Sometimes you realize that there are certain moments in your life that influence you in a profound way. For me, one of those moments came when I was in junior high, and I saw a picture of an Indian doing a Sun Dance. Although I am Southern Arapaho, I did not live a very traditional life as a child. But when I saw this picture, I knew that I would some day do a Sun Dance—and from then on, my Native American background became very important to me. The Sun Dance represents the cycle of birth and death, whether symbolic or real, and it represents both tradition and transition. Now, years (and many Sun Dances) later, my cultural heritage defines much of the scientific work that I do. There have been many transitions in my life, some of which have been very unexpected, but my cultural heritage has provided me with a strong personal foundation, despite all of the changes in my life.
One of the very first surprise transitions in my life was when I decided, after beginning college, that I did not want to become a minister, as everyone in my family had assumed I would. (I had been playing the role of counselor and mediator in my family for a long time.) I enrolled as a psychology major at the University of Kentucky, thinking that a minister needed to understand how people work and think. My family did not understand my decision to go to college or support me while I was doing it. After delving into academic studies, I realized that I was not going to be a minister; I was going to be a psychologist instead!
However, the area of psychology that I wanted to study changed. My master’s degree was in a field of psychology called radical behaviorism, which means that I studied how different types of punishment and reward change animals’ behavior. But while I was working on my thesis, I realized that I was very bored with my work. I decided that I was going to have to rethink once more what psychology meant to me. This time, I decided that I wanted to work with people, so I went into cognitive psychology and got my Ph.D. at Temple University in 1978.
Before I’d even finished my Ph.D., my life took yet another unexpected turn. Jobs for cognitive psychologists were hard to come by in the late seventies, and the only job I could find was doing research for the Federal Bureau of Prisons at the University of Miami. Although I fundamentally disagreed with many aspects of the work, all my current research interests are a result of having taken that job.
After four years at the University of Miami, I worked in the prison system for another nine years. I became interested in substance abuse treatment and prevention because it occurred to me that 80–90% of the people I’d worked with in prisons were involved with drugs and alcohol. I knew from experience that prison did not help “cure” them of their addictions. Eventually, I left the prison system and went to work at Brown University, where I did research about substance abuse and prisons.
At Brown, I got to do a lot of things I hadn’t done before. I designed a Native American studies curriculum and taught subjects that I really care about. I also helped Native American students adjust to the university system and then later adjust to going home again. That transition is very difficult in college because you aren’t the same person when you go home as you were when you left. Sometimes this is especially hard for Native kids from reservations, who often feel that their communities don’t understand them anymore.
Now I am the senior study director at a corporation called Westat. I research substance abuse treatment programs in Native American communities. Substance abuse is a huge problem in many Native American communities because they tend to be poor and to have little hope that life will ever improve. I am strongly against the use of prisons to control substance abuse. I don’t think that it helps substance abusers or the communities they come from. I work to develop programs that will help entire communities heal and to prevent more people from becoming addicted to drugs and alcohol.
One of the most important aspects of helping Native communities overcome substance abuse problems is to help them realize that their cultures and ways of living may be different from other people’s, but they are just as valuable. When people realize that who they are and what they do is important, drugs and alcohol become much less appealing. Long ago, the Sun Dance introduced me to a new outlook on life—one that embraces change and impermanence. This foundation has given me the strength to help other Native people learn to value our heritage and contributions to the world so that we, as a community, can heal.
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.
Healani Chang, PhD
As a graduate student at the University of Hawaii, Honolulu, I worked with immigrant populations from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The immigrants were mostly women and children who had just arrived in Hawaii and were eager to learn English and fit into American society. To teach them English, I used experiences from my daily life instead of using textbooks. I shared my Native Hawaiian culture with them, and, in return, they shared their values, culture, and stories with me. My students were eager to communicate with me when they were passionate about what we were discussing, and I learned a lot, too. This kind of exchange between teacher and student was revolutionary to me and completely different from the educational system that I grew up with.
When I was in school, I learned English in a completely different way. As Native Hawaiians, both my parents’ and my generation were forced to learn English and not practice or respect our traditional native language. This devaluing of our language felt like a devaluing of our culture. When I was able to teach English in a new way, it was a very healing experience. My classroom celebrated people’s diversity and culture. We thought of English as a common language that enabled vastly different people to communicate.
Because of this lack of respect for our Native Hawaiian language and culture, I struggled to succeed in the American educational system, which supported competition and individuality over teamwork and community. I wasn’t always an A student. I never had teachers who were Hawaiian, and I had no one in school who understood what kinds of challenges I was facing as a Native Hawaiian student. It was hard to flourish in that environment because Native Hawaiians value Ohana, the family, (immediate, extended, friends, and neighbors) and Aloha, compassion and kindness -in human interaction. Luckily, I had the support of my community and family to get me where I am today.
Ohana and Aloha aren’t just Native Hawaiians beliefs; it’s who we are. Ohana and Aloha have been central to my life, from growing up playing team sports to interacting with people during my school years and my time as a research scientist. Later, these values became part of my career in public health. Ohana and Aloha were taught to me by my parents, who were very supportive of my education, especially because neither of them or anyone else in my family went to the university.
