I am Cahuilla-Cupeno, and a great-great granddaughter of Antonio Garra, war chief of the Cupeno who led an insurrection against the invaders. I was born and raised on the Morongo Reservation in Southern California, and the texture of those years permeate my life in many ways. We lived in a small adobe house that my parents built. Our water came from a cistern and periodic irrigation. We used kerosene in our lamps and spent our weekends gathering the wood to burn in our stove. We had a battery-operated radio and could only afford to listen to one or two programs a week. I thought the rich people were the ones with indoor toilets and electricity.Very early in life I began to have vivid dreams, some of which were powerful enough to be called visions. These dreams talked to me about leaving the reservation, something of which I was very fearful. But they also spoke of coming back. The visions told me that if I did leave I would become someone. I remember those dreams/visions almost as vividly today as when they occurred.
I did very well in school. My mother often said to me, “You are lucky, the school fits your mind. Your brothers are smart, too, but the school does not fit their minds.” One of the deciding points in my life was having my eighth grade teacher come onto the reservation to see my mother. “Your daughter is very smart and should go to college,” she said. This idea fit with my dreams; so that day I started saving my money to go to college. I also played tennis in high school, and I was good enough to win the county championship in both singles and doubles. The college I chose was the University of California, Riverside. It was thirty miles and a world away from the reservation.
Although Riverside was then a small and friendly town, I found it terrifying and I was the only Indian at the University. I struggled to do things the way the white folks did. I still had no clear idea what college was, but I could tell that I needed good grades if I was to stay and continue my quest to become “someone.” I committed myself to working fourteen to sixteen hours a day on my classes. I spent my savings frugally, living on a monotonous diet and affording no pleasures. I lived in dread of failing. When I finally received my grades at the end of the first semester, to my disbelief I found I had straight A’s.
I changed majors a number of times, finally settling on psychology. I avoided classes like chemistry, biology and calculus because my biologist friends had assured me I wouldn’t do well in those “real” classes. However, when I was a senior I discovered I would need these classes for graduate school, so I took biology, calculus and a course on evolution. I loved them and did very well; but by then I was an experimental psychologist. I had started doing research as an undergraduate and had two publications by the time I entered graduate school, which was very unusual for the time. I did graduate work at the University of Iowa and obtained my Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles.
I was trained as an experimental psychologist and eventually became what is called a cognitive psychologist. This discipline is concerned with how people think, learn, perceive (see, hear, feel), and remember. My specialty is very long-term memory. My research relates to questions such as how long learned-information is retained, and if it is retained longer if you study more. Though they sound like easy questions, the answers are complex.
I wanted to teach at a university and do research, but at the time I obtained my degree most university positions were closed to women. I spent ten years at San Diego State University and became a full professor. I was hired at the University of Utah, the first woman to be hired as a full professor. However, I never forgot those visions of returning to my people. During the day I taught psychology classes and did research. The rest of the time I was involved in the national Indian education movement of the 60s and 70s. I served on the founding board of the National Indian Education Association. Guided by the only powerful vision I have had since leaving the reservation, in 1986 I moved to Arizona State University, where I could work more closely with the tribes. I ran a coalition mandated to improve mathematics and science education for twenty tribes in Arizona. Recently I have moved to the University of Kansas where I work closely with Haskell Indian Nations University and the Haskell Health Center to provide science research opportunities for Haskell students in the laboratories of research scientists at the University of Kansas.