Cherokee National Treasure Vivian Cottrell has shared her knowledge of basket making at the Cherokee Arts Center for the past two months. Specifically, she taught “the old Cherokee traditional basket style of double weave” using river cane. “It’s our old traditional Cherokee style of weaving, and I am trying to teach it to others,” she said. “I’ve been weaving for approximately 45 years, since I was 13. My mother taught me, and she was also a (Cherokee) National Treasure. Her name was Betty Scraper Garner.” Cottrell, of Flint Ridge, said for the past four or five years she has been studying river cane – how to split it, peel it and dye it – as her Cherokee ancestors did in the old Cherokee Nation in eastern Tennessee, northern Georgia and western North Carolina. There the cane was abundant along the region’s many rivers. Her home is near the Illinois River, which allows her to walk to the river to gather cane and other basket-making materials. “And over that time I’ve also been weaving it, and once I felt comfortable...then I was able to pass that on. It was very important for pass that knowledge on to others,” she said. Cottrell said she learned from her mother the importance to pass on her knowledge, so she recently took advantage of a CN program that recruits Cherokee National Treasures to teach classes to share their artistic skills. Cottrell said Cherokee people used double-weave baskets for storing and carrying items and are known for creating double-weave or double-wall baskets. The double-weave style is “labor intensive,” she said. A double-weave basket is two baskets with one inside the other, woven together at the rim. The weaver begins at the base of the inside basket and works upward to the rim. At the rim, the cane is bent downward, and the outside is woven from the top to the base, which makes the basket sturdier. Candice Byrd said she had “foundational knowledge” on how to make a double-weave basket having studied with Cherokee National Treasures Bessie Russell and Shawna Morton Cain. Byrd said she makes round-reed baskets where buck brush, honeysuckle reed or commercial reed is used, however, she said she wanted to study under Cottrell because she admires her basket-making work. “I’ve seen it at art shows, I’ve seen it at Cherokee Art Market, and I wanted to learn from her how she did her technique on how to do the double woven because in involves a lot of counting and it’s very specific,” she said. “It’s very hard to do, and it’s not something we see as often in these parts, as often as we seen it with the Eastern Band of Cherokees. I think it’s important that we have basket weavers who know different types of techniques.” Cottrell said she did not expect her students to weave an entire basket in one day, but as they gained experience they began to weave faster. Some of her students made three or four baskets in two months. Sally Briggs said she was glad to be invited to learn with Cottrell. She also knew how to weave baskets using various types of reeds, but learning how to make a Cherokee double-weave basket was something she has wanted to learn for years, she said. “I’ve never accomplished this basket until now,” she said. “I think, the (Cherokee) National Treasures and the Cherokee Nation, it was something they wanted to do to encourage more people to learn this basket and to make it.” She said she once tried to learn how to make a river cane, double-weave basket by reading a book but wasn’t successful. “It took Vivian teaching it to me because there are several intricate points in it, and it is a more difficult basket than what I was used to doing. So, it has been a fabulous opportunity to learn something that is one the Cherokee’s oldest style of baskets,” Briggs said.
03/06/2017 04:00 PM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Northeastern State University Center for Tribal Studies has set the 45th annual Symposium on the American Indian for April 10-15 in the University Center at NSU’s Tahlequah campus. This years theme is “Indian Givers: Indigenous Inspirations,” and the event will include the return of the NSU Powwow. According to the symposium’s website, the symposium “will focus on the many ways in which American Indians have contributed to mainstream, western culture through art, literature, government and other areas of the humanities.” The symposium’s film series will kick off the week with two screenings. “Violet” will be shown at 6 p.m. on April 10 and “Medicine Woman” will be shown at 6 p.m. on April 11, both in the W. Roger Webb Educational Technology Center’s auditorium. The opening ceremony is set for 9:30 a.m. on April 12 where the Native American Student Association will welcome guests with comments from Center for Tribal Studies Director Sara Barnett and NASA President and Cherokee Nation citizen Jacob Chavez. The ceremony will also include a presentation of colors from the CN Color Guard, the Miss Native American NSU Crowning Ceremony and a special presentation from the Wewoka High School students and first year students of Maskoke Seminole Language class. Several keynote speakers will be at the symposium including CN citizen Dr. Jeff Corntassel, associate professor and graduate advisor in the School of Indigenous Governance at the University of Victoria; Jacklyn Roessel, Navajo, founder of Grown Up Navajo and former education and public programs director at the Heard Museum; and more. The symposium will end with the NSU Powwow on April 15. The day will begin at 2 p.m. with a Gourd Dance, dinner at 5 p.m. and the Grand Entry/Intertribal powwow from 7 p.m. to 12 a.m. For more information, visit <a href="" target="_blank"></a>.
