We’ve all stared into space and wondered what it would be like to be up there in the cosmos looking down at our planet. Only a handful of individuals have had that kind of experience – and one of them is John B. Herrington.
Besides being a former NASA astronaut, Herrington can lay claim to being the first Native American to have orbited the earth. A member of the space shuttle Endeavour in 2002, the Chickasaw Indian spent 11 days in space during which time he conducted three space-walks.
“It was a remarkable experience floating in space high above earth,” says Herrington, speaking over the phone from his home in Idaho. “You see the places where you grew up and you know there are people down there who are your friends. But you can’t see them, so you realize that you’re pretty insignificant in the great scheme of things – it’s pretty humbling.”
Today, the retired U.S. naval commander spends much his time speaking on the benefits of education, especially for Native Americans. He is such a strong believer in education that he’s going back to university this fall and starting a PhD.
“I have the skill set for engineering, and the skill set as a pilot, but I don’t have the skill set as an educator. I felt the best way to get that level of credibility was to go back to school. I will be doing a PhD in organizational learning and leadership with an emphasis on STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) education. I am also looking for research projects in the Native community so that I can find ways of motivating kids to go into math and science.”
One of the projects Herrington is involved in is setting up a school for Native American students located just outside of Rapid City, South Dakota. The school curriculum will focus on STEM education and will be based on a program called GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) that prepares young people for college.
“Every summer, Stacy Phelps, who runs GEAR UP in South Dakota, puts a bunch of high-school students into a six-week university program. He’s done it for 16 years – and out the 400 participants every single one has graduated from high school. And of those, 87% go on to college and 10% go into military. It’s a phenomenal record of success. So he thought about doing it full-time and approached me. Together we got a group together and formed a non-profit organization, the American Indian Institute for Innovation.”
Herrington, whose maternal great-grandmother was a full-blooded Chickasaw, is very proud of his American Indian heritage. Born in Oklahoma, where the Chickasaw Nation is located, he grew up in Colorado, Wyoming and Texas.
“Growing up, I was pretty much out of touch with the Chickasaw Nation. At that time, my mother, brother and I were the only Indian people I knew. When our family moved to Wyoming in 1969, we lived in Riverton, on the Wind River Reservation, that was my first experience seeing life on a reservation and seeing the interaction between Indian people and the local community. I remember signs in town saying, ‘No Indians allowed.’ It was a real eye-opener.”
Herrington says it was his mother who made sure her children were connected to their Chickasaw heritage. “We would to back to Oklahoma, two or three times a year to maintain our cultural connection. My mom wanted us to remember who we were and she made sure we were registered as tribal members.”
When it comes to the Chickasaw language, Herrington admits he only speaks a few words. “My great-grandmother spoke the language but didn’t speak it to anyone except people her own age. Today there are about 30,000 in the tribe, but only around 1000 speak the language – most of them Elders.”
However, Herrington says, there is a growing interest among the Chickasaws in reviving their language and culture, especially under the leadership of Bill Anoatubby, the governor of the Chickasaw Nation. “The tribe has taken positive steps in terms of cultural identity and making sure people are aware of their heritage. They have the resources and money to do so. Gaming is really big, and they are fortune of being close to two large metropolitan areas, Dallas-Fort Worth and Oklahoma City. The tribe is really good about what they do with those funds, much of which is used to improve infrastructure, education and medical services.”
When it comes to Native American youth, Herrington says the lack of motivation is one of the main problems confronting them today. “It’s a matter of motivation and making a connection to something they want to do. I meet a lot of kids who don’t think they have the capabilities for choosing something – be it a doctor, lawyer or astronaut. They need to have examples in their lives of positive role models. If you provide them with positive role models, you give them something that they can connect to – both culturally and mentally.
“My message to them is simple – here is what I’ve done, this is how I skilled myself, and this is how I made myself capable of being successful.”