Native Americans: a long tradition of technical ability
American Indians today are contributing at important levels to the nation's vital tech talent pool
These eight Native Americans represent the Seneca, Winnebago, Yakama, Ojibwe, Navajo, Cherokee, Blackfoot, Hopi and Mescalero Apache tribes
By Laurel A. McKee Ranger
Senior Contributing Editor
Pamala Silas is a member of the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin and CEO of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES). She thinks that Native Americans pursuing science and technology careers may be hampered by the mistaken idea that "Indians are not technically oriented."
This couldn't be further from the truth, Silas says. "Natives come from a long tradition of scientifically and engineering oriented people. The 'primitive' people who built Chaco Canyon had to understand the earth's movement. Contact with Native American agriculture changed the way the world eats, from potatoes, tomatoes and peppers to corn and even chocolate.
"And look at us today! We have amazingly talented young people from community colleges to Ivy League schools and the top technical schools, doing great work in science and engineering."
Maybe best of all, when they enter the technical workforce, "Our members tend to choose companies and government organizations that provide products and services that make a difference in the community."
A brighter tomorrow
The future of Native Americans in technology is looking brighter, Silas believes. There's been a huge increase in the need for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) talented and trained people in tribal communities, particularly in areas of renewable energy, sustainable land management and IT. "The economic future is growing from a tribal perspective, and the STEM areas our young people are working in are also critical on a national level," Silas says.
But there's still plenty to do. Silas points to a need for investment in classrooms, well-trained teachers in science and technology and guidance counselors who encourage talented Native students to consider technical fields.
"We also have to do better at retaining students in technical fields at the college level," Silas adds. "Many students still feel isolated. They are subject to financial challenges, and some schools don't give them the encouragement they should."
But with all these challenges, many Native students go ahead to blossom into talented techies. Today they are contributing at important levels to the nation's vital tech talent pool. Here are eight of them, representing nine different tribes.
Seneca Dr Nancy B. Jackson of Sandia and the ACS
Nancy B. Jackson, PhD manages the international chemical threat department at Sandia National Laboratories (Albuquerque, NM), a national security-oriented laboratory that works in key areas like nuclear weapons, energy and infrastructure assurance, homeland security and defense. Jackson is also current president of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the first Native American scientist to hold that post.
Jackson helped start up the U.S. State Department's important chemical security engagement program, and her current work is supported by the State Department. "We work cooperatively with chemists and chemical engineers in the developing world and other countries to prevent the use of chemicals for malicious purposes," she explains. "We also work to establish best practices in manufacture, handling, storage, security and protective equipment in places like the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia." She manages the entire program with a handful of direct reports.
Jackson completed her BS in chemistry at George Washington University (Washington, DC) in 1979 and went on to a 1986 MS and 1990 PhD in ChE from the University of Texas-Austin. She worked as a post-doc in the ChE department of U Texas and was a staff associate assistant at the ACS from 1979 to 1982, involved in a number of education programs.
She started at Sandia in 1991 as a research chemist in the energy field, developing liquid fuel. In 2001 she moved into management, and joined Sandia's global security center as deputy to the director in 2004. In 2007 she started the chemical security engagement program.
2011 is the International Year of Chemistry, and in addition to her usual travel and collaboration with chemists and chemical engineers around the world Jackson attended a special conference at UNESCO in France, where she already knew many of the scientists from her work at Sandia.
Jackson belongs to the Seneca Nation. She feels that her multicultural background has helped her work across cultures.
"At Sandia as at ACS, scientist-to-scientist programs and relationships are important parts of my job. Having a multicultural background has been key to feeling comfortable in other cultures. I love meeting new people and getting to know them and learning how they look at life. My job here at Sandia is like being paid to have fun!"
The job requires a lot of travel, but her husband is very supportive and sometimes she gets the chance to take her twin teenage sons with her.
Besides ACS and AISES, Jackson is a member of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) and a member and Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She's also a Distinguished Alumna of George Washington University. "And just the other day I found out I will be inducted into the Wall of Fame at my high school in St. Louis," she says proudly.
Winnebago Chris O'Gorman manages a group at Sandia
Chris C. O'Gorman is another involved and committed AISES member at Sandia National Labs. He has managed the experimental mechanics, nondestructive evaluation and model validation group at the lab since 2007.
