Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian - NMAI E-Newservice

NMAI E-Newservice is a free news service of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian for news outlets serving Native America. These articles and photos are free to reprint if credit to the NMAI E-Newservice is given, along with identified writer and photographer credits.

To receive this service, contact Kara Briggs at or 503-577-0012.

In This Issue:

Cherokee rocket scientist leaves NMAI a heavenly gift

Mary G. Ross blazed a trail in the sky as a woman engineer in the space race, and her bequest will propel the museum's future educational journeys.

Photo by Mary McCarthy
Mary G. Ross, the first Native American woman engineer, joins in the opening procession on the National Mall for the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. Ross, at the time 96, was among more than 25,000 Native Americans at the celebration.

Photo by Mary McCarthy
Mary G. Ross, at 96, sits beside the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian at dusk, following the museum's opening in 2004. Ross, the great-great granddaughter of Cherokee Chief John Ross, died in April 2008.
click images to access high resolution photo page

By Kara Briggs
NMAI Newservice

When she was 96 years old, Mary Golda Ross asked her niece to make her something very special: the first traditional Cherokee dress that Ross, the great-great-granddaughter of renowned Chief John Ross, would ever own.

Because Ross, after a lifetime of high-flying achievement as one of the nation's most prominent women scientists of the space age, wanted to wear her ancestral dress to the 2004 opening of the Smithsonian's new National Museum of the American Indian.

Last month, the museum received notice of a generous bequest from Mary G. Ross, who died in April, only three months shy of her 100th birthday.

"She was a strong-willed, independent woman who was ahead of her time," said her Oneida friend Norbert Hill, chairman of the National Museum of the American Indian's Board of Trustees, "and a proud woman who never forgot where she was from."

Wearing that dress of green calico, Ross joined in the procession of 25,000 Native people that opened the museum four years ago. Now her gift, invested in the museum's endowment, will help perpetuate the cultural and educational mission of the National Museum of the American Indian for future generations.

"She gave to endowment," her niece and executor Evelyn Ross McMillan said, "because endowment perpetuates itself. She was a mathematician, and she knew if you gave a large scholarship it would be gone in a year. But if you gave to endowment the principal would continue to give."

Mary G. Ross—whose Cherokee lineage includes leaders and teachers and who herself now figures in the lineage as the Cherokee rocket scientist—spent her century of life looking mostly into the future.

Born in 1908 on her parents' allotment in the foothills of the Ozarks, she was one year younger than the state of Oklahoma. It had been 70 years since her ancestor led his people over the Trail of Tears. She was 5 years old before she rode in a car. A gifted child, she was sent to live with her grandparents in Tahlequah, the capitol of the Cherokee Nation, and attend day school. Her high school math teacher was a Cherokee, who, she later said, "took for granted that you could do what you could do." At 16, she enrolled in Northeastern State Teachers College, which Chief John Ross was involved in founding.

She told the San Jose Mercury News in 1994, "When I went to the college to enroll, they asked me what I wanted for my major subject. I said, ‘What's a major subject?' The person finally said, ‘What did you have the most fun with when you were in high school?'

"Well, math, of course," the slender, 5-foot-10-inch girl answered.

She graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1928 and taught math and science for nine years in nearby high schools. By 1937, Ross remembered asking herself, "Are you going to go out and see anything of the world, or are you going to stay in Northern Oklahoma?"

She took the civil service exam and was hired as a statistical clerk at the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. Once there, a Cherokee woman from the Department of Education quickly noticed her, Ross recalled for the newspaper.

"We can't waste you here," the official said. "You're an Indian with a degree and experience in teaching. We need you in the field."

An education in the stars

At age 29 in 1937, she was sent to Santa Fe, N.M., to work as the girls' advisor at a school for American Indian artists. The school would become the Institute of American Indian Art. In the summers Ross pursued a master's degree in mathematics at the University of Northern Colorado.

While there, she took every astronomy class the school had, and read every book about the stars. The clear night sky in Colorado fascinated her.

She was visiting friends in Southern California when she heard that the Lockheed Corporation, left short of highly skilled workers upon the outbreak of World War II, was looking for people with her technical background. She was hired as a mathematician in 1942.

