Native American techies balance tribal heritage with cutting-edge technology
“Step outside your comfort zone and practice your profession, but maintain connections to
your roots.” – Coharie/Lumbee Dr Jason Cummings of IBM
“My tribal background has given me a perspective to put systems in place that help solve problems.” – Eastern Cherokee Tracy Monteith, Microsoft
By Dan Margherita
The need for engineering and other technical talent is being felt, not only in the corporate sector but also in tribal communities, says Pamala Silas, CEO of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES, www.aises.org). Silas, who is an enrolled member of the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin and a descendant of the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin, remembers that, at the 2007 economic summit sponsored by the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI, www.ncai.org), several tribal initiatives were identified.
“They included areas like water management, development of agricultural businesses and infrastructure projects. Sixty percent of these projects required expertise in science and engineering,” she notes.
Silas believes that it’s much too late to wait until kids are in middle and high school to cultivate their interest in computers and other technology. She proposes starting in grade school, and approaching computers not just in terms of how to use them, but also in terms of how they work. “We have to encourage curiosity at an early age,” she says.
The corporate sector agrees with Silas’ analysis. AISES receives support from high-tech firms including Google, IBM and Intel. And AISES techies are to be found working at these firms; in 2008, for example, AISES’ Professional of the Year was Dr Jason Cummings of IBM.
IBM’s Coharie/Lumbee Dr Jason Cummings:
AISES Professional of 2008
Jason Cummings left his home in Pembroke, NC when he was sixteen years old to pursue the education he felt was essential to his success. Today he’s a PhD and a semiconductor development engineer working for IBM (Armonk, NY) in the systems and technology group at Albany Nanotech (Albany, NY). Albany Nanotech is where the multinational computer and IT consulting company partners with the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering of the State University of New York at Albany.
“We’re developing microchips that are used in applications from military equipment to cell phones and video games,” Cummings explains. Cummings develops plans for new or enhanced products, technologies and processes. He gives technical guidance to other professionals and sometimes acts as team leader on special projects. He also keeps abreast of the marketplace, key competitors and the business/technological environment.
IBM is a great place to work, he says. “The company has a very strong community of Native Americans. The person who first interviewed me was Native American and he made me feel very comfortable. I felt that I could fit in at IBM.”
Cummings completed high school at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM). His 2000 BS from North Carolina State University is in ChE with a concentration in polymer science, and he holds a 2002 MA and a 2007 PhD in ChE from Princeton University (Princeton, NJ). As a grad student Cummings was a National Science Foundation Fellow and a Fellow of the National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Science, Inc (GEM).
Not many Native Americans have PhDs in engineering, especially from Ivy League schools. Cummings’ attainment has made him something of a role model in influencing other Natives to pursue technical careers.
Cummings didn’t like leaving his North Carolina birthplace, but he felt it was a necessary sacrifice. His mother is from the Coharie tribe and his father, a Southern Baptist minister, is a Lumbee. Growing up, Cummings was part of the North Carolina Lumbee community, attending predominantly Indian schools, churches and social events. “My connection and contribution to the Native community was a daily occurrence,” he remembers.
When he left home he became part of a wider culture. But he maintained a connection with his Native roots through participation in Akwe:kon (“All of Us”), his high school’s Native student organization, and by joining Southern Sun, a southern-style powwow drum group, as a singer. He still sings with them today.
At Princeton, Cummings revived the Native Americans at Princeton student group almost single-handedly. He had to do it single-handedly because, for several years, he was its only active member. All the same he managed to organize events to increase the awareness of Natives on campus.
Cummings’ deep involvement with AISES goes all the way back to seventh grade when he entered a five-year pre-college summer program sponsored by the society. It meant he could spend part of his summers at a number of university campuses countrywide; each year he learned about different disciplines of science and engineering.
In college he gave back as a counselor for the AISES summer program series. He was also involved with AISES through the National American Indian Science & Engineering Fair (NAISEF), where he placed second in the science fair and first in the math competition in 1994.
Years later, as a grad student, Cummings worked to recruit minority students for Princeton’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. He exhibited twice at the university and career fair at the AISES national conference.
Attending last fall’s conference, Cummings secretly hoped he might receive AISES’ “most promising engineer” award. Instead, to his surprise and delight, he was given AISES’ highest honor of all: 2008 Professional of the Year. AISES’ Pamala Silas calls Cummings “the perfect example of the kind of role model AISES looks for, working in cutting-edge technology but also maintaining a strong connection to the Native community.”
Cummings’ work within the Native community extends beyond the academic environment. He’s a singer with the Ho-Chunk style drum group SilverCloud. He also volunteers with the American Indian Community House (AICH) and the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers, both in New York, NY, for powwows, special programs and other events.
