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.”
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – Cherokee Nation Cultural Tourism will offer a family-friendly storytelling event every Wednesday in June. The program will last one hour and be hosted at 10 a.m. at the gazebo located on the grounds of the Cherokee National Courthouse.
Before Sequoyah introduced his “talking leaves” writing system, generations of Cherokees passed down family heritage and culture through the art of storytelling. The general public is now getting a chance to hear these stories, a CN Communications release states.
The stories to be featured will be “Opossum’s Tail,” “First Man and First Woman,” “The Medicine Plant” and “How the Turtle Cracked His Shell.”
Attendees also receive free admission to the Cherokee National Supreme Court Museum and the Cherokee National Prison Museum, the release states.
The Cherokee National Courthouse is located at 129 S. Muskogee Ave.
For information on Cherokee Nation Cultural Tourism, including museum operations, call 1-877-779-6977 or visit <a href="http://www.VisitCherokeeNation.com" target="_blank">www.VisitCherokeeNation.com</a>.
TULSA, Okla. – What was the experience of Cherokee children following the removal of Cherokee people in 1838-39? Dr. Rose Stremlau, an associate professor of history, American Indian studies and gender studies at the University of North Carolina-Pembroke, focused on this topic in her April 23 presentation “The Last Generation and the First Generation: Cherokee Children in Post-Removal Indian Territory.”
She presented during the “From Removal to Rebirth: The Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory” symposium held at the Gilcrease Museum. She focused on children and emphasized stories of children who lived rather than focusing on the period’s high rates of child mortality. Stremlau wanted to know how the survivors lived.
“An individual’s account of a traumatic experience, the contextual details, those easily dismissed as inconsequential, is precisely the information that points to how survivors of trauma reconstruct their lives,” she said. “The little things are actually the big things.”
Stremlau used various sources to “understand the experiences of Cherokee children” during the removal era. She used their words as recorded in the Cherokee Phoenix and Cherokee Advocate, political correspondence and oral histories collected from the period. She also used records compiled by church missionaries “who worked closely with Cherokee children and families.”
She said to discuss how Cherokee children survived post-removal one must also look at how they were raised in the old CN before removal.
“Cherokees believed children to be precious, valuable and sentient beings from birth. In a Cherokee society children were full persons with rights and responsibilities as kin. Of course as a matrilineal people, children are particularly precious to their clan kin,” she said.
She said Cherokee parents strived to raise “powerful” children who could live in harmony with one another in a complicated, ever-evolving world around them.
“The Cherokee kinship system empowered women who prioritized the needs of children,” she said.
Following the removal there was a destabilization of households and disruption of familial relationships.
“Traditionally, Cherokee households would have been secure, safe places for children...young people’s needs were typically met without disruption,” she said.
So for children who showed up in Indian Territory without any maternal kin, “it was an unspeakable tragedy.” The removal’s scope was not comparable to the American Colonial period when outbreaks of disease or warfare usually occurred locally and regionally and other Cherokee towns could assist affected kin with food stores and taking in refugees.
“In contrast, removal affected Cherokees nationally,” she said. “The trail was especially hard on babies, children and the aged. The death of children is always tragic no matter what the context, but in Cherokee society the survival of children without their grandparents was also tragic.”
Children lost teachers. Elders were not there to show cultural knowledge, Stremlau said, or teach appropriate social boundaries, the teasing and joking, which was the primary way Cherokees corrected misbehaving children rather than using corporal punishment.
“For this reason Cherokee children would experience those tremendous losses and their consequences quite differently than adults,” she said.
Moravian Congregationalists and missionaries who documented the period after removal spoke about the need to care for orphaned children as a result of some families coming “so close to dying out” and in some instances only children were left.
“The prevalence of children without caregivers was a real problem and immediately addressed by the Cherokee government. The Cherokee government, even before resolving other deeply divisive issues resulting from the removal, began to provide for the care and education of orphan children beginning in December of 1841,” Stremlau said.
It also funded a foster care system that subsidized the care of orphans by “a good, steady family convenient to a school in their area.” She said Cherokees wished to maintain the integrity of post-removal communities by keeping children in them rather than entrusting their care and education with missionaries.