I received a scholarship in basketball and went to the University of Hawaii, Honolulu. Because I was an athlete, I was interested in how people made choices about their health and behavior. This directed me to pursue a bachelor’s degree in human development.
Once I discovered that my strengths were my values of Ohana and Aloha, I knew that I wanted to do work with Hawaii’s multi-ethnic population and stay in the health sciences field, so I pursued a master’s degree in public health education at the University of Hawaii, Honolulu.
My current research is in developing a quit smoking program for native Hawaiians. There are a number of smoking cessation programs across the nation, but Native Hawaiians continue to smoke at a higher rate than other ethnic groups, and I want to know why. My hypothesis is that it may be that Native Hawaiians need more cultural components in the smoking cessation program. For example, the programs may be more effective if they involve the whole family, or perhaps people would succeed more if they worked in small group sessions instead of following the typical American model of one–on-one counseling.
Being a Native Hawaiian scientist working with a Native Hawaiian population is of tremendous benefit because there are so few Native Hawaiian women in the sciences, in the university system, or on faculties. Native Hawaiian faculty at the university numbers only two percent while our population in the state is twenty percent. We desperately need more Hawaiian role models in the universities and in public health programs like the one I am developing. The Native Hawaiian population needs to have people they can relate to, who understand their culture, their upbringing, and their obstacles and can help them succeed in the American educational system. Being a role model and providing an opportunity to conduct research and learn new skills, to help others move on and create careers for themselves; these are the legacies I would like to leave other Native Hawaiians.
Even though I wasn’t an A student, I made it to where I am today. You can say it was hard work and determination, and it was, but I think my family and friends and the compassion of others helped quite a bit. Ohana and Aloha go a long way in life, for they are virtues rooted within.
Monica Tsethlikai, PhD
I grew up in stressful circumstances. I am one of six children, in a family that was struggling to make ends meet. Additionally, my father was an abusive alcoholic who frequently left us for weeks at a time without money. In spite of the difficulties at home, I still managed to receive straight A’s in all my classes. At home, I was responsible for taking care of my three younger brothers and helping with the household chores.
Instead of being recognized for all my accomplishments, I was labeled a defiant troublemaker and was repeatedly told by the teachers at my schools that I would never amount to anything. Growing up in Tucson, Arizona, among many other American Indians and Mexican Americans, it was hard to find success stories for inspiration that could contradict such disheartening messages. Most of the kids in my neighborhood were never expected to graduate from high school, much less college.
By the age of 13, I felt hopeless: I didn’t believe that my life would ever improve. To make matters worse, my seventh grade teacher decided that my sister and I were impolite, and she reprimanded us in front of the entire seventh and eighth grades. She complained to the principal and a simple misunderstanding resulted in my expulsion from school.
Being humiliated in front of my peers confirmed that life was not worth living. I attempted to take my own life. Lost and scared, I was admitted to a mental hospital. It was a frightening place and none of the other patients were even close to my age. But in counseling, with the help of a wonderful psychologist, I found comfort for the first time. Through my work with her, I gained clarity about my life, which allowed me to better cope with the difficult realities of my home and family. I felt I could continue to live my life with the knowledge she taught me, especially the insight that the hardships I experienced were not my fault—rather, they were due to my environment. She helped me to understand that my father had a disease that kept him from being a good father and that my mother’s own childhood had prepared her to accept abuse as normal. She had been abused herself and did not know how to protect her children.
My experience in therapy showed me the healing power of psychology, and I decided that I wanted to learn how to help others just as I had been helped. This determination made my experience in the hospital positive and life-affirming instead of pushing me to continue down a destructive path. After returning home, I decided to go back to school and I continued to get straight A’s. Part of my motivation to do well in school was to prove my teachers wrong and show them that I would succeed.
Following high school, I went to the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. My senior English teacher couldn’t resist telling me I would never graduate, but I graduated in 3.5 years with majors in psychology and Japanese. Luckily, my two older sisters were also attending Notre Dame and we provided each other with the support we needed to graduate. It was hard to leave my younger brothers—always taking care of them had made me protective—but I knew that the best thing I could do for all of us was to get the best education I could.
College gave me a newfound confidence. For the first time in my life, I was told I was intelligent. Notre Dame also came as an unexpected culture shock, not because I was one of the few American Indians there, or even because I studied abroad in Japan for a year, but because the other American Indian students seemed just as different from me as I felt from the white students.
Many of the American Indian students at Notre Dame had never been to their reservations. They knew they were part American Indian, but they did not know very much about their cultures. Realizing that not everyone grows up going to ceremonies and hearing their language spoken gave me a stronger appreciation for my own Zuni culture. It was this realization that made me begin to enjoy participating in the ceremonies on the reservation. I had always concentrated on the bad things that happened on the reservation, the alcoholism and the poverty, and I was angry at the U.S. for the reservation’s condition. I wanted to be a warrior and fight the power, just like Malcolm X.
Traveling abroad and learning about the lives of other Indian students helped me reframe my negative experiences. Instead of focusing on the poverty that surrounded me, I realized that I had been surrounded by incredible generosity and love. Every time I left from a visit with my relatives on the reservation, my sisters and I had new jewelry made by one of my aunties and a car full of food for the long drive home.