When he gets the chance to return to North Carolina, Cummings often serves as a volunteer for Culture Class, a group that teaches Indian children about Lumbee and other traditional Native cultures. Most recently he’s become a member of the IBM Native Diversity Network (INDN).
“Step outside your comfort zone and practice your profession,” is the advice Cummings offers Natives considering a career in the technical workforce. “But don’t give up your heritage to do it. Reach out and network with Indians in the workplace and the community. Maintain connections to your roots.”
Microsoft’s Eastern Cherokee Tracy Monteith: community power
“My tribal background has given me a perspective to put systems in place that help solve problems,” says Tracy Monteith, senior software engineer at Microsoft Corp (Redmond, WA). “You can’t ignore the social aspects of software development.”
Monteith joined Microsoft ten years ago, after several years as a consultant to the company. He is part of the Microsoft engineering excellence team, traveling the globe to work with thousands of employees.
“My job is the dissemination of best-practices information to our engineers,” he explains. Clearly, improved engineering capability within the company delivers better products to customers.
Monteith does not have a college degree. It was his passion for computers that put him where he is today. “I’ve had an affinity for PCs since they were born,” he says with a smile. “Of course I chose to focus there.”
Essentially self-taught, he spent ten years at a variety of jobs, including construction, while working with computers at night.
A member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, Monteith was raised “on and off” the reservation: school months in Atlanta, GA, with some summers and weekends on the reservation in western North Carolina. “Today, my brother and I are some of the few members of our family not living on the reservation,” he says.
He believes his bicultural experiences prepared him for corporate responsibilities. “I have lived in two worlds, and learned that neither one offers absolute truth. Both worlds have strengths and weaknesses; the combination gives a diverse portfolio of problem/solution choices.
“My tribal life showed me how systems really work,” Monteith continues. “I just got back from a business trip to India where they live a tribal lifestyle and I’ve found similar traits in China. I feel I am able to communicate on that level.”
The tools Microsoft produces let Monteith stay connected to Indian country on many levels, he reflects. “Our tribal language is supported through Unicode, letting us use the Cherokee language at any time. The distances that divide us are reduced and many new opportunities are enabled through the merging of tribal perspectives and technologies.”
At work, Monteith leads Native Americans at Microsoft, one of the company’s forty-plus diversity advisory councils. Its goal is to increase the number of Native Americans within Microsoft, and increase the awareness and value of products used in tribal systems.
At Microsoft, Monteith explains, “Keeping in touch with my tribal roots is encouraged and facilitated. Every quarter we sponsor local tribal visits to our corporate campus and we support national Indian organizations like AISES, the American Indian Business Leaders organization, and the North American Indian Women’s Association.” Monteith is also chair of the Seattle Area Software Quality Assurance Group which promotes professional software quality practices.
At home, Monteith’s lifestyle is very different from his high-tech job. “I leave work at work,” he says.
He lives on a farm, grows his own food, raises honeybees and doesn’t have a TV in the house. “The farm teaches us to listen to all voices and consider the totality of the system as well as the individual. This is a tribal value that promotes goodness in corporate settings as well as on a farm,” he says.
“Your tribal background is an area of strength in all settings. It’s not at odds with corporate culture; you’ll usually find that corporate entities have tribal aspects.”
In fact, “Information technology enables storytelling on a global scale,” Monteith concludes. “It ties us to each other in a way that celebrates the power of community.”
ADOT’s Navajo David Burbank: “Make your people proud”
David Burbank, Jr is the Tucson regional materials engineer for the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT, Phoenix, AZ). “We do materials testing, and administer the independent assurance sampling and testing program and the correlation testing program. We prepare reports in accordance with the materials QA program,” he explains. “We also perform inspections and certifications of materials-related items.”
A 1992 University of Arizona CE grad, Burbank started at ADOT while he was in college. He was recruited into the department’s Engineer in Training program, and spent time in almost all of ADOT’s functional areas: design, transportation planning, surveying, construction and more.
Today his typical work day starts at 7 AM and ends about 5 PM. “I usually start with email, move to submittals for review and approval and read technical information. I visit construction projects that we support. Finally I update my daily diary, check on the staff and discuss the day’s test results with our lab supervisor. When construction projects are plentiful, I may spend a few hours in the office over the weekend to keep up.”
Burbank is a member of the Navajo Nation. He was born to the Bitter Water clan (his mother’s clan) and born for the Tangle People clan (his father’s clan.) His grandparents include the Towering House clan and the Black Streak Wood People clan. “Navajos are a matriarchal society,” he comments.
Growing up in Tucson, AZ he spent school breaks on the reservation, learning the language and traditional beliefs. He continues to observe his heritage by having Blessing Way prayers performed by medicine men to help him as he works and lives off the reservation. He carries a corn pollen pouch with him; the sacred pollen is used in many prayers and ceremonies. He also participates in some AISES events, but “not to the point of being a charter member.”
