“Education is your most powerful weapon,” said Chief Plenty Coups, one of the last Crow Indian war chiefs. “With it, you’re the white man’s equal. Without it, you become his victim.” Chief Plenty Coups led our tribe before the United States settled the West, and continued to lead it into the transition of living on a reservation.
I am a full blood member of the Crow tribe of south-central Montana. Growing up, I was immersed in tribal culture and conduct, and spoke the Crow language before learning English. American culture was somewhat foreign to me. We have extended families in our tribal communities, where aunts are respected as mothers, and cousins are like brothers and sisters. Grandmothers would tell us the history of our people and how we survived the wars and smallpox epidemics. We embrace our identity as survivors and the host people of this great country.
Chief Plenty Coups’ words were important in my family. On my mother’s side there are generations of teaching experience. My grandmother was the first Crow Indian to get a four-year degree in teaching and my mom was a principal, administrator, and teacher for over thirty years. My father taught high school and was also a tribal leader, so I was exposed to community issues at tribal, state and national levels. As he encouraged his children to go to college, my father also ingrained in us the understanding that there would come a time when the tribe would call upon us and our specific skills, and we were obligated to come back to help. I wanted to help by becoming either a scientist or physician. Knowing it would take extra effort, I worked hard in all my science and math classes. Also, my junior year in high school, I was part of a summer internship program for native youth at Montana State University (MSU). It was very competitive, and provided exposure to university research projects, which I later came to understand as being an integral part of a career in the sciences.
I had a summer job at a coal mine when I was just out of high school. We have one large mine on the reservation, and others close by. Working with geoscientists, I was intrigued by their expertise in mapping coals and directing mining operations. I was very interested in their ability to predict where the coals were underground. When I learned that I could identify hidden deposits of oil and gas, even gold or silver or diamonds, I knew what I wanted to study.
Only a few of my peers went on to finish their college education. Coming from an Indian school system, we’re not always prepared for college, where being Native American, you are truly in the minority. Although racial discrimination was not unusual at border towns along the reservation, I determined within myself to keep an open mind, and made a commitment within myself to look for the best in people. I used my experience to learn about others, and recognized that we are all part of the human tribe. I found a new and unfamiliar culture at Montana State University. People interacted differently, and I was one of the few on campus who spoke Crow. Although there were other Native Americans there, the university population is so large, I hardly saw them during the course of the day. That shock alone prevents many from continuing an education. Often the struggle is not about how smart you are, but how well you can cope with that change, and having persistence.
In our culture, early marriage is a traditional custom. I thought I had a hard time, and then I saw Indian women with one or two kids, often single mothers, working and going to school, and successfully finishing! As I admired and respected them, it helped me to keep in mind that many times people are facing even larger obstacles than me and still get through school. It’s difficult, but people do make it.
I started college dreaming only of a bachelor’s degree in geology. But by senior year, I realized that if I started working, my salary would not be what I was hoping for. I decided to get a master’s degree at Colorado School of Mines. I didn’t even think about a Ph.D. That’s the way dreams are. I learned to take one step at a time—each step will lead to the next. Eventually I found myself saying, “Well, there are very few Natives with a Ph.D., why don’t you be the one who breaks the trail?”
My Ph.D. program at Colorado School of Mines required steel discipline. I worked full time in the oil industry and then came home to work on my dissertation. After staying up late, I woke up each morning to another long day. I also had two children by then. What kept me going was my ability to dream, and having enough passion, determination, and faith to chase my dreams.
In 2001 I was called home, as my father predicted. I developed Arrow Creek Resources, to provide geoscience expertise to the Crow and other tribes. During my time with Arrow Creek Resources, I helped tribes understand the value of their natural resources, and the steps for making informed decisions when dealing with outside companies.
Then I moved to Houston, far from the reservation, to rejoin the petroleum industry with a large company. I did get homesick, but that is the price to be successful as a geoscientist. From day one, my wife and I taught our children how to speak Crow, so we have always had our own tribal community at home. It was wonderful to live in a big city, learning about new groups of people and cultural practices. I just loved the rainbow of cultures in Houston.
In 2006 I accepted a position with another petroleum company that has allowed me to move back to Montana while continuing to work on projects throughout the U.S. I also serve part-time as an adjunct professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at Montana State University-Bozeman, where among other things I am also very involved in Native support services. We need more young people to break trails and become champions in their industry. Becoming a geoscientist positioned me to be able to contribute significantly to the tribes. Whether it’s the science, medical or computer industry, you’ll make the biggest impact by becoming a champion in your particular field, so you can answer the call of your people when it comes.