Idaho Native American scientists discuss their academic paths

Coyote Short, Paiute-Modoc, enjoys learning about rocks and natural phenomena every day. She likes helping others understand the natural world from her perspective.

Zach Penney, Nez Perce, uses science to ensure the right of Native American tribes from the Columbia River basin to have enough salmon to keep them fed and their traditions alive.

Sammy Matsaw Jr., Shoshone-Bannock, fights for the recognition of traditional Native American perspectives in Western science, while helping Native youth reconnect with their roots.

Native American representation in the natural sciences is important, especially in Idaho. Most of the decisions about management of natural resources in tribal land are made by people working for historically white institutions, which can impose views that are not in the best interest of the local communities and their traditions.

Yet, structures enabling racism still prevent many Native Americans from accessing higher education, even after hundreds of years after the colonization process.

Data from the United States census reveals that, on Idaho’s Native reservations, the percentage of the population that graduates college with bachelor degrees hovers around 15%.

Even fewer American Indians go into STEM fields. In spite of being 1.2% of the population of the United States, Native Americans only represent 0.4% of all the people employed in science and engineering jobs, and make up only 0.1% of the faculty jobs in engineering.

Bringing Native American perspectives to academia can only help make Western science stronger, Matsaw said.

“As a Native person, what I can do is I bring an outside perspective about how you obtain knowledge, and how you can explain phenomena occurring in the world,” he said.

The Idaho Statesman talked to three scientists coming from Idaho’s First Nations in an effort to learn about their perspectives and increase their visibility. We asked them about the paths they followed to be academia and about their biggest challenges. They also told us what they think needs to happen to increase diversity and representation of Indigenous peoples in academic positions.

Coyote Short1.jpg
Coyote Short, one-half Paiute-Modoc and one-half French, is a geologist from Boise State University and volunteers at the Idaho Museum of Mining and Geology. Idaho Museum of Mining and Geology Idaho Museum of Mining and Geology

A geologist in love with the Gem state

Coyote Short is one-half Paiute-Modoc and one-half French, and she is a geologist from Boise State University. She has volunteered with the Idaho Museum of Mining and Geology for more than 20 years, and fills her day with the studies of minerals, rocks, fossils, and earthquakes.

She was born in central Idaho and became fascinated with geology in first grade, when she felt her first earthquake. “That got me interested in reading, and everything from then on became geologically oriented,” Short said.

She started visiting the library regularly to check out books on rocks and minerals, but also physics and chemistry — any kind of science book she could get her hands on.

At the same time, she was absorbing other skills from her Indigenous heritage that were key in her becoming a natural scientist.

The Paiute people inhabited the land from the southwestern tip of Idaho to the New Mexico pueblos. Living in the desert, the Paiute had nomad habits before the arrival of Western people to their lands — always following the presence of game, wild berries, and roots that sustained their communities.

Short’s Native grandmother taught her botany, hunting and gathering skills, and observation of the outdoors.

“She was my beacon of hope,” she said.

Short’s studies of the Native American world gave her the ability to adapt to her environment and a whole different take on nature than other people around her.

These skills helped her navigate her time at BSU, where she went for the real purpose of getting her Idaho geology license. Although she already had a lot of experience and knowledge about rocks and the environment, by the time she started her bachelor’s degree in science, she still needed to learn about the laws that governed the geology practice in Idaho.

Her time at the university also taught her how to navigate white people’s social world.

“I learned how to read the river, so to speak. When you’re rafting, you have to know where the current runs in the river. The university taught me how to read the river of the social world, which I did not know how to do,” Short said. She also learned how to use technology to complement her natural senses.

She found little support in her professors at the time, she said. Her unique take on the world of geology — given by her Native heritage — would unsettle many of them, and Short said she felt that she had to put an effort many times higher than other students just to be seen at their same level.

After receiving her geology degree and license, she was discovered by the Idaho Museum of Mining and Geology.

“They needed somebody who really knew rocks, minerals, and all kinds of natural phenomena, not just rocks and chemistry,” Short said, “and I understand how the biology fits with the geology — they’re just intertwined.”

Idaho’s geology is complex and diverse. Volcanic activity played a central role in the formation of the Snake River plain. Plate tectonics and molten rock cooled over millions of years created areas rich in granite in the center of the state. High temperatures and pressures mixed and crystallized minerals, shaping thousands of gems in the state’s ground.

At the museum, Short enjoys interacting with people and getting them to understand Idaho’s geology and the language of rocks. That is, teaching them about where the rocks came from, what they can say about their environment, and what can they say about the future.

“I miss the company of rocks terribly,” she said, referencing the closure of the museum because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Short says Native Americans are sometimes victims of the high-pressure, fast-paced modern world, and that they can’t touch base with the natural world anymore. She says Native children need to be educated with connections to the Native and the modern worlds.

“Each one of us has a specific stream we want to explore. We want to give them the tools to do that,” she said.