She was assigned to work with the engineering staff on two questions: the effects of pressure on the P-38 Lightning fighter plane—the first to go more than 400 mph—as it neared the sound barrier, and improving the aeroelasticity of that first plane so large it had to be treated as a flexible body. At the time Ross already knew interplanetary work was what she would enjoy most, but she thought, "If I had mentioned it in 1942, my credibility would have been questioned."

After the war, Ross thought she, like most women, would be sent home. But Lockheed had something else in mind for her. The corporation offered to send her to the University of California at Los Angeles to get a professional certification in engineering. She studied mathematics for modern engineering, aeronautics and missile and celestial mechanics. By 1948, Ross was on the ground floor of what would become the space race.

A top-secret role

In 1952 Lockheed asked Ross to be one of 40 engineers in what became known as the Lockheed Skunk Works, a super-secret think tank led by legendary aeronautics engineer Clarence "Kelly" Johnson. It was the start of Lockheed Missiles & Space Co., a major consultant to NASA based in Sunnyvale, Calif. Ross was 45, the only woman and the only Native American. A single woman, she bought herself a 900-square-foot house with a rose garden and an apricot tree.

Her Lockheed team's top-secret project? "Preliminary design concepts for interplanetary space travel, manned and unmanned earth-orbiting flights, the earliest studies of orbiting satellites for both defense and civilian purposes," columnist Leigh Weimers wrote in the Mercury News in 1994.

"Often at night there were four of us working until 11 p.m.," Ross recalled in the article. "I was the pencil pusher, doing a lot of research. My state of the art tools were a slide rule and a Frieden computer."

Most of the theories and papers that emerged from the group, including those by Ross, are still classified. As she told her alma mater's newspaper in the 1990s, "We were taking the theoretical and making it real." One of Ross' seminal roles was as one of the authors of the NASA Planetary Flight Handbook Vol. III, about space travel to Mars and Venus.

"She was just one of the guys," said Norbert Hill, who met Ross when he was executive director of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society. "She was as smart as the rest of them and she held her own."

Woman of the year

Around the time of the Soviet Union's 1957 launch of Sputnik, Ross moved into the public eye. In 1958 she appeared on the television show "What's My Line?" It took contestants many guesses before they realized that the smiling woman in a V-necked, sleeveless black dress in fact, as the caption read, "Designs Rocket Missiles and Satellites (Lockheed Aircraft)."

One San Francisco-area newspaper article from 1961 called Ross "possibly the most influential Indian maid since Pocahontas," and noted that she was "making her mark in outer space." She told the interviewer, "I think of myself as applying mathematics in a fascinating field."

The article was on the occasion of Ross being recognized as the Peninsula Woman of the Year by the women's communications society Theta Sigma Phi. The award recognized Ross' "extraordinary contribution to space age communications" for her recognition of the potential of satellites as a means of global communication.

Another article from the time noted that Ross, who had yet to see a rocket blast off, believed that women would make "wonderful astronauts." But she said, "I'd rather stay down here and analyze the data."

Looking toward the future

Ross retired from Lockheed at age 65 in 1973, and turned her attention to the next generation of Native Americans and women in engineering.

She recruited high school and college students to the field. A member of the Society of Women Engineers since the 1950s, she also took an interest in American Indian groups such as the American Indian Science and Engineering Society and the Council of Energy Resource Tribes.

"To function efficiently, you need math," she said later in life. "The world is so technical, if you plan to work in it, a math background will let you go farther and faster."

Norbert Hill remembers her calling him in her later years as awards and honors came her way.

"She'd say, ‘Should I take this?'" Hill remembers, "I used to say, ‘It would be good for Indian people if you would do that.' She would never do that just for herself."

One of the few regrets she ever mentioned was that she had spent so much of her life apart from Indian people. Part of Ross' longevity, her niece said, stemmed from her belief in "keeping old friends and making new friends." Among her newer friends, Cara Cowan Watts, an engineer and elected legislator of the Cherokee Nation, has said, "Just think, a Cherokee woman from Park Hill (Okla.) helped put an American on the moon."

At 96, Ross was looking ahead again—to the long-anticipated Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. In the opening procession, she stepped out of her electric wheelchair on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and walked for half a block.

"She felt she was a part of history being made, again," Hill said.

Ross told the Los Altos (Calif.) Town Crier newspaper in 2004, "The museum will tell the true story of the Indian—not just the story of the past, but an ongoing story."