Stremlau said because of the confusion caused by the removal and families not knowing where their relatives resettled in Indian Territory, the restablization of households was a long process and continued through the mid-1840s.
“Sickness and death continued to undermine Cherokee recovery as children continued to die and experience the loss of loved ones at elevated rates in post-removal Indian Territory,” she said.
Many deaths were the result of sicknesses and a shortage of common medicines. The old and young died in the greatest numbers.
When re-establishing homes, some Cherokees settled far away from others and some chose to farm larger plots of land while others chose to settle in towns and farmed smaller plots. Stremlau said children living in the towns were able to “enjoy social relationships more consistent with original customs.”
Cherokee farmers were not familiar with the region’s weather patterns and suffered droughts, wildfires, flooding and predators attacking livestock in the early 1840s as they tried to re-establish farms, which in turn caused their children to suffer. Rebuilding homes while trying to plant crops without enough laborers due to sickness resulted in “outright poverty” for some Cherokee families.
“In short, children who survived removal were only beginning a period of seemingly biblical tribulations that slowed the restoration of the predicable and reliable subsistence cycle that had characterized the domestic economy in the old nation,” she said. “The harsh economic realities of post-removal Indian Territory cut childhood short.”
Children, especially boys, were needed to clear fields for corn or plant corn, so some did not attend school regularly. Also, because growing crops was an uncertain practice, Cherokees fell back to relying on nature to survive by hunting, gathering nuts and berries, found honey and tapped maple trees.
Children who experienced the devastation of removal and the rebuilding of homes, who had their families, even when things weren’t perfect, had a chance to become adults and live happy, productive, balanced lives in the ways Cherokee people defined that in the 1800s, Stremlau said.
“In 1840s Indian Territory, then, children witnessed the re-establishment of households all around them. What’s remarkable...is how hard Cherokee adults worked to return to a state of normalcy,” she said.
Scholars and historians frequently use one word to describe Cherokee survival and the restoration of their homes and government, Stremlau said. That word is resilience.
PARK HILL, Okla. – Seven Stilwell High School students displayed photos and narratives about their ideas on how to sustain Cherokee communities during an exhibition held May 10-13 at the Cherokee Heritage Center.
The public discussed the “Sustainable Communities: Through the Lens of Cherokee Youth” exhibit on May 13 at the CHC. Tiffanie Hardbarger Ord, an instructor of Cherokee and Indigenous Studies at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, facilitated the project.
“It is the culmination of a project that was done with Stilwell High School young people,” she said. “They used photography to answer research questions because this started as my dissertation project. I went to Stilwell, and they were very, very welcoming and supportive of the project.”
Initially, she had 18 students interested. However, seven students, ages 15 to 18, went through the process.
“The students who were interested and had the ability to participate went through group interviews, and I told them all about what the project was about and they thought it was interesting,” she said.
December Rider, of Stilwell, said it was important to participate because she believes Cherokee culture is “sort of dying” and she wanted to show that Cherokee people are “still here” and “still important.”
She said the photo that inspired her was the one she took of the three columns outside the CHC that are the only surviving pieces of the Cherokee Female Seminary that once stood.
“It’s inspirational because we had to fight for where are right now. We had to work so hard to get here, and the struggle that we went through and the education that these women had and what happened to this place is just tragic to me, and I felt like it’s very part of our culture,” she said.
Ord asked students to take photos of sustainable communities from the perspective of young Cherokee people. She also asked them to show the values, practices and relationships needed “to perpetuate to sustain our (Cherokee) lifeways for generations to come.”
Students took photos of their communities before turning them in to Ord, who is from Stilwell.
“We had one-on-one dialogue about the meanings of those photographs. So, I took the transcript of what they had told me the meanings behind the photos were and that’s the narratives that you see that are exhibited along with their photographs,” Ord said.
She said it’s hoped the students’ perspectives might start dialogue in their communities and with their elders that will carry on to their careers or inspire individual projects or projects with the Cherokee Nation.
“This is the beginning of the conversation. What these students say is not the only conversation, it’s just the very beginning of the conversation and a way to get it more public,” Ord said.
Kali Sawney, of Stilwell, said she was interested in the project from the beginning, and through it, learned more about Cherokee culture.
