Authors: Deborah Ellis
Western science is beginning to have an appreciation for Indigenous knowledge, and there is a blending of the two approaches. NASA, for instance, has been working with the American Indian Higher Education Consortium and other organizations. Indigenous knowledge is proving to be particularly valuable when looking at environmental problems and deciding how to correct the damage that has been done to this planet.
In 1889, Susan La Flesche graduated from the Women's Medical College in Pennsylvania with the top marks in her class and became the first female Native American physician, going on to build the first Native American hospital. Just like Susan, Nena is exploring the world through science. She is from the Seminole Nation and lives in Clewiston, Florida, near the Big Cypress Reservation.
Clewiston is a little town. We have stores like Walmart, convenience stores, usual things â a library, a place to get fried frogs legs. Clewiston's nickname is America's Sweetest Town because of the sugar refinery. Lots of times there is a sweet smell in the air, and there are sugar cane farms all around. When they burn the cane the air gets all smoky and it stinks. But it's generally a nice town. Some of the whites act like jerks, but I try to avoid them.
I go to a private school called Ahfachkee School. It's a Seminole-run school. I like it because it reflects who I am as a Seminole, my history and culture. And we can learn our language. We'll do things like talk about animals using our language, and the more we learn, the more we can use it. It takes time to learn it. It's not hard. Well, yeah, it is kind of hard.
Seminoles are one of those nations that got split up during the Indian removals. A lot of our people were forced to go to Oklahoma, and there is now a Seminole Nation of Oklahoma too. But many Seminoles hid in the Everglades when the US Army came to get them, so they ended up staying. Can you imagine? You have to be tough to live in a swamp. So most of us living here now are descendants of those people.
There's Black Seminoles too. Slaves would escape and come to us â my ancestors â and we'd hide them and they became part of us. And some of the people alive today are their great-great-great-great-grandchildren.
The teachers here at this school expect us to work hard and take our work seriously. They teach us how to study, and they mix cultural practices in with our lessons, like language, basket-weaving, carving, traditional cooking, and about traditional ceremonies like the Green Corn Dance. People can visit the reservation and see displays of things like alligator wrestling, which some Seminoles in history became good at as a way to make money. Whites would pay to watch them wrestle an alligator.
I was a winner of our local science fair, which meant I got to go with a few others from our school to the National Science Fair put on by the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. My project is on color fastness â how cloth holds color. I used blueberry juice as my base and tried water with salt and other substances to see what would hold the color best. Then I did several washes with each formula, charting out what was happening.
Traditional Seminole structures,
Okeechobee Seminole Reservation
I was really excited to go to the national competition because it was in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and I'd never been anywhere before! I'd never been on a plane. I don't mind saying that I was scared, and the security stuff at the airport was so serious that it made me even more scared! But I got over it.
I loved Albuquerque. It was great, really beautiful with the mountains all around and the way they changed color as the day changed. We spent most of the time at the competition, but we still had some time to look around. We went to the science museum, went shopping at the Old Town market, we took the tramway up the mountain to see the view. And we went to the Pueblo Cultural Center, which was terrific. We learned a lot about the Pueblo people.
Before the competition we were busy. We had to check on our tables, make sure we knew which space was assigned to us, set up our projects, fix anything that had been damaged during the trip, and have everything checked over to be sure it was safe to be judged and that all the rules had been met.
Another scary thing for me was when I had to explain my project to the judges. I get really nervous when I have to talk to people I don't know. I don't often have to do it because I live and go to school where everybody knows everybody. And here were important people standing right in front of me, people who knew a lot more than me about science.
But that's why I was there. I had to explain the research methods and the conclusions. Then I got asked a lot of questions. Some I knew the answers to, some were kind of tricky, but I got through it.
Afterwards I was over-excited! I didn't know how I did so I felt really nervous about what the result would be.
Then the awards got handed out. I got a first place for chemistry!
And then I won a special award from the American Chemical Society for excellence in a project featuring chemistry!
It felt so good. The
did a special article about us. It was really great.
But the best thing about the competition was being with so many other Native people from all over the country. All sorts of tribes â Blood, Ho-Chunk, Sauk and Fox, Kiowa, Hopi. All sorts.
Being with so many other Native kids â everywhere I looked, there were more Native kids! And we all had different backgrounds and stories, but we were all smart and into science and it was so cool.
There was an opening ceremony. People gave speeches about how proud they were of all of us, there was drumming, and one of the Native guys gave a welcoming speech in his own language, a language I hadn't heard before.
Before the national competition I was thinking about being a lawyer, but now I'm thinking I'll continue on in science. Lots of people at the science fair said I should. And there are so many areas of scientific study â botany, medicine, chemistry, lots of them.
So it was worth being nervous and scared and not giving in to it. I could have just said, No, I'm afraid to fly, I'll just stay home, and look at what I would have missed!
