Native Americans forge great careers
These very successful techies include Tlingit and Alutiiq Alaska Natives and two Chippewa, plus Lakota, Comanche, Cherokee, Washoe and Muscogee Creek Native Americans
"Individuals have more opportunities and career choices when they get higher degrees." – Judit Camacho, SACNAS
By Laurel A. McKee Ranger
Many Native Americans are doing valuable and interesting technical work today. Some are working within their own tribes or groups, some in the great world of corporate America, some combine both arenas. Here's what ten Native techies are doing.
Alaska Native Michael Paulsen: a flourishing career at Chenega Corp
Michael Paulsen is a desktop support technician 2 at Chenega Federal Systems, a subsidiary of Chenega Corp (Anchorage, AK), an Alaska Native corporation.
Chenega Federal provides professional services to the federal government.
"I've handled problems with email, .pdf files, viruses, worms, spyware, malware and just people having trouble viewing MS Word documents," Paulsen reports.
"I also make sure our network servers are up and running."
Paulsen is a descendant of an original Chenega shareholder and an active participant in the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program (ANSEP) of
the University of Alaska-Anchorage. He started with Chenega in the summer of 2007 after hearing about it
at the University of Alaska. "I was working full time for Smith Cable Systems and going to school full time. I didn't know Chenega Corp offered internships until I started school," he says.
Today he's in a computer systems and EE program at U Alaska, going to school fulltime and working twenty hours a week. He expects to graduate in 2011.
Paulsen is a member of the Alutiiq tribe. His father is Alutiiq and his mother is Irish and Blackfoot.
After finishing high school in 2001 Paulsen joined the Marine Corps and was stationed in Okinawa. He worked as a radio operator and began learning the basics of setting up and maintaining communications networks.
He was also stationed at an airbase in northern Iraq for a time. "We were in quite a few combat situations. I was a reconnaissance Marine," he explains.
In 2005 Paulsen returned to Anchorage and started working for Smith Cable Systems (Anchorage, AK) as a digital phone installer. "After the Marines I knew I had an interest in telecom," he says.
Paulsen says Native American culture plays a big part in his life. "Chenega Corp is helping me with school both academically and financially. Getting my degree will help me give back to the greater Chenega community.
"ANSEP at the University of Alaska is a very tight-knit group," he adds. "We know everybody and we have presentations about jobs and other topics of interest."
ANSEP hosts potlatches as well. "At one event they gave away seal-hunting goggles. They said we'd need them because every student's future is so bright," Paulsen says with a laugh.
Paulsen believes his Marine background has made him team-oriented, adaptable and probably an overachiever. "Holding back is the challenge for me. I have tons of ideas as far as engineering goes!"
He has also had an ANSEP award for high grades at college, and last year he received a Chenega Employee of the Year award. Brad York, program manager at Chenega Logistics, LLC, another Chenega Corp subsidiary, says, "Since Michael Paulsen began as an IT intern for Chenega Federal, he has excelled in projects related to network engineering, security and database development. Today he's a highly productive addition to our team, working alongside some of our most advanced IT engineers."
Chippewa Sherry Comes: Distinguished Engineer and CTO at IBM
Sherry Comes' grandmother was a Chippewa from the Canadian border. This, she says, "is how I relate to my identity. When I was asked to represent the Native community here at IBM I felt very honored."
Comes joined IBM (Armonk, NY) in 1999 and is now a Distinguished Engineer and chief technology officer (CTO) for complex system integration there. She has had a twenty-seven-year career as a professional IT consultant: "I began consulting even before I graduated from college," she says. "I've always had two or three jobs going on at the same time."
In her current post Comes travels all over the world to meet with clients. When she isn't traveling she works out of her home in Castle Rock, CO. "I initially came on board as an IT architect and I continued doing that through the mid 2000s," she explains.
During that time she got a patent and did a study on complex systems integration. About 2007 she was asked to become a chief technology officer, and last year she was asked to join the senior leadership team for the financial services sector. "Now I put together complex systems integration solutions for banks and large financial organizations. I call on IBM Fellows and research scientists from around the world to join the team," Comes says.
She began her career with the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR, Boulder, CO) in 1985 and got her BS in CS applications from the University of Colorado in 1987. She worked as a Unix systems and network administrator, managing NCAR's computing environment until 1992 when she moved to Tandem Computers (Austin, TX).
Her work at Tandem, a mix of Unix systems and network admin, led to a year at AMD (Austin, TX) as a senior systems engineer. In 1994 she returned to Colorado as an independent consultant, working as a senior Unix systems admin and tech team lead. Three years later she moved to lead Internet architect and tech manager at U.S. West Communications (Denver, CO), adding even more technical and managerial skills to her toolkit before joining IBM.
