November is recognized as National Native American Heritage Month. This heritage month began as a way to recognize the significant contributions and the rich and diverse cultures, traditions, and histories the first Americans made to the establishment and growth of the United States. This month also serves as an opportune time to educate the general public about the tribes, to raise general awareness about the unique challenges Native people have faced both historically and in the present, and the ways in which the tribal citizens have worked to overcome these challenges.
The American Bar Association has a wonderful slide show of many notable leaders in activism and in the legal profession who are of Native American heritage here. I have included a few and some additional inventors who had notable contributions to the STEM, IP, or legal field below.
Mary Golda Ross (1908-2008) was a NASA mathematician and engineer whose native affiliation was with the Cherokee Nation. Much of her work was in the research, evaluation, and testing of top-secret rocket and missile systems. She played a pivotal role in sending Apollo astronauts into space and for Lockheed Martin. In addition, she helped develop plans for the P-38 Lighting Fighter plan. She was also one of only two women on the original Skunk Works team. Ross also helped write NASA’s Planetary Flight Handbook (the agency’s guide to space travel). She is the first known Native American female engineer and the first female engineer in the history of Lockheed.
Aaron Yazzie (born in 1986) is a NASA mechanical engineer whose native affiliation is with the Diné (Navajo Nation). He currently works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Yazzie has developed mechanical systems that help analyze Mars’s atmosphere and Martian soil samples. His technology is currently at work on the Mars Insight Lander. He is an active advocate for Indigenous Peoples in STEM studies and careers, frequently featured by and active with the American Indian Science and Engineering Society.
Susan La Flesche Picotte (1865-1915) was a physician whose native affiliation was with the Omaha Nation. La Flesche Picotte studied at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, graduating first in her class, making her the first Native American to earn a medical degree. Following this, she returned to the Omaha Reservation where she treated thousands of people and where she is credited with building the first private hospital on a Native American reservation.
Thomas David Petite (born in 1956) is an inventor whose native affiliation is with the Fond du Lac Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa Nation. Petite has contributed technology to the development of the “smart grid,” technology that harnesses the power of and monitors wireless-enabled devices at a specific location. He has over 50 U.S. patents, founded the Native American Inventors Association, and works to support Native American Inventors throughout the country. He is also a newly selected member of the Professional Awards Selection Committee of the American Indian and Science Engineering Society.
7 Indigenous Pioneers You Need to Know by Popular Mechanics
Celebrating Native American Heritage Months by the American Bar Association
Native American Heritage Month by the National Congress of American Indians