Tribal Colleges Celebrate Herrington’s Flight

Feb 15th, 2003 | By | Category: 14-3: Your Heroes Are Not Our Heroes, Tribal College News

John Herrington spoke to tribal college communities in North Dakota prior to his mission in outer space. Photo courtesy of NASA

Tribal college communities kept a close watch on space shuttle Endeavour last Nov. 23 to Dec. 7 knowing that John B. Herrington (Chickasaw) was the first tribally enrolled American Indian astronaut to walk in space. Several tribal college representatives attended the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) event commemorating his flight earlier in November at the NASA Kennedy Space Center. The shuttle did not launch at that time because of weather conditions, but NASA provided a symposium, Linking Education to Employment, and a festive celebration.

Tribal colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions have a long relationship with NASA, which provides resources, internships, and various programs designed to encourage students to conduct research and to consider careers in math, science, engineering, and technology (see TCJ, Vol. 12, N.3, page 33). Last April, for example, NASA announced that it was awarding $120,000 to the six tribal colleges in North Dakota for planning, math and science tutoring, purchasing or upgrading equipment, travel, and other projects. NASA announced the awards at NASA Awareness Days April 3-5, 2002, which was hosted by Cankdeska Cikana Community College in Fort Totten, ND.

The highlight of the April conference was a talk between Herrington and North Dakota Indian students of all ages. The astronaut was in training at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX, preparing for his launch at the time, but he took time out to call and speak to the audience. Students felt a special relationship with the Chickasaw astronaut, whose cardboard cutout likeness was displayed during the April conference, and many planned to continue their correspondence with him during his flight.

The NASA event that honored him in November introduced hundreds of non-Indians to American Indians and various tribal traditions while at the same time introducing tribal people to NASA culture and traditions. Over 45 tribes were represented among the 400 guests, including 200 tribal elders and members of the Chickasaw Nation, the Chickasaw governor and lieutenant governor, Herrington’s mother and father, and 11 of the 35 tribal colleges. NASA filled one day with information about NASA programs, From Earth to Outer Space, for Native American students in K-12 schools, tribal colleges, and other undergraduate and graduate programs.

Ron McNeil, president of Sitting Bull College, received a standing ovation after his keynote address, Tribal College Pathway to Employment. McNeil also chairs President George W. Bush’s Advisory Board on Tribal Colleges and Universities. The program provided Native songs, dances, and prayers, including NASA physicist Jerry Elliott (Osage/Cherokee) playing an original flute selection. Academy Award winning artist Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree) sang two of her well-known songs, which could have been written especially for the occasion, Starwalker and Up Where We Belong.

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