Today Comes works on as many as six projects at once. "Each one is like starting and running a new company. These are for some of the largest financial institutions around, sited around the globe," Comes says.
Besides her career, Comes has her family: adopted boys of six and ten years old. One of the children, of Mayan Indian heritage from Guatemala, has neurofibromatosis (NF), a progressive, debilitating disorder. Comes started an online gourmet food and gifts company, CoffeeCakes.com, in 1997, and dedicates some of the profits to help find a cure for NF. She also volunteers with NF, Inc, the national organization. "It's a lot to do, but I love the challenge," she says.
Affinity at IBM
Michele A. Morningstar is a member of the Oneida nation. Since 2001 she's been program manager for the North America IBM integrated services team, Native American/Canadian Aboriginal, and diversity network groups and diversity councils, as well as other IBM diversity groups and councils.
Morningstar keeps in touch with AISES and the American Indian College Fund, as well as with the IBM Native Diversity Network (INDN). "INDN supports outreach to Native communities and provides peer to peer mentoring, cultural activities and skills development and also brings in speakers," she explains. "We also have a program to mentor and develop young Native people.
"There's so much going on both internally and externally!" says Morningstar. "I can honestly say that I love my job!"
Lakota Donna M. Holsworth is a senior system developer at BNSF
Donna M. Holsworth is a senior system developer and QA test lead at BNSF Railway (Fort Worth, TX). She's part of the "movement planner" team, a rail-industry-first system that can proactively determine "best" train movements across the railroad based on network velocity, train priority and performance against active train schedules. It essentially provides a mathematical solution for planning the movement of trains across the network.
"We are currently in pilot with the movement planner across 800 miles of track in our Montana division," Holsworth notes.
Holsworth graduated from Western Dakota Technical Institute and Black Hills State College in the Black Hills of South Dakota. A Lakota, Holsworth was born on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Shannon County, number eight in a family of twelve children. "Even today Shannon County is the poorest county in the country," she says. "I admire the perseverance of my parents and older siblings to get us all educated!"
Her family can trace its lineage back to the chiefs of the Brule and Oglala bands. "The Lakota were the last tribe put on a reservation, and so history is really alive there," she says. "My children know who they are and my grandchildren do as well!"
Holsworth's love of computers was sparked when she took a job as a keypunch operator for a circuit-board company right out of high school. "I had to feed cards into a huge computer. It turned the cards I punched into orders and inventory reports, and that captured my interest."
After she got married and had a family she worked fulltime as customer service manager for a trucking company and started going to evening classes. "I knew that education was my steppingstone into IT."
In 1984 Holsworth and her husband both moved to jobs in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Holsworth was in American Airlines' IT department and was sent for classes and training.
In 1999 she was recruited by Sabre Holdings (Southlake, TX), a company that provides flight-scheduling technology to airlines. "After 9/11 that business came to a grinding halt and I was laid off, but that downturn made me extend myself," she says. She was hired by Accenture in 2002, and in 2004 BNSF recruited her.
"This is a company that people never want to leave," she says. "BNSF values its employees."
As a member of the Council of Native Americans executive board at BNSF, Holsworth has become involved with AISES and is mentoring young Native Americans. "Some of the best and brightest future engineers, scientists and IT pros can be found right in the center of the AISES activities," she says.
Holsworth has been on the council for six years now, and "I definitely feel I've come home," she says. "At Fort Worth headquarters the hallways are alive with Native American artwork that was originally painted for rail passenger terminals in the early 1900s!"
Comanche Robert Lamb: at AT&T, helping customers solve business needs
Robert Lamb is director of contact center consulting services for AT&T (Dallas, TX), the telecom, consulting, wireless and broadband company. "We develop holistic strategies that help our customers solve business needs. I also work with our consultant teams to help them deliver services," Lamb says.
Lamb has a 1987 BA in business management from Purdue University (Hammond, IN) and a 1993 BA in telecom from the University of Wisconsin. While getting his Purdue degree he worked fulltime for Guarantee Reserve Life Insurance (Hammond, IN) as a supervisor in the mail and call center department. Armed with that first BA he became a telecom manager with Turtle Wax (Chicago, IL), and in 1997 he moved to GE Capital (Danbury, CT) as a telecom manager and call center specialist. In 2000 he took a contact center sales support job with SBC (San Antonio, TX). SBC was acquired by AT&T in 2005. "By 2002 I was promoted into systems integration and then in 2006 I was promoted to my current position," he says.