She wishes that non-Indigenous people would stop thinking of Native Americans from the lens of longtime stereotypes: drug-addicts, alcoholics, lazy.

“It’s nothing but the contrary,” she said, “if you have the Native American spirit like I do, it’s unstoppable.”

Short is now working on her master’s degree from BSU, which has been difficult to continue because of the pandemic. In the meantime, she is preparing online lectures for the virtual series of the Idaho Museum of Mining and Geology, hoping to keep people’s interest in rocks intact while they wait for the museum to re-open safely.

Zach Penney is half Nez Perce and half Polish-Swedish. His work at the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission combines science and policy to guarantee the presence of salmon in the river. Zach Penney Zach Penney

A salmon physiologist in science policy

Zach Penney is half Nez Perce and half Polish-Swedish, and he has a Ph.D. in fisheries from the University of Idaho. He now works as the Fishery Science Department manager for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

He was born in Moscow, Idaho, but went to school in Wallace, where both his parents were teachers. He was one of only six students with Native American heritage in the school. He struggled with bullying and low grades for a long time.

In spite of going to school in a predominantly white town, his father — also Nez Perce — made sure Penney always had a strong connection with his tribe. His family used to go fishing, and he could tell from an early age that salmon fishing was culturally very significant.

“You could just kind of sense it by the way that my (family) treated steelhead and salmon,” Penney said. “There was a totally different, I would say ceremonial, feeling about those fish.”

The various species of salmon in the Columbia and Snake rivers basin — Chinook, coho, sockeye, and steelhead — are a significant food resource for the Native American groups inhabiting the region. Their life cycle involves migrating from their spawning sites to the ocean, and back to the headwaters, where they die after laying eggs.

Salmon were plentiful in the region but the construction of dams along the basin blocked their natural way of returning from the sea. As a result, salmon numbers dwindled to the point that they were at the brink of extinction back in the ’80s, and the Native American communities in the area saw their main food source depleted. For the Nez Perce, it was completely unacceptable.

It was during those fishing trips that Penney realized he wanted to work in fisheries.

“It’s just in our DNA to be fishermen,” he reflected. He wanted to dedicate his life to do something that he enjoyed and could make an impact on the Nimiipuu people.

After graduating from high school, he went to a small school in Sitka, Alaska, where he took summer jobs doing sockeye stock assessments — it was the first time that he saw how a pristine salmon land actually looks like.

“It’s not something you see in Idaho anymore,” he said.

Penney’s stance in Sitka helped him discover a passion for science he didn’t know he had. His grades started to improve, and he felt confident about pursuing a career in science. The work he was doing there led him to start a master’s degree at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.

Although he still worked with fishes, his master’s project had more to do with geology than with fisheries. Penney was looking at the chemistry of the tiny bones in fish ears, and what that could say about their life histories. He said that “it was definitely a struggle to get down to the finish line, but I’m glad I did it.”

After his master’s, he came back to Idaho to work in a coho restoration project for the Nez Perce. The project’s goal was to use the extra eggs from a couple of Oregon hatcheries to try to bring back coho to Idaho’s rivers. Despite some resistance from the public, the project ended up being successful, to the point where coho fisheries could be reestablished in the state.

Going back to school was not in his plans, but Penney was offered a Ph.D. position at the University of Idaho that was difficult to pass. His work aimed to understand steelhead’s use of energy during their multiple migration trips to the ocean and back — steelhead, unlike other salmon, can spawn more than once in their lives.

In spite of his success as a scientist, Penney always felt judged in his journey through graduate education, he said.

“You always feel like you’re being watched and that somebody is going to base their assumption about all Native Americans or Nez Perce, based on how you behave or what you do,” he said. But he also understood that, as he represented the Nez Perce, he brought an important perspective to the students and professors that interacted with him every day.

Perhaps it was that understanding what let Penney to choose a career in science policy after finishing his Ph.D., instead of staying in academia. It became clear to him how much policy influenced the science that was being done in the Native territories, and how the tribes and the government interacted with each other.

Penney got the Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship offered by Oregon State University, which paired him with the House representative of the renewable natural resources committee. This experience taught him “a lot of things about how the sausage is made” regarding policy and natural resources. He was now prepared for what is his current job at the Columbia River fish commission.

His job bridges together the interests of the Native American tribes the commission serves — Yakama, Umatilla, Warm Springs and Nez Perce — and the other economic interests for preserving the fish. “The science I do is for both the fish and the treaty tribes. The fish are central to who the tribes are, so the science is rooted in our very own identity. We are part of the same ecosystem and co-evolved together.”

“A good chunk of what I do is related to policy and the historical context about why some of the things are the way they are,” Penney said about his work. “The states have made decisions over the last 150 years that have not necessarily chosen a good future for salmon. They’ve made choices based on capitalistic needs … but treaty rights are not just about catching fish, it’s about the right that there’s actually fish to catch.”

