Native History: Astronaut John B. Chickasaw, Becomes First American Indian
Liftoff on November 23, 2002, set in motion a lot more than space shuttle Endeavour for NASA astronaut John Herrington, Chickasaw. After retiring from NASA, he embarked on a bicycle ride called Rocket Trek across Turtle Island to get Native students engaged with science and math—and discovered two life passions.
Indian Country Today Media Network caught up with Herrington, the first enrolled American Indian to fly in space, to find out what he has been up to since that bike ride, which turned out to be fateful—in a good way.
“That bike ride actually really changed my life in a lot of respects,” said Herrington. “About seven days into the bike ride I pedaled into Idaho, spoke to the Nez Perce Tribe. And the woman who did my press releases, well, she’s now my wife.”
The woman, Margo Aragon, had helped elder Horace Axtell write his book, A Little Bit of Wisdom: Conversations With a Nez Perce Elder (Confluence Press, 1997).
“I had purchased that book for my mom in ’97, and I knew Horace from the American Indian Science and Engineering Society,” Herrington said. “He was an elder, and I happened to be a keynote speaker back in ’97 at a conference. Little did I know that in 2008 I would meet the [other] writer of that book and fall in love.”
That brought him to Lewiston, Idaho, where he is now earning a PhD in education at the University of Idaho. His dissertation research is focused on the motivation and engagement of Native people in the sciences—his second passion—centering on a NASA program called Summer of Innovation.
“I’m researching students on the Duck Valley Reservation, the Shoshone-Paiute tribes,” Herrington said. “My research shows that they increased their interest in math and science after exposure to this NASA program. I will graduate in May.”
In addition he works helping to promote the Chickasaw Nation. That led him to meet a Hollywood producer who grew up in Oklahoma, “and we are currently producing a documentary on my tribe,” Herrington said. “It’s called Unconquered. The segment we’re doing right now is really from migration legends. They’re all legends, history of the tribe, up to the first encounter with Hernando de Soto.”
Herrington has inspired Indigenous Peoples in all corners of Turtle Island. In September he received a traditional Blackfoot name from Piikunii Nation Elder Leonard Bastien after speaking at the Iniskim Centre at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada.
“Commander Herrington is a highly esteemed person to represent aboriginal people,” Bastien said, according to a statement issued by the university. “And, in our culture, our beliefs, our stories, and as well as for his ancestors the eagle is always the one that flew the highest—today he is the Golden Eagle Chief, Bee Daa Naah, the one who will continue to fly higher and rise above.”
The astronaut appears this month on CBS to celebrate Native American Heritage Month as well.
Herrington spoke at length with ICTMN on his passion for getting Native students involved in the sciences, on what indigenous knowledge can contribute to modern science and engineering, and on watching Sandra Bullock’s untethered tools fly off into space.
What is the importance of getting American Indians to study math and science?
The idea is that—the folks who learn math and science—we’re going to be the ones who change the world we live in.
In the 1960s there were people motivated by what we were doing—I being one of them. But you need to make it realistic for them. When I was growing up I dreamed about being an astronaut but I didn’t realize there was a reality of that. But it became a reality years later.
At naval test pilot school, I realized that many people who had graduated before me in the late ’50s, early ’60s, I realized that a lot of them had been NASA astronauts, had been navy test pilots. I was in the same schools, doing the same career path. There are a lot of kids out there who may not have had a role model in that kind of position before, and the reality is that they can achieve that if they so choose.
What can Chickasaw or indigenous perspectives in general bring to space exploration?
Long before there was western science, our ancestors were doing remarkable things in observing the world around us and making structures that captured the solar cycle. Chaco canyon is a great example of that.
They were very talented observers. Long before western science, western mathematics, came along, they were building these remarkably detailed structures. Our ancestors were doing it. Native people have been very talented engineers and scientists for millennia. They did it for survival. You have to be very observant to the world around you in order to survive.
On another side of that, talking about the southwest, about my tribe’s [mounds]—looking at the mounds structures, they’re oriented to the cardinal directions. These huge mounds, built by hand, align with the cardinal directions. How did they do that, measure things out and build it? It took a lot of expertise to do that. So those were remarkable engineers thousands of years ago. That’s directly related. So that’s near and dear to my heart.
I like to solve problems. I like to see how stuff works. I like challenge. My ancestors were able to rise to challenges that came their way. I’d like to say I’m doing the same thing.
What has seeing Earth from afar taught you?
I think you see something from a really remarkable perspective. You see where you’re from, from a very high perch. It made me feel really insignificant. It made me feel that I was a very small player in a very big world.
It makes you step back and see things from a really macro view, and really appreciate what you have. I’ve seen the world from the perspective of space, I’ve seen the world from underwater for 10 days [in a NASA space-simulation exercise], and I’ve seen the world from cranking across the country on a bicycle. And they each give perspective in their own way.
Did you see the movie Gravity**? Did it strike a chord?**
It was entertaining. It was kind of fun to see them use some tools that I had used. They didn’t tether their tools. I tethered my tools. I didn’t want to lose my tools.
The view of Earth is far more spectacular than the movie. They did a remarkable job, but it’s so much better than that.
I saw it in 3-D. It was kind of fun watching tools flying away, things coming at you and stuff. It was a bad day for Sandra Bullock in space.
What do you miss most about being in space?
What message would you like people on the ground to get from seeing the Earth from space?
Just appreciate what they have. Appreciate how remarkable the Earth is. It’s the only one they have.