Lamb never knew about his Native American roots until he was doing genealogical research for his parents' fiftieth wedding anniversary. "I found that a significant part of my father's family was Comanche. He grew up in north Texas in Comanche territory. It turns out I'm a quarter Comanche," Lamb says. In recent years he's worked to learn more and more about the Comanche. "I want to know what my ancestors dealt with," he says.
Lamb always enjoyed math and computers, and actually started in programming at Purdue, but, "I'm a people person so I switched into business management," he says. "But I always wanted to go back into technology. Contact center management gave me the opportunity to work with both technical and people relationships."
Lamb is the author of Impacting Your Bottom Line Through the Contact Center, a book on cutting expenses via good customer management. He's a member of the Intertribal Council of AT&T Employees (ICAE) and has worked on their recruiting drives. He's also spoken for ICAE at the Houston Council for Diversity.
In his spare time Lamb loves to play the guitar and drums. He and his wife Kathleen give time to a Christian music ministry and support the Star of Hope homeless shelter in Houston.
Cindy Brinkley, AT&T SVP of talent development and chief diversity officer, says that at AT&T, talented and diverse people from all backgrounds, including Native American professionals, are essential to the way the company does business. "A commitment to diversity and inclusion is engrained in our culture; it's a business imperative," she said. "By recognizing and valuing our differences, we gain a competitive advantage. At AT&T, people like Robert are what make us who we are."
Chippewa Mark A. Fairbanks is a lead test engineer at 3M
Mark A. Fairbanks is a Chippewa of the White Earth band. He was raised in a suburb of Minneapolis, but his father grew up on the reservation, and Mark still visits relatives there.
As a history buff, he enjoys learning about the Chippewa and Native American culture. "I look at nature to find the most efficient solutions when possible," he declares.
Fairbanks is lead test engineer for the Interam automotive business unit of 3M (St Paul, MN). His lab is located about fifteen miles from 3M HQ, and he's officially listed as manager of the plant. "That's because I get things fixed and obtain permits," he explains. "There are only four of us out here at the lab, so I'm also doing the job of facilities manager, but testing is my real work. The rest of it just ensures that the lab is open and safe."
Fairbanks' team does accelerated durability testing to make sure that 3M's Interam Mat Mount material, used in diesel particulate filters and catalytic converters, can withstand the high temperatures and vibration it's likely to encounter in operation. "We develop tests here that are accepted by the automotive industry. A lot of times we're dealing with temperatures of up to 2,000 degrees F, and we need to understand the robustness of what we're selling." Fairbanks also has responsibility for another lab at corporate HQ.
He began his career with a 1983 associate degree in general education from Anoka Ramsey Community College (Coon Rapids, MN) and a 1985 diploma in diesel truck and trailer mechanics from North Hennepin Technical Institute (Brooklyn Park, MN). He began as a mechanic for a privately owned bus company, but decided he wanted to go back to school. At the time he was working with a group of engineers, and "They suggested I should get an ME degree because I liked to troubleshoot," Fairbanks says.
He already had a wife and young child, so he worked fulltime and went to school at night for several years, until 3M gave him a minority engineering scholarship. In 1996 he completed his BSME at the University of Minnesota and started with 3M as a design engineer, providing design, documentation and fabrication support for capital equipment.
By 2000 he was providing technical service and application engineering support for General Motors and Delphi applications. He moved into the Interam material testing group in 2004 and became lead test engineer in 2007.
"I am past co-chair of the 3M Native American council and I still attend regular meetings," he reports. "We bring in speakers, do a lot of recruiting, attend AISES, and go out to talk to students at local schools. I try to get the kids interested in science," he says.
Cherokee Jonathan K. Stanford: info security at BPA
Jon Stanford is chief information security officer (CISO) at the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA, Portland, OR), a U.S. Department of Energy power marketing organization. He is in charge of cybersecurity at the federal agency, reporting to the CIO. "By law all agencies have to ensure that they have information security assurance in place," he explains.
Stanford develops info security strategy and policies for BPA. He has fourteen direct reports, including several contract staff. "I oversee the performance of security officers and control assessors and make sure control tests and risk assessments are being done properly and on time," he explains. He's also directly involved in several national initiatives related to government and electric industry security standards.
Stanford has been in this job for about two years. He joined BPA in 2002 as a senior cybersecurity manager for the BPA transmission services organization. At that time BPA had three IT groups, one each for corporate, transmission services and power services. When IT was consolidated in 2005 Stanford became the info security lead. He was promoted to CISO in 2008.
