The best thing that ever happened to me was getting very sick in the 2nd grade. Because I had to stay home almost all year, my teacher told my mother to get me library books to read. My mom had never been to the library before, and had never seen a children’s book. Once she found the library, she chose a variety of adult books—particularly biographies. Using those books, I taught myself to read, and from that point I read everything I could get my hands on. I read the neighbor’s books, I read ingredient lists on food labels and chemical products at the local store, and I devoured anything they gave me at school to read, which unfortunately wasn’t much. To this day, I can breeze through a 500-page book in a sitting.
We lived in a diverse low-income neighborhood in Stockton, California. From the earliest age, I was surrounded by Filipinos, Latinos, Chinese, Japanese, African Americans, European immigrants, and other American Indians My father was Cherokee and my mother mixed Cherokee heritage, both born in Delaware County, Oklahoma, but relocated to the California Bay Area for work.
My world was small 60 years ago. Most people in my community were not aware of the broader world around us in terms of words and science. No one went to the doctor or dentist. We had a car and were one of the few families who would pack up and travel for two weeks every summer—seeing the West, sleeping in the car, and eating from the simple food supplies we carried. We’d stop for lunch at magnificent vistas or on the roadside, seeking the next vista.
The only outsiders who came into our little universe were teachers and for the most part, they just wanted us to sit, be quiet, and behave. Teachers seldom challenged us or even gave us assignments and tests. Eventually my high school stopped giving textbooks to students, as we were considered too irresponsible to take care of them. (However, even among kids I knew who were picked up periodically for theft, I never personally knew anyone who stole or destroyed a textbook.)
I was insatiably curious about the world around me, but no one in my orbit knew the answers to my questions. I remember asking in the 1st grade that if there is a word for mother and father like parents, why is there not a word for brother and sister? No one knew the word sibling. I wondered how fog materialized—all sorts of things—but nobody could tell me. My father found a used set of World Book Encyclopedia that I read many times cover to cover. I can still tell you the page that details the origin of the letter W.
I went to a big school with a lot of tensions and violence between groups of people. Many girls in my high school had babies, and the boys went to “juvey”—the juvenile justice system, the common start on a prison path. Few students were concerned about academics. In my biology class of 700 students, teachers introduced us to the concept of grading on a curve. In general this boosted the overall indicator of performance, but when they passed out the curve, one score was so high they had to take it out to keep all the other students from failing. That was my score, and that was when I discovered the actual field of Science.
In high school I dated a boy who told me about the SATs. I had never heard of the test, but I went with him to take it at the local community college. When they sent scores to my high school, the counselor called me in and told me that I could go to any college in the country. But I didn’t know any colleges—neither of my parents even went to high school. My father attended an Indian Mission school where they taught the value of learning but told him he wasn’t worth having any more years of education. My mother was suspicious of education. She felt that education takes children away from home and diminishes fully taking part in family and community roles—which is, in fact, somewhat true. I ended up going to San Joaquin Delta College to study nursing because it was the only school I knew about. At that time, I was too shy to ask where to get information.
The greatest gift my father gave me was a singular cultural adaptation: I was the oldest child in my family and as the oldest, it was expected that if you came of age and were not married, you would work and send money back home to help take care of the family. The money I earned in those years (along with some scholarships) went for my college education. However, the sense of wholeness and helping has stayed with me and my brothers all our lives.
By the time I finished at San Joaquin, I had begun to figure out higher education. I enrolled in California State University, Fresno, and completed a BS and MS in public health. My first daughter was born just after I finished, but I knew I still wanted to continue my education. I went to University of Texas, Austin, for a PhD in public health and had two more children along the way.
Having three young children while working on my dissertation was a challenge, and then five members of my family died in a 9-month period, including my father. The loss of my father affected me the most. I don’t cry easily, but I would sit at a cubicle in the library steeling myself to focus as tears ran uncontrollably down my face. As sorrowful as it was, I felt my father’s spirit with me, supporting me to go beyond the barriers that were set for him.
Since completing my PhD, I’ve held several amazing professional positions, largely emanating from the pursuit of curiosity, keeping an open mind, and exercising what I’ve learned about being bicultural. I’ve conducted research and written grants for medical schools; I was a founding faculty member of a multidisciplinary research center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Health Science Center; I was a corporate executive for Honda of America—and for the last 10 years I’ve worked at Georgetown University, initiating new degree programs in international health, human science, and healthcare administration, as well as forming a center for health and education and a health law institute. During my sabbatical last year at Oxford I studied nonprofit governance, but I also made time to read and talk with brilliant scholars about philosophy, literature, history, and theology. I remain alert for the next challenge. I am the person I became in 2nd grade, taking in the world around me, reading everything I can get my hands on, and fueling the drive to pursue curiosity. Long ago, I let go of shyness and stories that embitter the soul.
It concerns me that few American Indians seek to study the hard sciences. If you look at the percentage of American Indians in the sciences, one might think that we are not predisposed to learn about chemistry, physics, or molecular biology. Yet, our heritage is rooted in empiricism! Indian traditions are deeply embedded in observation and objective testing. My father would take us to the mountains or the desert and make us sit and look. He didn’t always talk or explain. We had to be still, experience, and watch—then tell him what we saw over time. He asked questions in a Socratic manner that fostered thinking for ourselves and generating new questions. That is empiricism. Now is the time to reclaim this innate talent. As Native Indians, we share a heritage of keen observation, of not superimposing preconceived ideas.
Indian country has considerable experience with scientists—coming to our communities with an agenda that proves preconceived notions with self-serving intent. This is not the native way nor is it good science. The empirical fields have high standards to assess and interpret what we see, touch, feel, and smell, and to move cautiously to declare conclusions. That is why I think more Indians will make great scientists. We can capture the curiosity of youth and nurture the fundamental quantitative skills that are the tools of science. We have a long history honoring nature. It is time to bring these traditions into science and the common good; in doing so, we honor our ancestors.
Dr. Bette Jacobs is a Professor in the Department of Health Systems Administration and Distinguished Professor O’Neill Health Law Institute, Georgetown University & Fellow Campion Hall University of Oxford.