After graduating from college, I worked as a juvenile probation officer, trying to help kids like me get on a better path. Many of them had never seen a different way of life and thought it was better to join in the chaos of alcohol and drug addiction that surrounded them because they saw no way out. I knew there was one way out–education! I worked hard with the kids to help them understand that life could be different. Most importantly, I constantly rewarded them for making the decision to have a better life by showing up for school and staying sober and out of trouble. I had many successes with young people, but there were kids that I couldn’t reach—the ones that ended up murdered, in prison, or dead by their own hands—and the weight of the loss of these lives became too heavy.
I realized I wanted to do more than try to help once a child was already in trouble. I wanted to understand why some children like me could experience trauma and still succeed and why other children were not able to escape lifestyles of poverty and violence. This idea of success despite adversity began to intrigue me deeply and I considered how to research it further. Many researchers have focused on how providing social support helps kids overcome difficulties, but I wanted to understand the abilities that the children themselves possessed that promoted resilience, to potentially help future disadvantaged children succeed. Luckily, I was given the opportunity to further my education at the University of Kansas through the recommendation of a former professor who had become my mentor, Dr. Sharon O’Brien. Continuing my education and receiving a Ph.D. has granted me further access to helping others.
Currently, I teach at the University of Utah and my work is dedicated to understanding cognitive and social development in relation to how children remember the events and the interactions with others that shape their lives. My Zuni heritage has instilled in me the idea that giving is essential, and now that I have reached a position of influence, it is my responsibility to give back to others.
I take enormous pride in my work because I feel that it reflects who I am. I personally have grown up in the context of adversity and know how hard it is to change your life when it doesn’t seem like very many people support you. When a person is caught going down a self-destructive path, the keys to promoting resiliency are optimism, empathy, and acknowledgement of destructive life factors. It is not an easy task, but through further research we can create a stronger awareness of how to overcome the harmful environmental conditions common in many youths’ lives.
Marigold Linton, PhD
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.
Michael Sesma, PhD
According to my mother, I spoke Japanese until I was three years old and then slowly moved on to English. This may seem strange until you find out my father was an officer in the United States Navy stationed in Sasebo, Japan. In Japan, he met my mom, married her, and they had me in 1953. My brothers and I were raised to identify with our Japanese heritage, but it was a somewhat different immigrant experience than a lot of Japanese-Americans had. Since it was only 10 years after World War II, we encountered postwar discrimination against Japanese-Americans and Japanese women who had married American soldiers. In many ways, it felt like my father’s Mexican-American roots were much more accepted since Latinos were more commonly considered part of American culture in southern California at the time.
I didn’t have much exposure to my father’s Mexican-American heritage until we lived in San Diego. My family and I hold great pride in our mixed heritage and what it has meant to American culture. Growing up, I was lucky to live where I did, because Latino mentors were easier to find in the San Diego area. In fact, it was a Mexican-American biology teacher in high school who encouraged me to take more of an interest in the sciences. He did a lot to help stimulate my curiosity and encouraged me to explore science beyond the textbook and what was offered in the classroom.
All the way through high school, there were many Mexican-American students and teachers. It wasn’t until college that I began to notice a drop in the numbers of minorities in my classes. At the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), I double majored in biology and psychology. About 15% of the students in my psychology program were Latino. There were fewer Asian Americans and no African Americans, and there were only two Latino junior faculty that I knew of in biology and none in psychology. What concerned me was the small number of minority faculty members in these departments and throughout the entire university. There weren’t that many minority undergraduate students either, especially in the sciences.
The number of minority students and faculty in my graduate program at University of California, Riverside (UCR), was similar. I focused on getting through the program and becoming competitive for future academic opportunities. I also knew that in some areas of science there were very few Chicano/Latino students pursuing graduate degrees. While I remember a number of my minority undergraduate classmates wanting careers in medicine, I don’t recall many looking to academic science. Over time this became a bigger and bigger issue in my mind.
After many years as a researcher, the issue of the lack of diversity in academic science led me to the job of chief of the Research Scientist Development Program in the Office for Special Populations at the National Institute of Mental Health. In seeking this position, I saw an opportunity to give something back and create change at a federal level. I’m now responsible for developing ideas about how to encourage the next generation of scientists, in particular, people who are from underrepresented groups. I want to facilitate the success of other Latinos who want careers in academic research. To achieve this, it is vital for students to have role models—to see people like them as faculty members, researchers, and leaders.
The perspective of a minority scientist may or may not be different from a majority scientist, but it does bring diversity to a research environment. I think growing up half Japanese and half Latino in a predominantly Caucasian culture taught me very early on what it means to struggle with adversity. I know what it feels like to try and achieve your goals without visible mentors who share your ethnic background in your field. To watch the numbers of minorities dwindle the closer you get to the top can be very discouraging. I strive to make it easier for everyone to attain the goals they seek, by helping to encourage students from a mentorship standpoint. My hope is that increased visibility and determination will prove to be an encouraging example for others.