He was born in Oklahoma, but moved around the country a lot as a kid because his father was a career U.S. Marine. His mother's Cherokee ancestors came from eastern Tennessee and North Carolina to western Arkansas and Oklahoma in the early 1800s with a group of Cherokee known as the Old Settlers. Stanford can document his Cherokee ancestry to well before the Revolutionary War.
"My great-grandmother had a wealth of knowledge about the culture and family history," he says. "Luckily my mother and aunt wrote it all down. I was even able to learn some Cherokee from them."
After spending two years studying CS and engineering at the University of Arkansas, Stanford went out to California to work in architecture and engineering. In 1992 he moved to Portland, OR and worked for the Portland Water Bureau and then the Police Bureau as a senior network systems engineer and forensic support specialist. He stayed with the bureau until 2002 when he joined BPA.
In 2000 he and an associate started CrimeDex, a criminal fraud data-sharing network focused on financial crimes. Along with his partner, he continued growing the company on a part time basis until they were eventually bought out in 2007.
In 1995 he began earning credits from Excelsior College (Albany, NY), part of the State University of New York. In 2007 he finished grad studies in strategy and policy at the U.S. Naval War College (Newport, RI), and went on to graduate from the "executive leaders" program at the Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security (Monterey, CA) in 2009. He has many info security professional certifications.
Stanford has always had a strong affinity for the technical side of things. "I'm a designer and inventor at heart. I've always been interested in what makes things work," he says. His job at BPA is a perfect fit. "The electric grid operations side of the house involves engineering and I have an engineering background. It's been a great avenue for me and I am very grateful for the opportunities I've had here."
He's also eager to give back to the Native American community. "I have a strong sense of who I am and I'm very proud to be an American Indian. Not all Native American kids know what options are available for their lives, so folks like me need to reach out to them.
"My background gives me a great sense of pride and identity, and I feel we have a unique duty to perform."
Tlingit Richard Shupe is a LAN admin for King County
"We protect and improve streams and wetlands, minimize flood hazards, help citizens resolve drainage problems and support a number of environmental programs. During the flood season I lend my support by volunteering in the flood warning center," says Richard Shupe, a LAN admin at King County Water and Land Resources Division (Seattle, WA). Shupe says that the division's mission also includes work to "protect health and water quality, preserve open space, working farms and forests, ensure adequate water for people and fish, and protect and restore habitats." His job as a LAN admin involves working with a team of LAN admins and other IT pros to update and maintain some twenty-five servers and 450 computers. Most of the work he does is in Microsoft Windows; his workgroup is currently rolling out Windows 7.
Shupe was recruited for the job in 1994 through the Seattle Indian Center, where he received some initial training; King County provided the rest. "I took some computer courses at Bellevue County College," says Shupe. Before taking the job at King County he worked in construction for twelve years, and "I still work in construction on the weekends sometimes. I like to get my hands dirty," he admits.
He was originally drawn to computers when he began at King County as an office assistant in 1994. "One day I had problems with a computer and was on the phone for hours with a technician trying to fix it. After that I decided to study computers myself."
Shupe grew up in Seattle, WA, but his mother is from Angoon, AK. Shupe is a member of the Deisheetaan (Raven Beaver) Clan. His uncle, a clan chief, taught Shupe traditional clan dances and songs.
His Tlingit heritage is tremendously important to him. He dances with the Xudzidaa-Kwaan dancers from Angoon, makes drums, and is learning to do Raven's Tail weaving. He began learning the Tlingit language in 1994, and takes part in "Canoe Journey," a Washington State Native event. "I've done it since 1988 and it's awesome," he says.
"I live my life as a Tlingit," Shupe declares. "I walk softly. We have songs, some of them thousands of years old, that we sing to balance things. If you hurt anything in life, you have to fix it to restore balance."
As a result, Shupe tends to be very flexible in his life and work. "I don't just say no, I try to reach a compromise. I enjoy helping people."
Muscogee Creek Dr Bruce Murdoch: radiation specialist at Argonne
Bruce Murdoch, PhD is principal industrial hygienist at Argonne National Laboratory (Argonne, IL), an R&D lab contracted to the Department of Energy. Dr Murdoch explains that industrial hygienists were established as a professional guild in the 1930s to study illness from workplace exposure to chemicals, radiation and other physical factors.
"I specialize in radiation and I'm manager of the non-ionizing radiation program," he says. "I'm also the laser safety officer responsible for the application of research lasers across the lab. I develop training for employees, give safety-training classes and interact with department heads and scientists."
Every year Murdoch trains 200 people in basic laser safety. He inspects and approves individual labs and issues laser permits. "On the radiation side I develop lab safety policies and maintain guidelines. We're also called for advice on safety measures."