“I was really interested in getting in touch with it and learning more about it, and I thought this would help me,” she said.
Sawney’s photo of a family quilt hung during the exhibition. The photo shows her grandmother and mother holding a quilt that her great-grandmother started before dying. Her grandmother finished it.
“Quilts are a big part of the family. We keep them like art. We don’t really cover up with them. We keep them in a chest. They’re just kind of sacred, I guess,” Sawney said. “I just thought it was a good representation of a sustainable community, communication, and it really represented the Cherokee way of life.”
Ord initially tried to work with Sequoyah High School, but school officials informed her that students would likely not be able to fit the project into their busy schedules. So, in April, she turned to Stilwell High School. Ord said she was amazed at how quickly the seven students gathered their photographs and narratives. The students had about a week to take photographs and submit them.
“So, I’m very, very proud of the young people,” she said. “I am so blown away by their creativity and the depth of thought they put into not only their photographs but the meanings behind the photographs and how engaged they’ve been.”
Stilwell Principal Ramona Ketcher said when Ord explained the project to her she was “excited.”
“It was such a great idea and such a blessed opportunity for my kids,” she said. “They go home every day to their elders. They go home to a way of life, you know, they don’t even realize what a blessed opportunity it is for them. The most important thing that I was excited about for my kids in her project was opening up communication between them and their elders.”
The other participants in the project were Kelen Pritchett, Cody Chewey, Shania Brown, Justine Littlehead, and Shameka Cochran. The students’ chosen photos and narratives were published in a booklet that was handed out on May 13 at the CHC.
Ord thanked NSU, Stilwell High School, the CN and Arizona State University for assistance with the project. She said she would like to see the project continue at Stilwell and other area high schools.
PARK HILL, Okla. – The evolution of Cherokee clothing represents more than just a historical record of what was worn throughout time. It shares the story of identity, resiliency, adaptability, history and culture of the Cherokee people.
The “Threads of Time” exhibit runs May 21 through Aug. 20 and showcases Cherokee clothing from ancient history to modern day apparel.
“Cherokee clothing represents a beautiful balance as it embraces practical components of society at large, while maintaining cultural identity,” Dr. Candessa Tehee, CHC executive director, said. “Each piece communicates a different part of our history and culture while giving us a unique perspective at Cherokee lifestyles throughout the years. “
Today, Cherokee artisans carry on the tradition of creating Cherokee clothing, as their tribal identity continues to be an important part of life. Cherokee artists make traditional style clothing and create themes that maintain and promote identity.
“Cherokee clothing has long been both practical as well as beautiful,” Callie Chunestudy, CHC curator said. “Through this exhibit we are able to share the evolution of Cherokee textiles and provide valuable insight to how and why some of the progression took place.”
The CHC is located at 21192 S. Keeler Dr.
TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – The next meeting of the Tahlequah Writers group is 2 p.m. on May 21 at the Cherokee Arts Center at 212 S. Water St. behind the Spider Gallery.
The meeting is open to the public and provided by Tahlequah Writers.
Following announcements concerning local writing events and accomplishments in submissions by members, attendees are invited to participate in a workshop to critique written materials brought to the meeting. Submissions to the group’s upcoming anthology are also ideal for receiving workshop comments. Whoever is interested in participating should bring a copy to read.
Monthly meetings are casual and involve news of interest to writers and updates on what attendees are writing. Attendees include poets, fiction writers, historians, essayists, humorists, playwrights, scriptwriters, and more. Meetings discuss the art of writing as well as the business of publishing and promotion.
For more information about the Tahlequah Writers group call 918-207-0093. People can also visit Tahlequah Writers on Facebook.
TULSA, Okla. – Author and radio host Steve Inskeep recently provided insight about the actions Principal Chief John Ross took beginning in the late 1820s to retain what remained of Cherokee Nation lands in Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama.
The host of National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” and author of “Jacksonland” discussed the history of Ross and President Andrew Jackson, who led their respective nations when the CN was being harassed to give up its lands. Inskeep spoke at the “From Removal to Rebirth: The Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory” symposium held May 22-23 at the Gilcrease Museum.