"We develop models to understand the behavior of materials, components
and systems in order to predict responses in the real environment," he says. "That helps us ensure reliability of everything from cars and bridges to weapons and rockets."
O'Gorman's department is part of the Sandia engineering sciences center. It supports all the lab's programs, including weapons, satellites and renewable energy, and works with the lab's industrial partners. O'Gorman runs the department, develops programs and makes sure the needs of internal and external clients are being met and the right people are working on the various engineering challenges. The department partners with scientists and engineers in both industry and the academic world.
O'Gorman has a 1994 BSME from the University of New Mexico and a 1995 MSME from Stanford University (Palo Alto, CA). In school he co-opped with NASA and interned with Eastman Kodak and Sandia. He liked all those jobs but the internship at Sandia was his favorite.
"I really enjoyed the variety of work here and I believed in the mission of national security," O'Gorman says. He joined Sandia in 1994 and has worked in many areas and positions, including facility leader and technical consultant for the mass properties lab, project leader for experimental model validation and principal research investigator for linear viscoelastic foam models. In 2001 he was an executive on loan from Sandia to AISES, where he served as college relations manager.
He's been president of the New Mexico professional chapter of AISES, and a national board member. He is also a member of the Society for Experimental Mechanics and an advisory board member of Aerospace Corp's annual testing seminar event.
O'Gorman grew up on the Winnebago reservation in northeastern Nebraska. "Education was always important to our family," he says. "My sister was the first to go to college and she encouraged me." In fact, O'Gorman's sister is a former president of the Winnebagos' Little Priest Tribal College.
The move from the small community on the reservation to the University of New Mexico, with more than 25,000 students, was a huge change for O'Gorman. But, "Becoming a member of AISES helped me with the transition. The advisors and mentors at AISES helped me make it through, and a lot of the friends I made there are still my friends," he says.
Native American culture is important to O'Gorman. "It's central to my idea of working to make the world a better place. Understanding how we can work in harmony with our environment has always been key to my core values."
He's still closely tied to his tribe and relatives back in Nebraska. "I remain involved in my community and look for opportunities to work with them at AISES conferences and in other settings," he says.
Yakama Michele Hellstern: HR IS at CSX
Michele Hellstern is director of HR IS and workforce analytics at CSX (Jacksonville, FL), a national transportation supplier with both rail and intermodal businesses. Hellstern heads up a team of managers and analysts that supports HR services, working with employee data and metrics like applicant tracking, retention and headcount.
The team has eleven people, six of them reporting directly to Hellstern. Key systems like PeopleSoft, Taleo and Peopleclick Authoria keep track of HR data for some 30,000 employees.
Hellstern has a 1989 bachelors in business admin and management from Eckerd College (St. Petersburg, FL) and a 1994 MBA with a concentration in contract negotiations and management from the Florida Institute of Technology. She also holds a Project Management Professional (PMP) certification. She has worked in HR IS since 1994, first at Honeywell's Clearwater, FL location, where she also served as president of the diversity council, and then at CedarCrestone (Alpharetta, GA), which provides consulting, technology and managed services to clients.
In 2010 she was working as a consultant and PeopleSoft functional lead for CSX when the company hired her directly. "Having experience in IT and HR, as well as the PMP certification, makes me very marketable," she says with a smile. "I'd had previous offers but nothing jumped out at me as the CSX offer did. I like the culture at CSX. I enjoy riding and watching trains and the company intrigued me; I saw it as a place where I could continue my career and make a difference. They care about employees and have a great inclusion council here," Hellstern says.
Hellstern's father is from the Yakama Nation. He was in the Air Force; the family lived for several years on the reservation in Washington State, but they traveled a lot too. Hellstern's mother is from England and was born there, so Hellstern has family in England and on the reservation, she says.
Her brother, who has an MA in higher education, still lives on the reservation. "When I got my MBA I was invited to dance at a powwow on the reservation and given an eagle feather in honor of my accomplishment. I thought that was even better than my degree!" she says.
Hellstern's biggest challenge at CSX is identifying all the current systems and their interconnectivity and working toward integrating them. "It's difficult sometimes," she says.
"We have older systems that don't always work with the new plug-and-play systems. I try to eliminate and automate wherever I can and identify systems that will work most efficiently."
Hellstern has been recognized by Honeywell for her achievements at work, but one of her most cherished awards was received as top official at the U.S. National Tournament in Amateur Boxing held in Colorado Springs, CO in 2006. "I spend a lot of my time outside work as a volunteer with amateur boxing. It helps keep kids off the street," she says.