Mary G. Ross, biography in brief

Photo courtesy of Evelyn Ross McMillan
Portrait of Mary G. Ross, the first Native American woman engineer.

Why did this happen to me? How without an engineering degree and no previous experience was I able to adapt and move through such an interesting career? The answer, I think, is that I had a firm foundation in mathematics and those qualities that came down to me from my Indian heritage. I had a great deal of curiosity, interest, willingness to study and to learn, to try out new ideas and most of all to work. – Mary Ross, 1992

1838: Her ancestor, Chief John Ross, leads Cherokee over Trail of Tears, advocates for an Indian state and education for Cherokee men and women

1907: Oklahoma becomes a state

1908: Mary Golda Ross born, near Park Hill, Okla.

1924: Ross enrolls in Northeastern State Teachers College, Okla.

1928: Receives bachelor's degree in mathematics from Northeastern State Teachers College

1931: Begins teaching high school math and science

1937: Passes civil service exam, hired by Bureau of Indian Affairs, becomes women's student advisor at a new Indian boarding school in Santa Fe, N.M.

1938: Receives master's degree in mathematics from University of Northern Colorado

1941: U.S. enters World War II; P-38 Lightning fighter plane introduced

1942: Hired as mathematician by Lockheed Corporation; works on the P-38

1948: Becomes registered professional engineer in California

1953: Transfers to Guided Missiles Group at Lockheed Corp.

1956: Lockheed receives contract to develop the Polaris submarine launched ballistic missile

1957: Transfers to Lockheed Missiles & Space Co., Sunnyvale, Calif.; Soviet Union launches Sputnik

1958: U.S. establishes National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

1961: Elected president of Altrusa Club of Sunnyvale, Calif.; Matrix Table Award for Space Age Communication of Ideas, Theta Sigma Phi; Woman of Distinction Award, San Francisco Examiner; first U.S. manned space flight takes place

1962: One of the authors of NASA Planetary Flight Handbook Vol. III

1973: Ross, 65, retires

1977: American Indian Science and Engineering Society established

1985: Earns Distinguished Contributions to Engineering and Society Community Award from the Society of Manufacturing Engineers

1989: Congress passes legislation establishing the National Museum of the American Indian

1992: Inducted into the Silicon Valley Hall of Fame

1994: Receives Women of Achievement Award from the Women's Fund

2004: Participates in opening of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, D.C.

2008: Ross dies, leaving gifts to the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian; Northeastern (Okla.) State University; the University of Northern Colorado; the American Indian Science and Engineering Society; the Society of Women Engineers

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U.S. Postal Service delivers a tiny timeline of Native America

"The American Indian in Stamps: Profiles in Leadership, Accomplishment and Cultural Celebration" is an Internet exhibition of U.S. postal stamps dating to 1898.

By Kara Briggs
NMAI E-Newservice

Courtesy of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum
The U.S. Postal Service issued a 3-cent Will Rogers stamp in 1948, which bears his trademark saying, "I never met a man I didn't like."

Courtesy of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum
Will Rogers appeared in postage again Nov. 4, 1979, the hundredth anniversary of the famous Cherokee author and entertainer’s birth.

Courtesy of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum
Hollow Horn Bear, who fought in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, was featured in the first 14-cent stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service in 1923.

Courtesy of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum
The photograph of Hollow Horn Bear on which the stamp was based. He was known as an outspoken advocate for his people and for peace. He said, "You talk to us very sweet, but you do not mean it. You have not fulfilled any of the old treaties."

Courtesy of the Smithsonian National Postal Museum
A stately series of attached housing, which the Anasazi, ancestors of people of the contemporary pueblos, built about 1000 years ago, is featured in this 1934 stamp. The stamp was issued to promote tourism in national parks, such as the Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, where the structure is located.

click image to access high resolution photo page

Washington—Stamps have carried art portraying Native Americans all over the world, and now they're circling the globe again in a cyberspace exhibition.

The modest scale of this art—usually less than 2 square inches—is no barrier to the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, which has launched an online exhibition, "The American Indian in Stamps: Profiles in Leadership, Accomplishment and Cultural Celebration." And for the first time the National Postal Museum turned to another museum, the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, for help in adding history and cultural context to one of its exhibitions.