“I see John Ross as part of the wider American democratic tradition,” Inskeep said.
He said the Cherokee fight against removal is “one strand” of the American democratic experience. “I, as an American, as a journalist, as a student of our democratic system, have learned a lot in the course of writing this book about what I see as the Cherokee contribution to our national democratic traditions.”
Ross’s goal, Inskeep said, was to maintain the CN’s sovereignty within the “umbrella of the wider United States.” As an example, he read a letter by Ross to the secretary of War, the department that oversaw Indian affairs, to protest the Cherokees’ harsh treatment by its white neighbors in Georgia. Ross declared the Cherokees considered themselves to be “part of the great family of the republic of the United States” and that they were “willing to sacrifice everything in the republic’s defense.”
“Other Native leaders wanted out of this new and spreading country. John Ross, as leader of the Cherokees, wanted in, and that to me makes him a vitally important figure because he was, in effect, a part of an original minority seeking to play on an equal footing with the white citizens who dominated the country,” Inskeep said.
Ross knew he would have to come up with a proposal to save Cherokee sovereignty and land and asked for suggestions from Cherokee leaders. Inskeep said Ross proposed the tribe enter into a treaty with the United States for admission as citizens as part of a territorial or state government within Georgia. In the late 1820s Ross was willing to “extinguish traditional culture for the sake of civilization and the preservation of existence,” Inskeep said, which he hoped would eliminate Georgians’ prejudice against Cherokees.
“In short, they (Cherokee) would change almost everything in order to preserve their rights to the land,” he said. “Clearly not everyone in the Cherokee Nation agreed with that vision as he expressed it, but he expressed the determination to be seen as an equal in white society and laid out the possibility by making the Cherokee Nation a separate territory or state.”
The Georgians were not interested, Inskeep said, but were interested in Cherokee real estate and how it could be utilized to grow crops such as cotton. The government wanted the CN and other tribes to move west of the Mississippi River “where they would not be corrupted by white society.”
“This is a very interesting argument. ‘I am ruining your life; you need to leave your home,’” he said.
To achieve his vision, Ross utilized “the tools of the emerging democratic system” by allying with U.S. political leaders and subscribing to newspapers. He corresponded with newspapers to inform people about Cherokee issues. The CN also founded the Cherokee Phoenix in 1825 and began printing its views in the newspaper in Cherokee and English in February 1828. Also, the Phoenix was partially distributed by exchange or traded for as many as 100 newspapers from throughout the U.S.
“Articles from the Cherokee Phoenix would be clipped and reprinted by other newspapers across the United States,” Inskeep said. “They would go viral in the 19th century sense.”
Ross and the Cherokees also fought for their lands in Congress and came close to winning in Congress by helping lobby against the 1830 Indian Removal Act, which narrowly passed, Inskeep said. After losing in Congress, the CN went to the Supreme Court. The tribe won its second case, Worcestor v. Georgia, in 1832 that held a Georgia criminal statute prohibiting non-Natives from being present on Native lands without a state license was unconstitutional. The case also laid out the relationship between tribes and the U.S. government and is considered the government’s foundation for the doctrine of tribal sovereignty.
Jackson ignored the ruling and efforts to remove the CN from Georgia by Jackson and the Georgians continued. By the spring of 1838, Inskeep said, Cherokee people began seeing soldiers preparing to escort them from their lands. The deadline to leave came on May 23, 1838, exactly two years after Jackson signed the Treaty of New Echota, which sold remaining Cherokee lands in the East. Congress had approved the treaty by one vote.
Inskeep said in April 1838 the Cherokee people defied the Indian Removal Act and the Treaty of New Echota by planting crops as if they expected to be there to harvest them. An Indian agent in the CN observed this, and Inskeep said the people’s actions might have persuaded federal officials to seriously negotiate with Ross, who was in Washington.
“In the spring of 1838 the farmers of the Cherokee Nation proved their ownership of the land one more time,” Inskeep said. “Removal was inevitable, but he (Ross) wanted to at least improve the terms. Faced with the realization that troops under his command were going to cause a humanitarian disaster, President Martin Van Buren finally negotiated with John Ross. It was too late to avoid removal, but Ross at that moment was able to improve the terms.”