At ADOT Burbank goes to some networking lunches, golf outings and charity events, but his major interest is in committees and taskforces directly related to his work. Since he’s one of only four regional materials engineers in the state of Arizona, he’s kept very busy.
But he also spends quality time with his family. “My hobbies are my granddaughter, golfing when I have time, and cycling for exercise and pure enjoyment,” he says.
He’s also found time to formulate advice for other Native Americans considering careers in technology: “Go to school, study hard, make your people proud and humbly represent them in a positive sense.”
Ho-Chunk/Grand Ronde Jade Unger: BPA facilities engineer
“I tell Native Americans looking for careers as technical professionals to take advantage of all the community support that’s out there. Everyone wants you to do well,” says Jade Unger. Unger is an ME in facilities engineering at Bonneville Power Administration (BPA, Portland, OR).
BPA’s facilities engineering group focuses on transmission facilities in the Pacific Northwest service area of the huge utility. “Our job is to keep the backbone systems running and energy-efficient in the buildings, things like HVAC and water distribution that people tend to take for granted until there’s a problem,” he explains with a smile. “We do both new design and retrofitting.”
A point of interest, he notes, is that his group includes architects. “With help from the electrical and structural groups, we have the capacity to design buildings from conception to commissioning.”
Unger started with BPA in 2006 while he was in grad school at Portland State University (PSU, Portland, OR). He was in BPA’s student career experience program, and moved directly into his current job when he completed his MSME.
This successful young engineer almost didn’t become an engineer at all. “My high school didn’t prepare me well for college,” he says. “I was interested in the technical side of architecture and thought I wanted to be an architect. There was no one who told me what engineers did; I thought they drove the train.”
Fortunately, he found plenty of support at PSU. “I got involved with student outreach groups, especially the United Indian Students in Higher Education (uishe.groups.pdx.edu) and AISES.”
He’s still critical of secondary education that makes no serious effort to let students know about meaningful careers in science and technology. He makes it a point to reach out to young people. “I tell them every engineer doesn’t drive a train,” he says with a smile.
Unger’s personal connection with the native community developed when he was a teenager. “Some of my ancestors were pioneers who came out on a wagon train and settled in as farmers,” he explains.
Both his parents have Native American heritage. Unger’s father is part of the Ho-Chunk nation and his mother is from the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. While Unger was growing up, “Our background wasn’t denied, but it wasn’t talked about very much. My mom got me involved when I was about thirteen years old, and a lot of things made better sense.”
Since then Unger has found out a lot about his Native roots. He’s learning the songs and dances and attends cultural events and powwows. He’s excited about an upcoming canoe journey, an annual event that connects participants with Native culture, stressing discipline, sobriety, strength and teamwork.
“I’ve had good experience and training,” Unger concludes. “I have an aptitude for getting along with people, and our cultural heritage emphasizes inclusiveness.
“My heritage is a huge part of why I am the way I am. I wouldn’t be where I am today without that.”
Citizen Potawatomi Michele Munoz and the BNSF Council
Michele Munoz has been with BNSF Railway (Ft Worth, TX) for twenty-eight years. Starting as a clerk in Topeka, KS, she’s moved up to senior technical analyst II.
Her current responsibilities include situation management. “We handle critical IT problems that impact the railroad,” she explains. “That includes IT application issues that could impact BNSF revenue, train operations or safety.
“We are liaisons to upper management, support teams and our customers. My role means managing and leading critical IT issues and getting the right support people involved to resolve the issues in a timely manner.”
Munoz’ major at Washburn University (Topeka, KS) was communications, with a CS minor. She believes this background prepared her well for dealing with all levels of corporate life. Her heritage as a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, which has communities around Shawnee, OK, has also helped her professional growth.
“When I was in junior high school I was afraid to speak in front of other students and I would stutter every other word,” she recalls. “Now, my work on the situation management team at BNSF has given me the strength to take on the task of leading the company’s Council of Native Americans (CNA) and making presentations on its behalf.”
In fact, Munoz herself started up the CNA at BNSF. “We started with twenty members. Today we’re up to 277 members!” Munoz chaired the group from 2003 to 2006 and is heading it up again this year.
CNA is one of five BNSF affinity groups, along with the African American Networking Group, the Asian American Network, the Women’s Network and the Hispanic Leadership Council. They all share goals of advancing the personal and professional development of their members, and they assist corporate diversity staff with initiatives like employee recruitment and retention.
CNA has worked to establish joint efforts of tribal leaders and railway officials on job opportunities at the railroad. It’s partnered with human resources for recruiting at Native American events: the Gathering of Nations in New Mexico, Red Earth in Oklahoma City and AISES conventions in Detroit, MI, Phoenix, AZ and Anaheim, CA. The council also works on BNSF’s Native American heritage day in November.
