'One Hundred Years Hence'
UI alumnus and former astronaut John Herrington reflects on individual’s ability to positively influence the future.
“Lo, the poor Indian whose untutored mind sees God in the clouds and hears him in the wind.”
These were the words written on a poster announcing a three-day celebration around the Fourth of July in Oklahoma City in 1889. At the center of the poster was a drawing of a group of Native Americans dancing around a fire with the subtitles “Indian War Dance” and “When the Weird Incantations of the Primitive Children of the Forest and the Lurid Flames will Inspire, Awe, and Charm Beholders.”
The poster was one of multiple items stowed for over a century in a time capsule buried in 1913 beneath of the floor of Oklahoma Cityʼs First Lutheran Church. I had the good fortune of examining many of the pieces as they were being inventoried at the Oklahoma Historical Society. As a registered member of the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma, I was dismayed by the words that stood out on the poster. It spoke to a time when Native Americans were still viewed through the lens of colonialism and the foundation of Manifest Destiny. A lens that pervaded our country since Europeans first placed their feet on the shores of what would become known as North America.
There were many items in pristine condition: A bow carved from bois d'arc wood; a panoramic picture of Quanah Parker with his wives and son, and many of his warriors in full regalia; a picture of Geronimo in breechcloth and war bonnet taken at Fort Sill, Oklahoma; a Bible printed in the Choctaw language.
As I perused the items from the Century Chest, I saw a black book, hardbound with gold leaf lettering embossed on the cover: “CONSTITUTION TREATIES AND LAWS OF THE CHICKASAW NATION.” Printed in 1890, this book documented the treaties and laws by which my tribe abided following their removal to Indian Territory from their homelands in the southeastern United States in 1837, also known as The Trail of Tears.
I was filled with pride because here was clear evidence to countermand the stereo-type depicted in the poster of the “Primitive Children of the Forest,” the “untutored” Native American mind. Alongside the constitution was an unsealed, plain white envelope. I asked the archivist if she knew what was in it. She told me it had not been read yet, but she offered me the opportunity to be the first. With white gloves protecting the document from the oils of my hand, I carefully pulled from the envelope a two-page letter written in immaculate cursive. The letter was addressed to a Mrs. Czarina C. Conlan, a Choctaw and Chickasaw woman who organized the collection of Native American items deposited in the Century Chest.
As I read the letter, my hands trembled as the words rose from the page.
“I am a native of this Country, born at Old Boggy Depot on Feb, 4th 1845, was educated in the schools of the Chickasaw Nation of that day and was in school in the state of Miss, when I answered the call to arms in the Confederate army in 1861 and served through the war, returned to my native country and was elected Governor of the Chickasaw nation in 1886 and served in that capacity for two years. …”
“To those who would read these words in 2013 I can only say that I added my mite in the way of time, money and influence for the education and advancement of my native people. … My life’s work will end with my humble service to aid the children and unfortunate of my tribe and I devoutly pray that the representatives of the living one hundred years hence will be in full enjoyment of the civilization and advancement that I have always stood for and longed so much to see my people reach. My kindest personal regards to you, I am Sincerely Yours William Malcolm Guy.”
There I was, “a representative of the living, one hundred years hence.” It was as if Gov. Guy was speaking directly to me in his letter, and I was humbled that someone had devoted his life to an idea, a hope, that if he mentored people, there might come a day when that dedication would count for some-thing. Gov. Guy’s desire to “aid the children and unfortunate of my tribe” was his way of providing mentorship to his community.
Many of the decisions I have made in my career have been based on following the advice of people who mentored me. From the owner of a surveying firm I worked for as a teenager, to a retired Navy captain I tutored in college, these men saw something in me that moved them to encourage me to achieve something in life. It was my responsibility to follow that advice. I am a member of the Chickasaw Nation, a retired Naval Aviator, test pilot, and the first Native American astronaut.
I earned a Bachelor of Science degree in applied mathematics, a Master of Science degree in aeronautical engineering, and Doctor of Philosophy in education. I flew over 5.6 million miles in orbit above the Earth and helped to assemble one of the most technologically advanced engineering achievements humankind has ever attempted, the International Space Station. I have been a recipient of those things Gov. Guy wished for his people to achieve — and I was the first person in 100 years to read his words. It was gratifying to see the leadership that my tribe demonstrated during a time when Native people were being marginalized and stereotyped, not yet recipients of the right to vote for the government under which they lived.
Since retiring from the Navy in 2005, I have been involved in numerous efforts dedicated to improving the number of Native Americans in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. I have spoken to thousands of Native American students about my journey in education and how it led me to my career as an astronaut. I even rode a bicycle 4,300 miles across the country, stopping at Indian reservations along the way, sharing my story. I also returned to the University of Idaho and conducted doctoral research on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation in southern Idaho. This is my way of returning the favor to those who have impacted my life.
We all have the opportunity to make a difference in the life of someone we care about. Often we do not realize the influence we can have on those around us. I would wager that each of us recalls a time when someone said something that profoundly influenced us. It could have been a teacher, family friend, even a boss. They planted a seed in our imagination, encouraged us to pursue a particular field of study, perhaps even motivated us to return to school. Their attention may have made the difference between just living our lives or living our dream.
Each of us, be it as an undergraduate or in the professoriate, needs to be a mentor for those that come behind us. Be the guide shining the light down a dark and confusing path.
• Former NASA astronaut John B. Herrington earned his Doctor of Philosophy from UI’s College of Education in 2014.