Ojibwe RobinLee Sayers manages programs at Microsoft
As a senior program manager at Microsoft Corp (Redmond, WA), RobinLee Sayers serves as liaison between the business side and IT in security and risk management. She also consults on digital strategy for the software manufacturer at Proctor & Gamble and other clients. "I wear many different hats; I help the business understand the engineers," says Sayers.
She notes that her work at Microsoft involves a huge cultural change for the consumer products company. "I research what individuals do on their jobs to find out if they can go paperless, what type of digital devices they currently use and the obstacles involved. Afterward I collate the information. It's a challenging project but I wouldn't trade it for the world."
Sayers has a certification in fiber optics and is a Dale Carnegie alumna, but she was never able to finish a college degree. "When I was growing up 'college' was not even a word used in our house," she says. Sayers is a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and grew up in Minnesota on the reservation.
"I was a single mom, completely alone, but I got on the union work list thanks to a compassionate shop steward and eventually I was hired for concrete construction jobs," Sayers says.
It was while she was working on a construction job that she was first drawn to fiber optics. "I was working in telecom, and while I was finishing out a box in an apartment some guy was installing and finishing fiber cable. He was 'polishing glass' and he explained how data traveled down the glass, and I thought, 'How cool – I have to do that.' It was the right place and the right time," she says.
After she received her fiber optic certification Sayers went to work for Veca Electric and Technologies (Seattle, WA) in fiber optic design and deployment. In 2000 she was hired by Microsoft.
Her Ojibwe heritage plays a huge role in Sayers' life. "I'm very spiritual. I believe in the ceremonies and I do a lot of praying. I understand some Ojibwe and I'm studying it. It is very hard, but I know when I was a child people around me spoke it," Sayers says.
Sayers is passionate about making sure Native American young people are familiar and comfortable with technology. She recently attended the American Indian Business Leaders Conference in Chandler, AZ. "Next year we're hoping to do Microsoft workshops to introduce and engage students in the technology," she says. "We're spreading technology in Indian Country as fast as we can!"
"Microsoft has supported my community work for more than ten years," Sayers notes. She's received both technical and diversity awards from the company. She's been a member of Native Americans at Microsoft, the employee resource group, for ten years and is a past chair. She values the company's continuing support of her work with Native Americans and technology. "Support from the top is critical," she says.
Navajo Fred Miller: security electronics at the FBI
As a law enforcement agency, the FBI has a tremendous need for cutting-edge technology. Fred Miller, supervisory electronics technician, heads up a team of tech pros that provide security electronics, including intrusion detection, access control and CCTV support.
"We are a three-person team that covers the Washington, DC area," he explains. "We handle anything to do with security electronics and provide security for offsite activities and buildings."
Miller has a year at Haskell Indian Junior College (Lawrence, KS) in electronics and four years in the U.S. Army where he worked in electronics and cryptographic equipment. He joined the FBI in 1987 after finishing his military service.
He got interested in technology early. "I was inspired by one of my uncles who was always tinkering with TVs and radios. He taught me to read schematics and I took electronics in high school. If it had wires and could make something work, it fascinated me," he says.
Miller, a Navajo, grew up in Albuquerque, NM, and although he does not speak Navajo he understands it. "My family is from the reservation and I spent quite a bit of time with relatives there," Miller says.
His wife is also Navajo, but their kids were all born and raised in the Washington, DC area. However, there's a large Native American population in Maryland working for the Indian Health Services, and "We interact a lot," Miller says. "I've coached a Native American adult softball team here for fifteen years now."
Miller credits strong family support with helping him get into technology, and the Army for the opportunity to train in electronics. He notes that a career in the military is common for Native Americans.
"We have the highest per capita participation in the military," he says. "Everywhere you go in the Native American community there are always veterans. At our powwows they always honor Native American vets first. It feels good," he says.
Miller has to be flexible in his job today. "There's a lot going on. When Katrina happened I went down there to secure facilities. I was gone three weeks, working around the clock."
He finds his job very rewarding. "We get letters of appreciation," he says.
He was on the EEO advisory committee at the FBI for twelve years and often recruited at Native colleges and schools. "We were able to increase our numbers and the committee received an award one year," he reports.
In his spare time Miller enjoys riding his Harley.