"We have about six million objects and a small space so we can't display most of them," said Thomas Lera, who is the Winton M. Blount Research Chair at the National Postal Museum. "That's why we have decided to digitize our collection. It's a great tool for people, like kids who want to do a report. They can go on the website. It's American history in the mail."

"The American Indian in Stamps" can only be viewed at It features colorful images of 40 of the approximately 70 stamps that the U.S. Postal Service has issued featuring Native Americans since 1875. The site also features many other exhibitions on other themes. The technology of the museum's website enables viewers to magnify images to almost the size of their computer screen—allowing the artistry of the stamps to be seen in even more detail than a magnifying glass could provide.

Other facts, including the artist who designed the stamp and the medium in which the art was created, are a click away. The collaboration between the two museums, with contributions from the Library of Congress, expands viewers' understanding of both familiar recent postage and less-familiar stamps dating back to the late 19th century.

"We took a celebratory approach," said José Barreiro, of the Taino Nation, assistant director for research at the National Museum of the American Indian, "and helped define some concepts of diplomacy and leadership."

A 1980 stamp featuring Sequoyah, the Cherokee man who completed a ground-breaking syllabary of his native language in 1821, is based on a 1965 portrait. Accompanying the stamp in the exhibition is a photo of the cover of a 1975 publication of the English-Cherokee syllabary from NMAI's collection.

A 1968 stamp depicting Chief Joseph is based on a portrait painted from life by artist Cyrenius Hall in 1878, which resides in the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. A modern art work of Chief Joseph's picture in beads from the nearby National Museum of the American Indian is displayed with the stamp to show a different interpretation. It is titled "The Blue Face Bracelet" (2003) by Choctaw artist Marcus Amerman.

The evolution over time of national perceptions about American Indians and the technology of stamp-making are both evident in the online exhibit. An 1898 engraving of an Indian in horseback pursuit of a buffalo gives way in a century to the 1998 lithography stamp commemorating Olympian Jim Thorpe, of the Sac and Fox Nation, as one of the most significant figures of the 20th century.

Lera said stamps are typically issued for "the big historical moments. They're an overview. It's a crash course in history."

Since 1958, the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee has consulted on about 100 new stamps released each year, providing the "breadth of judgment and depth of experience in various areas that influence subject matter, character and beauty of postage stamps," according to the U.S. Postal Service.

For Native American subject matter, the committee shifted its focus starting in the 1990s to original artwork showing Native American themes, and photography of Native Americans' art. Even when significant people are featured, they tend to be more educational in nature, Lera said. The 1998 Jim Thorpe stamp shows not only his face as a young man, but also an inset of him competing in the Olympic Games of 1912.

"The American Indian in Stamps," debuted in November, and will be displayed indefinitely. It can also change as more research is done on existing material, and as the U.S. Postal Service issues new stamps, Lera said.

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Holiday Art Market

By Leonda Levchuk, NMAI E-Newservice

The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian drew more than 7,000 shoppers for its annual Holiday Art Market on Dec. 6 and 7 in Washington, D.C. Thirty-seven Native artists participated at the Washington event. The market was also held at the museum’s George Gustav Heye Center in New York, where 3,338 shoppers viewed the work of 38 artists. Native American artists are invited each September to apply to participate in the market.

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The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian is located in Washington, D.C. The Museum also operates the George Gustav Heye Center in New York City, and the National Museum of the American Indian Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Md.

The National Museum of the American Indian is committed to advancing knowledge and understanding of the Native cultures of the Western Hemisphere, past, present and future, through partnership with Native people and others. The museum works to support the continuance of culture, traditional values, and transitions in contemporary Native life.

The NMAI E-Newservice is a free news service to news media serving Native America from the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. The NMAI E-Newservice provides articles, photographs and editorial content for news outlets to use free of charge. Please credit the NMAI E-Newservice, AND use bylines as provided. Kara Briggs, a Yakama and Snohomish journalist, is the editor. She owns Red Hummingbird Media Corp., which contracts with the National Museum of the American Indian to provide this service. Contact her at or by phone at 503-577-0012 if you have questions, comments or requests, or if you wish to subscribe.

Kara Briggs, Editor
Eileen Maxwell, NMAI Director of Public Affairs
Leonda Levchuk, NMAI Copy Editor
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