Murdoch received a BA in physics from Carleton College (Northfield, MN) in 1962 and an MA in physics from Rice University (Houston, TX) in 1967. In 1975 he got his PhD in nuclear physics from Utah State University.
He's been at Argonne for seventeen years. Before that he spent several years as an electronics engineer for Goodyear Aerospace, working in military radar development. After finishing his PhD he did research at the Universities of Manitoba and British Columbia, then went into oilfield measurement services for Schlumberger, NL Industries and Baker Atlas, all in Houston, TX, developing well-logging instrumentation using nuclear techniques.
He learned about his current job when Argonne advertised in a physics journal. "They brought me in for an interview and I convinced them that I could do the job even though I'd never done it before. I became a certified health physicist and now I'm also a certified laser safety officer," he says.
Murdoch grew up around Oklahoma City. His father was a dentist in a public health clinic in a mostly Native area.
Although he knew his grandfather was a Muscogee Creek, Murdoch was not much involved in his heritage until about fifteen years ago. "My father and his siblings were discriminated against and they didn't talk about being Indians," he explains. "It turned out my father's dad was on the Dawes Roll in 1906 as a member of the Muskogee Creek Nation. I've registered with the tribe now and so has my son."
Since first exploring his roots, Murdoch has developed a strong cultural awareness and appreciation. "I attend regional stomp dances every year. It's exciting. I feel a spiritual connection to it." He has also spent time researching the family. "We went to a museum in Oklahoma, and there was a very graphic account of my great-great grand-
father in the 1830s on the Trail of Tears."
That great-great grandfather ultimately became a doctor, the first in a tradition of Murdoch family careers in medicine.
As an industrial hygienist, Murdoch is also working to keep people safe. "In my kind of job, scientific background is extremely important," he says. "I understand what the scientists are doing, and they respect me."
Washoe Curtis Keliiaa: cybersecurity at Sandia
At Sandia National Laboratories (Albuquerque, NM), which has U.S. nuclear stockpile stewardship, Curtis Keliiaa is a senior member of technical staff and a cybersecurity systems officer. He works on concepts of planning and road-mapping for cybersecurity, and supports high-performance computing and networking. His work fits the science, technical and engineering missions of Sandia.
Keliiaa finished an electronics program after high school, and attended college until family responsibilities became a priority. He does not have a college degree, but a thirty-year career in IT provides him with very valuable experience. With his children raised and through college, he continues to pursue an advanced degree.
"I've done a lot of systems architecture and broad network design with a strong focus on cybersecurity. I've ended up with a very strong systems background," he says. He's a certified IS security professional.
In 1979 Keliiaa started as a technician for an office automation company in Boulder, CO. The company grew from 250 to 10,000 people, and Keliiaa went from bench technician to hardware product test engineer. He earned many industry certifications along the way.
In 1987 he relocated to his hometown of Albuquerque, NM, and began at Sandia as a contractor working on key information systems. In 1999 he became a network engineer in the telecom ops department. He researched next-gen policy-based network management, published reports, worked with industry leaders and participated in an industry network application consortium.
Keliiaa is a Washoe tribal member. He speaks some Cherokee and his mom, a Cherokee, grew up just outside Tahlequah, OK, the Cherokee capital. She went to Chilocco Indian School in Oklahoma and graduated from the commercial program of Haskell Indian Nations University. Keliiaa's father, who was half Washoe and half Hawaiian, went to Stewart Indian School in Carson City, NV and graduated from the University of California at Berkeley.
"My dad was a B-29 pilot and flew eighteen missions during World War II," Keliiaa notes with pride. Both his parents had "distinguished careers with the Bureau of Indian Affairs," he reports.
"They are really my inspiration," he says. "I derive strength from my family and the Native culture. It has a lot to do with my work ethic, whether it's building a better network or a more secure one."
Since joining Sandia, Keliiaa has held positions of increasing responsibility. By 2004 he was in the advanced networking integration group, focusing on high-performance computing and special projects. Then he became project lead for Sandia strategic business continuity planning. He was nominated for an assignment in Washington, DC, where he became deeply involved with national cyber-risk management and the development of safeguards and countermeasures.
"Since the fall of 2008 I've been back at Sandia," he explains. "Now I focus on big-picture 'system of systems' risk management and support strategic cyber planning and initiatives, including secure advanced simulation and computing capabilities." Keliiaa participates in Sandia's American Indian outreach committee, which hosts an annual Dream Catcher science program.
"The variety of roles and responsibilities has made me appreciate all the great work going on at Sandia. Each day still brings something new,"
Back to Top