Diversity and opportunity at the FBI
"The FBI operates in a multiethnic and multicultural environment and it's crucial that we reflect that," says Bill Estevez, chief of the personnel recruitment unit and supervisory special agent at the Bureau.
The FBI has a diversity focus in all its recruitment efforts. It reaches out to Native affinity groups on university campuses as well as through advertising, Internet sites and career fairs. Within the bureau there are various diverse employee affinity groups, including an American Indian/Alaskan Native advisory committee.
Estevez notes that the IT branch at the FBI is very broad, with "constant opportunities to move from one area to another." The FBI has more than 35,000 employees and, he notes, is always looking for engineers, scientists, IT pros and people with skills in information services, information management, IT communications, networking, analytics and support.
Cherokee-Blackfoot Dr Susan E. Durham supports the HUMINT team at the CIA
Susan E. Durham, PhD, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, has gone on to a second successful career as team lead for technical support to the human intelligence (HUMINT) team at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA, Langley, VA).
Durham's team of fifteen is part of the office of the chief scientist. "It's a team of very competent professionals who do research in physics, chemistry, biology, engineering and human behaviors," she says. "My job is to match advanced technologies with CIA needs and determine what we should be researching."
She says she loves being involved in cutting-edge science and also continuing to do something for the country. "I'm constantly being asked to stretch my mental muscles!"
Durham's 1982 BS in physics is from Georgia State University; her 1986 MS in nuclear engineering is from the Air Force Institute of Technology (Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, OH) and her 1991 PhD in physics is from the University of New Mexico. She's a member of the American Institute of Physics.
Durham's paternal grandfather is part East Band Cherokee and her paternal grandmother is Montana Band Blackfoot. Durham herself grew up in Greenville, SC and Norwich, CT, but when her parents separated she lost touch with almost all her Native American family. "In the Deep South in the 1960s and 1970s, being a mixed-blood child was considered shameful by both sides," she recalls. "A lot of people tried to teach me to be ashamed of who I was. But my grandmother and father were determined that we shouldn't be ashamed, and I was determined to succeed in science!
"I don't feel I have to prove myself worthy anymore," Durham says.
Her grandmother, she notes, "was the repository of our family history. She died when I was eleven, but I've never forgotten what she told me about the trials of our ancestors and other parts of our Native heritage. It was back when you didn't even talk about your heritage."
Durham started as an aircraft maintenance mechanic with the Air Force in 1976, then went to school from 1979 to 1982. She became an operations training officer in 1982 and took two years off to get her MS before returning to work in the Air Force Weapons Lab as a weapon systems analyst.
She took another hiatus for her PhD, and in 1992 the new Dr Durham became program manager in hyperspectral imaging at Phillips Lab, an Air Force research facility.
From 1995 to 1996 she was chief of the science and technology branch of the Space Warfare Center at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado, then studied at the Air Command and Staff College in Montgomery, AL. From 1996 to 2001 she worked at the National Reconnaissance Office (Chantilly, VA), first as technical director of the data fusion facility and then as lead of a problem-centered research team.
In 2001 she was recruited by the CIA to work in the Intelligence Technology Innovation Center. She reached her present HUMINT team position last year.
Durham enjoys the challenges of working in advanced technology and managing bright people, as well as the rewards of being part of something that's bigger than herself. "I credit my grandmother for instilling those values in me," she says.
Over her career she has received a number of awards, and was pleased to be nominated as the CIA's mentor of the year the past two years. "I love mentoring others here; it keeps everything fresh," she says. "People in their 20s and 30s grew up with technology and have a different world view. I'm getting all sorts of education while working in technology!"
Hopi/Mescalero Apache Vickie Franco: office automation at the Coast Guard
Vickie Franco has lots of energy and enthusiasm, and she needs all of it for her job as local system manager for office automation in Morgan City, LA for the U.S. Coast Guard (Washington, DC).
It's up to her to make sure people who need access to the system have it. When transfer season arrives Franco is the one who makes sure officers coming in get the supplies and computer access they need to do their jobs. She also activates access cards, keeps track of civilian employees' hours and is a critical incident manager, a suicide prevention peer and a victim advocate as well as the Freedom of Information Act coordinator.
As systems manager she gets lots of calls from HQ. She reports directly to the commanding office and executive officer.