03/06/2017 09:00 AM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – The Cherokee Speakers Bureau will be held Thursday March 9, 2017 from 12:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. We will meet in the Community Ballroom that is located behind the Restaurant of the Cherokee. All Cherokee speakers are invited to attend. If you want to bring a side dish or a dessert, feel free to bring it. Come speak Cherokee and enjoy food and fellowship. For further information about the event, please contact the Language Program at (918) 453-5151; John Ross at (918) 453-6170; or Roy Boney Jr. (918) 453-5487. Tsalagi aniwonisgi unadatlugv dodvnatlosi Nvgineiga Anvyi 9, 2017, ganvsulvi 12:30 p.m. adalenisgi 4 p.m. igohida. Na anitsalagi tsunalisdayetiyi tsigotlv unaditli wayvsdi onadilvyvi utani kanvsula dodvnatlosi. Nanivanitsalagi aniwonisgi otsitayohiha uniluhisdii. Alisdayvdi ayohisdi yodulia. Dodayotsadatlisani aledodayotsalisdayvna hilutsvi. Ugodesdi tsadulihesdi tsadelayohisdi hiina wigehiyadvdi: Tsalagi Gawonihisdi Unadotlvsv (918) 453-5151; John Ross (918) 453-6170; or Roy Boney Jr. (918) 453-5487.
02/27/2017 12:00 PM
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – The Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes Language Committee will be hosting a two-day Language Summit April 12-13 at Northeastern State University. The summit will run concurrently with NSU’s annual Symposium of the American Indian. The summit’s theme is “Breaking the Inhibitions” and topics will focus on overcoming inhibitions that stand in the way of successful language learning among tribal communities, challenges of creating adequate social spaces for language learners and dealing with generational trauma caused by government policies that suppressed Indigenous languages. The keynote speaker for the summit will be Dr. Colleen Fitzgerald, professor of linguistics at the University of Texas at Arlington and National Science Foundation Program Director for Documenting Endangered Languages. Entry to all summit sessions is free and open to the public. However, due to limited seating, attendance for the keynote luncheon will be capped at 70 attendees. Tickets are required for entry to the keynote. Tickets will be $20 each and include a BBQ buffet meal. Melanie Frye, Seminole Nation language education specialist and president of the Inter-Tribal Council Language Committee, said she encourages all who can to attend. “Our languages are the sacredness that holds our cultures together and helps the cultures and peoples flourish. Our languages allowed us to converse with one another, govern ourselves, perform our ceremonies and teach our youth. The peoples of each tribal nation are meant to be the caretakers of their language and culture. We all need to work as a collective in order to find ways to save our languages. We are coming together to share our ideas and to learn more ways to fight language loss amongst our respective nations. We would like for you all to join us at the 2017 Inter-Tribal Council Language Summit,” Frye said. For more information, email Teresa Workman, Chickasaw Nation language manager, at <a href="mailto:"></a> or Melanie Frye at <a href="mailto:"></a>. A flier and registration form for the summit may be downloaded at <a href="" target="_blank"></a>. Make checks payable to “ITC Language.” Bring the registration forms and checks to the first day of the summit. Receipts will be provided.