I'm sure there will be other things in my life that will make me afraid. But I won't let it get in the way.
The US government referred to the Choctaw Nation as one of the Five Civilized Tribes, along with the Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole. They were called civilized because many had begun to adopt European ways
living in log cabins, wearing European-style clothing and attending school. But in 1829, President Andrew Jackson decided that assimilation wasn't good enough. He launched a plan to remove all Native Americans from the US South to places west of the Mississippi River. The idea was to move 60,000 Native Americans who had been living in the Eastern Woodlands since time immemorial and put them in an area vastly unsuited to their traditional way of life. The bulk of the Five Tribes were rounded up at gunpoint and then forced to walk, leaving behind farms and homes. One out of four died along the way.
Some of the Choctaw resettled in Oklahoma. Those who managed to remain behind became the Choctaw Nation of Mississippi. JosÃ© is one of their descendants.
I was born in Dallas, Texas, but my parents thought it would be good for me to get away from the more negative influences of the city. So when I was twelve they sent me to the Choctaw reservation here in Mississippi to live with my grandparents. My grandparents have done so much to make me into who I am, and I'll always be grateful to my parents for sending me here.
The robot entry from JosÃ©'s school
My Dallas grandparents are retired. My grandfather made flags and my grandmother worked for the Bank of America. My mom works at Lowe's and my dad is a welder.
In Dallas, I struggled in school. I couldn't take the classes seriously. It all just seemed so unimportant. I was more interested in hanging out with friends, or with guys who weren't real friends â just other guys who liked to get into trouble. My school back in Texas had a few other Native kids, but not many. It had a mix of a lot of different kinds of kids. I knew some who were in gangs already, and others who were not yet in gangs but you could tell they were headed that way.
I didn't know about Choctaw anything really, when I came to Mississippi. Dallas is a huge city, busy, noisy. So different from here.
I've learned a lot about my heritage since coming here. It's like my eyes were closed before. I didn't really see myself or what I could be.
I go to the Choctaw Central High School. It's big on sports and on academics. I'm in track, cross country and I used to be the captain of the soccer team. I'm president of the Beta Club and a member of Future Business Leaders of America.
My school is big on science. Our solar car team won the national title in 2010. I got involved in the Robotics Club my sophomore year. A friend told me about it. It seemed like a great fit for me. Ever since I was little, I loved playing with Legos and figuring out how things go together.
A big part of what we do is, of course, building robots, but we also do things to encourage younger kids to get excited about science. You know it can seem very serious and involved and it is, but it can also be broken down into simple concepts that younger kids can get even if they don't have any knowledge of physics. So one of the things we do is to get younger kids to build bottle rockets. They make them out of plastic soda bottles or water bottles. You add paper wings, a cylinder at the bottom, some string, this and that, put water in, pump air in it, launch it and watch it fly.
We have National Kids' Day on the reservation. All the children from the Choctaw Nation are invited to come together in one place and hang out and enjoy themselves. We do the bottle rockets with them there. I love the look on their face when they realize they can do this.
It's not building rockets that's important. Not everyone is going to be interested in rockets or robots or engineering. What's important is developing the mind, taking the gifts we've been given and building the confidence to really use them.
In the club, I am the mechanical engineer and the software engineer and I drive the robot. I construct how it will look and program it to do what it's told to. You control it with two joysticks and a laptop.
We enter competitions, competing with other schools that have robotics clubs. In two weeks we go to Duluth, Georgia, for the Peachtree Regional. That competition is called a Rebound Rumble. We all had to construct a robot that could shoot basketballs.
We see all kinds of kids at these competitions, and it's great because although we're all competing and we all want to win, we've all got science in common. So we speak a common language.
I've never been given a hard time by any of them for being Choctaw or Native American. Really, it's all about the robots at these things. But who knows? There's probably at least one kid or one adult who has preconceived ideas of what Native Americans are or can do and when our team comes in, they have to rethink all their old ideas. So that's good.
Since coming here, I've learned to speak Choctaw as well as English and Spanish. Our leaders and teachers are very big on people knowing the language. Even our sports teams, when they compete in other communities, they speak to each other in Choctaw.
My life is on a different trajectory since coming to the reservation. In Dallas the public school had so much drama. So many kids pretending to be in gangs â or maybe they really were in them! So many kids thinking the only way to feel big was to hate on somebody else. Here I don't have to worry about hate. Our tribe acts as one.
We have powwows here, but I haven't had time to really take part in them. And we have traditional games. One is called rabbit-stick hunting. Families make the rabbit sticks out of wood and throw them.
Of course I'm going to college. It was imprinted into my brain even back in Dallas that I will be a college graduate. I've applied to several schools. I want to study mechanical engineering. I hope one day to work with NASA to explore other planets.
There is great honesty in doing our best. If you don't, then you're lying to yourself.