Franco went to the University of California-Los Angeles but didn't quite complete a degree in business finance. She also attended grad school for a year. But she picked up much of her know-how through courses and on the job, starting when she worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) outside the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota.
She worked for the Bank of America Corp in San Francisco, CA from 1974 to 1998 as an operations and production manager, then at GreenPoint Finance (San Diego, CA) in the group ops office until joining the USDA in Washington, DC as a program technician in 2000. She became an office automation assistant in 2003 and, in 2006, an administrative payment technician at the USDA CFO National Finance Center in New Orleans, LA.
In 2007 she took on her multiple duties with the Coast Guard, and today she's a member of the Society of American Indian Government Employees (SAIGE).
Franco is Hopi and Mescalero Apache. She was born and raised in East LA, a challenging area to grow up in, but her parents made sure their children were involved in Native American culture and stayed out of trouble. Later she lived on the Turtle Mountain Reservation for three years with her then-husband, a Chippewa. Both her grandmothers are medicine women.
Franco's Native heritage is never forgotten. "I'm always being asked questions about the culture, and once I did a slide presentation on Native American culture for the Coast Guard. It is a major part of who I am!"
Last year Franco received a Department of Defense meritorious award presented through SAIGE. She's been given many awards for her volunteer work with the military, and this year she received the President's Service Award, for more than 800 hours of public service, from President Obama. For recreation, she's a member of the Lafayette, LA women's chapter of the Harley Davidson motorcycle club.
Cherokee Rodney Thompson manages field support at Harris
Rodney Thompson is manager of field support and quality management at the Norman, OK IT services facility of Harris Corp (Melbourne, FL). He heads up a team of twenty-eight engineering analysts working with the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) on continuous improvement processes. Harris Corp's three business segments focus on RF communications, government communications systems and integrated network solutions.
Thompson, who is a Six Sigma Black Belt, also works with the corporate quality management group and supports other projects at Harris. "Harris has a talent management system which can be searched to meet business requirements and client expectations," he explains.
Thompson's team provides equipment lifecycle support, from design through development and deployment to modifications and decommissioning, all in support of the USPS. "We handle everything from IT-related software issues to electronics and hydraulics," he says. "Some of the processing equipment is huge and very complex."
Thompson has picked up credits at several colleges, and is still working on his degree. Recently he's been focusing on specific certifications: he currently holds fifteen of them. He plans on finishing a degree in business and tackling an MS in IT project management. He's already a member of the Project Management Institute of America and the American Society for Quality.
He started his career in the U.S. Army in 1987, picking up technical skills while working as a technician in fire control. He learned to work electrical and electronic systems with optical, hydraulic, pneumatic and mechanical components, as well as lasers and sight systems.
In 1991 he was promoted to supervisor and in 1993 became a QA inspector for fire control systems. He left the Army in 1994 and joined Resource Consultants, Inc (Norman, OK), which developed maintenance handbooks for equipment and systems. He began with maintenance documentation and moved to computer systems analyst in 1998, developing apps to automate publication of the company's handbooks. In 1999 he became technology manager, directing a group of DBAs, computer programmers and computer systems and maintenance engineering analysts.
With a few partners Thompson started DocSoft (Oklahoma City, OK) in 2000, working with clients to create appropriate XML solutions for integrating apps and processes with existing infrastructure. After DocSoft Thompson joined the Orkand Corp to manage five department subgroups as technical publications manager.
When Harris acquired Orkand in 2004 Thompson became a software analyst, working with configuration management and business processes. He moved up to quality manager and field support manager, his current position, in 2006.
"It's a collaborative effort, both here at Harris and working with the USPS. We have a world-class IT operation here," he says.
Thompson, a Cherokee, grew up in a small town in Oklahoma. "My grandmother was really into our heritage," he says, "but we kids didn't think a whole lot about it. Now I'm working to make sure my kids know their heritage. We go to the Tahlequah graveyard and find activities that make learning about our heritage fun, and my sons volunteer to help others in the Choctaw nation."
Opportunity and diversity at Harris
Shana Folk, senior manager of recruiting at Harris Corp, says diversity is part of the company's overall strategy of global inclusion, not only in hiring but also in promotion and retention. "We strive to create an environment where all employees are included and have the ability to do their best work. It's part of our culture," Folk says.
The company is in growth mode and there's a big demand for technical skills across the country and globally. "Overall, we're interested in individuals with skills who can look at the big picture and come up with solutions," Folk explains.
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