He thinks that one of the biggest obstacles for Native Americans to get into science careers is a misperception — that those who leave tribal land will never come back.

“Of course you do come back,” he said. “Getting a degree is going to change you … It makes you a much more effective warrior to learn this Western science perspective, but it doesn’t change your memories. I mean, you’re still who you are, you can always come home.”

Regarding his own experience, Penney sees it as if he unintentionally followed the path of the salmon. He went to the Pacific following them, and then came back home to work for their preservation.

Sammy Matsaw Jr., Shoshone-Bannock, is a fish ecologist from University of Idaho and is working towards a cultural change in academia. Here he wears traditional attire with his wife, Jessica Matsaw. Sammy Matsaw Jr Sammy Matsaw Jr

An ecologist with a commitment to cultural change in academia

Sammy Matsaw Jr. is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and is finishing his Ph.D. at the University of Idaho. He’s a father, a husband, a member of an extended family, and mostly grew up in the Fort Hall Indian Reservation in southeastern Idaho.

Matsaw’s upbringing saw him enlarging the many deficit statistics about Native Americans; he was exposed to substance abuse, violence and police harassment. But it was his high school science teacher — also Native — who motivated him to think about pursuing a career in science. That push, together with his early cultural experiences as a hunter, gatherer and fisherman, made him want to become a biologist.

He started school but dropped out soon after — he struggled with his finances. It was then when Matsaw decided to join the Army. For 10 years, he was assigned to low-end jobs, from tank mechanic to cook.

“We have limited exposure on the reservation, and we really don’t know what to expect,” he said. “We just think that we should just join the military and … let the recruiter take you from there.”

He later found out he could have chosen any science field he wanted when he joined — Matsaw had excellent scores in his Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test — but his recruiter never told him so. He could have worked as one of the many field ecologists recruited to manage land and endangered species issues around the world.

It was after coming back home from being deployed in Iraq that he decided to go back to school and finish his undergraduate degree in ecology, followed by a master’s in conservation genetics, both at Idaho State University — just outside of the Fort Hall reservation.

Matsaw wanted to study one of his tribe’s traditional foods — salmon — but he ended up working with westlope cutthroat trout, a fish native to northern Idaho and Montana.

He was looking into the effects that man-made barriers had on the trout’s genetics. When barriers prevent the normal movement of individuals between different populations, genetic diversity is reduced and their ability to survive and reproduce can be affected.

During his master’s, he said he hit many roadblocks. His advisers “did not have an understanding of the cultural sensitivity” to some things that he had, Matsaw said, and they “did not see me as an equal.” His constant academic battles during this period only paid off seven years after he started, when he was finally allowed to graduate.

But just as he was about to give up on academia and dedicate to working for the tribes, Matsaw’s high school science teacher told him about a Ph.D. opportunity with the Indigenous STEM Research and Graduate Education program at the Aquaculture Research Institute of University of Idaho. He also was a fellow of the National Science Foundation’s Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship, which promoted interdisciplinary research.

His Ph.D. program connected him with people that were also willing to learn about issues around culture. Matsaw’s role in that program was important for his advisers and other graduate students. His Ph.D. thesis revolves around the issue of understanding science and policy on Indigenous terms, integrating ecological, cultural and legal perspectives to comprehend the ecosystems in tribal land.

Matsaw’s ultimate goal is to determine what it means to have healthy freshwater ecosystems that sustains the tribes’ traditional way of life, so they can develop strategies to reach that state.

“Working for the tribes, I realized we don’t need a geneticist. We need somebody that understands science on our terms,” he explained. “If we understand science on our terms, what happens is we then begin to ask questions that are of interest to us.”

As a product of extensive reflections about his life and research experiences, he founded River Newe with his wife, Jessica. River Newe is a nonprofit that connects Shoshone-Bannock tribal youth with their ancestral homelands and ways of learning.

Some recreational activities excluded Shoshone-Bannock people from the Middle Fork Salmon River, and the Matsaws are actively working to bring the tribal youth back.

“We take two trips every summer. And we do those around experiential learning around science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics. We like the youth to express themselves through art, and what their identity means as a scientist and as an Indigenous person,” Matsaw said.

Matsaw wishes to stay in academia and reach a position from which he can start producing the change that is much needed in academic culture. On one hand, he says that increased representation could encourage many more young Natives to get into STEM fields. His relationship with his high school science teacher is a great example.

On the other hand, he thinks Western scientists need more awareness about different ways of knowing and doing science. “We view our knowledge coming from nature and (most scientists) view themselves as not a part of nature. They don’t see us as equals, they see us as primitive, living fossils.”

For Natives, he added, the natural world is about cooperation, while for a Western scientist it can be about competition.

“If I come into science and I view the world through cooperation, I have a different perspective on how I would set up a hypothesis or an experiment, … or what sort of results I foresee,” he said.

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