All this hard work has paid off. Last year BNSF Railway was named Corporation of the Year by two Native-serving groups: the Houston, TX Native American Chamber of Commerce and the American Indian Chamber of Commerce of Texas.
Creek and Shawnee Amanda Johnson: contractor for BNSF
“I never thought I’d work for a railroad, but here I am,” says Amanda Johnson. AS a BNSF contractor, she’s on her way to becoming a third-generation railroader, following in the footsteps of her father, a locomotive engineer, and her grandfather, a trainman.
Johnson is a data analyst in the condition-based maintenance (CBM) group at BNSF’s Fort Worth, TX headquarters. CBM is state-of-the-art technology, she explains, used to track performance and reliability of equipment components. Monitoring vital systems and components lets the team predict when equipment should be repaired or replaced.
Johnson is still in school. This December she expects to complete her BSMET at the University of North Texas. She’s attending school and working part-time as a contractor for BNSF.
Just about 20 percent of the students in her major are women, but the career path suits her. “From the time I was eight years old I knew what I wanted to do,” she says. “I was always asking why things were a certain way and how things were built, and I always liked Legos.”
After public school she went to a private Catholic high school where her curriculum was geared toward math and science. Now she’s hoping to eventually earn a PhD in engineering.
Johnson has learned to balance the modern world with her Native heritage. She was raised in Tulsa, OK. Her mother is full-blood Creek, Shawnee and Seminole and her father is full-blood Creek, Cherokee and Choctaw. “For simplicity I usually say I am Creek and Shawnee,” she explains.
“My mother was raised with traditional beliefs and my father with Christian Baptist beliefs.” Both her parents attended the Chilocco Indian Boarding School (Chilocco, OK).
“I love to learn, and I believe that pursuing goals is a good thing,” Johnson says. “My parents have always been there for me and continue to provide strong guidance and support for me today.”
When she’s in school, Johnson is an assistant to Jonathan Hook, director of North Texas U’s new office of international indigenous and American Indian initiatives. “We want to find ways to make the school more ‘Indian-friendly’ so we can recruit and retain more Native American students,” Johnson explains.
Sandia’s Cherokee/Irish/Chinese Ben Mar: inreach and outreach
“It’s really crazy right now; I’m working on four different projects,” says Ben Mar of Sandia National Laboratories (Albuquerque, NM). Sandia is a National Nuclear Security Administration lab operated by Lockheed Martin for the U.S. Department of Energy.
“I’m a designer of firmware and software for satellite applications,” Mar explains. “I design reconfigurable hardware architectures, test and run simulations of firmware designs, and write supporting software.”
Mar received his 2005 BS in EE and computer engineering with a minor in psychology from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (Worcester, MA). Born and raised in New Mexico, Mar found the Massachusetts weather “too cold,” so he went back to earn his 2007 MS in computer engineering, specializing in computer architecture, at the University of New Mexico.
He completed his MS through Sandia’s masters fellowship program. That, he explains, is “one of Sandia’s programs to recruit minority students. I found out about it when I was an intern at Sandia for the tribal energy program. My mentor asked if I would like to work at Sandia, and I thought that would be great.”
Mar’s mother is Cherokee and Irish; his father is Chinese. Mar was raised a Christian. “We always went to church on Sunday,” he recalls.
He had the strong support of his parents for his educational goals. “My father was a computer scientist and mathematician. My mom was a school teacher who taught a variety of subjects including keyboarding. They stressed the importance of education,” and, Mar adds, “I always wanted to learn.”
In addition to his firmware and software work, Mar is a key player in two high-profile Native-related programs at Sandia. He is inreach chair for the lab’s American Indian Outreach Committee (AIOC). Outreach, he explains, works to recruit and retain Native American employees; inreach helps the Native employees by providing opportunities to advance, and mentors Native students to help them reach rewarding careers at Sandia.
Mar is also one of three AIOC leaders chosen to continue planning and developing Sandia’s Dream-Catcher Science Program (DCSP). DCSP brings hands-on science and engineering to American Indian middle and high school students who are interested in the STEM disciplines.
When kids he’s mentoring ask him what they should be aiming for, Mar tells them, “Find something that makes you want to put in the extra effort and then go after it!”
Hard work and heritage
AISES encourages recruitment and retention of Native Americans in both corporate and government sectors of the workplace. The society’s 2009 conference will be held October 29 to 31 in Portland, OR; some 2,000 techies and students are expected to attend.
As always, the conference will showcase bright American Indian students and professionals in fields of science, engineering and technology. It will include panel discussions, workshops and a three-day career fair with more than 200 exhibitors.
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