When I was young I shared with many others a fascination with space. I wanted to be an astronaut. That dream never happened but another person’s dream of the same thing came true in November. John Herrington became the first Native American in space. He said he’s inspired and humbled by the experience.
Herrington is a member of the Chickasaw tribe from southeast Oklahoma. To commemorate his historic journey he took six Eagle feathers with him along with the Chickasaw and Crow tribe flags, a braid of sweetgrass, two arrowheads, a rock from the sacred site of Bear Butte (in South Dakota Black Hills), wooden flutes and a piece of Hopi pottery. Herrington said he carefully chose a variety of American Indian objects to take into space “that I think represents a lot of the spiritual sense that we all feel.”
His request to bring a ceremonial pipe and smoke it was refused by NASA officials.
During his spacewalks he was partnered with Michael Lopez-Alegria. Their walks in space were seen as a historical reconciliation as the early Spanish settlers and the Chickasawwere enemies.
There was a lot of thought and pride as he left the Mother Earth. The governor of the Chickasaw, Bill Anoatubby, was on hand with about 200 other Chickasaw members. Unfortunately, most of them had to return to Oklahoma without seeing the actual launch because of repeated delays.
Herrington said he remembered looking down on the Earth during one of his walks and thinking, “That’s a loooong way down. But it was very awe-inspiring. It’s a beautiful sight to look down and see the Earth from
In an interview with Indian Country Today, Herrington said the first time he looked out Endeavour’s windows after blasting off Nov. 23, made him realize “how insignificant we are in the great scheme of things. In the spiritual sense, it makes me appreciate how grand the grand scheme is of Mother Earth.”
Herrington said he and a good friend “smudged” outside NASA crew quarters, waving smoke onto themselves for purification.
When asked by the Chickasaw Times how his perspective on Thanksgiving would be affected by spending the afternoon and evening floating outside, Herrington replied with a laugh: “I’ll be really hungry when I come back in.” Herrington said he will probably celebrate with one of NASA’s prepackaged chicken and rice dinners or maybe some turkey. This sounds a long way from the toothpaste style of foods that the first astronauts ate.
While this is certainly a historic moment for Natives, there are other implications here. It shows that it will be not only non-Natives who are exploring new frontiers and occupying the high ground. There is a role and place for those of Aboriginal descent to make a contribution to mankind’s leaving the nest for outer space. By Herrington’s actions in bringing along Native artifacts it also shows that we will also be able to bring our culture and ways of life along with us. I cannot but think that the first Native in space marked the occasion with poise and respect.