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An Interview with Mary Ross

First Native American Woman Engineer
Aerospace Pioneer Returns to her Native American Roots
By Laurel M. Sheppard

When meeting Mary G. Ross, a quick look at her living room reveals the great pride she takes in her heritage. There are many examples of Native American artwork and pottery gracing the walls and fireplace. She proudly shows them off and enthusiastically digs out programs from Indian conferences she has attended, to display even more beautiful examples printed on each program cover.

Mary Ross, now 91, was a real rocket scientist in the days before the United States landed on the moon. She was the first woman engineer at Lockheed, and the first known Native American woman engineer. It was not surprising then, that no one could guess her occupation on the TV game show What's My Line? back in 1958. Though her Indian background was downplayed as she grew up, it still helped her pursue such a non-traditional career, since the Cherokee valued education equally for both genders, no matter what subject was pursued.

An Early Start in Math

"Math was more fun than anything else. It was always a game to me," Mary explains in her choice of a major. So after graduating from public high school at the age of 16, she enrolled at the local college to study math. "I was the only female in my class. I sat on one side of the room and the guys on the other side of the room. I guess they didn't want to associate with me. But I could hold my own with them, and sometimes did better." Mary had fewer problems with professors—she often called them late at night with the solution to a problem. Mary graduated in 1928 from Northeastern State College (Tahlequah, Oklahoma) with a BA in math.

Ross spent the next nine years teaching math and science in high schools nearby. She then decided to expand her horizons and went to work as a statistical clerk for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington DC. In 1937, she was sent her to Santa Fe, New Mexico as a girls' adviser (equivalent to a dean of a women's school) at a coeducational Indian boarding school. Her teaching career allowed her to complete a master's in math during four summers. In 1938, she received this degree from Colorado State College.

Ross joined Lockheed Aircraft Corporation in 1942, after learning about the opportunities there for people of her technical background. She spent the first 2.5 years as a mathematician before becoming an engineer, applying mathematical principles and procedures to special aeronautical problems. There was only one other woman mathematician in her group. This first job as a mathematical research assistant in the engineering department involved working on the compressibility effects on the P-28 fighter plane as it neared the sound barrier, and aerolasticity on the Constellation. This plane was so large it had to be treated as a flexible body.

A Switch to Engineering

After the studies were completed, the group was disbanded. The manager of the Aerodynamics and Structures departments recognized her talents and offered her an opportunity to become an engineer. Intensive training followed, both on the job and by taking the emergency war training course in math and aeronautical engineering, plus taking evening classes at UCLA. In 1949, Ross received her first professional engineering classification as a mechanical engineer in the state of California since there was no aeronautical classification at the time.

From 1942-53 she advanced through the following positions: senior research assistant, research assistant, mathematician, stress analyst and stress engineer. This work included developing methods for determining dynamic loads on aircraft structure. In 1953, she joined an elite group of 40 engineers, which became the nucleus of Lockheed Missiles & Space Co. (now Lockheed Martin).

For the next several years she worked as a research engineer, participating in feasibility performance and evaluation studies of low-altitude defense missile systems, intermediate-range ballistic missile systems (IRBM), intercontinental ballistic missile systems, near earth satellite systems and underwater-launched IRBM systems. This work involved complex mathematical calculations of all the variable elements that effect missile performance.

One of the major ballistic missile projects was Polaris, which involved launching nuclear missiles from a submarine beneath the surface of the ocean. At the time, Ross was working in a relatively new field—that of hydrodynamics—helping to establish the design parameters for the scale models to be used in the preliminary tests to determine how such a body would behave as it was launched in water. Ross's research helped establish technical and operational requirements for the Agena rocket, the first launch vehicle and forerunner of the Apollo program. During this period she also began to work without direct supervision and assisted in the preparation of technical reports and contract proposals.

On the Ground Floor

In 1958 she was promoted to Research Specialist with increasing responsibility for independent research in missile and satellite systems as applied to proposed military and civilian missions. As an advanced systems engineer from 1960-61, Ross worked on general system analysis and systems evaluation studies relating to manned satellite missions, reentry into earth atmosphere, hypervelocity impact of particles on space vehicles and the effect of underwater explosions on submarines. Until the 60s, Ross was the only female engineer in her group.

In 1961, she was promoted to senior advanced systems engineer. For the next four years she worked on criteria for missions to Mars, Venus and outer planets, as well as preliminary design of orbital space systems and interplanetary expeditionary systems, as part of the EMPIRE (Early Manned Planetary-Interplanetary Roundtrip Experiment) Program. During this time she also developed data for the NASA Planetary Flight Handbook, Vol. 3, which projected space-flight guidance up to the year 2000.

In 1965, and for the next few years she conducted analytical studies to establish and evaluate major technical and operational requirements for complex advanced missile and space systems, and to integrate the requirements with specific system characteristics. As a senior advanced systems staff engineer, Ross worked on the Poseidon and Trident missiles. When she retired in 1973, there were 100 women engineers at Lockheed, compared to the 25 women engineers, physicists and mathematicians in 1959.

Part of a Team

Though retired now for over 25 years, Ross still remains modest about her achievements. "I have always considered my work a joint effort," she says. "I was fortunate to have worked on great ideas and with very intelligent people. I may have developed a few equations no one had thought of before but that was nothing unusual—everybody did that."

A colleague who worked with her during the 1960s has somewhat of a different perspective. "I remember Mary Ross as an innovative, methodical, systematic analyst who never relaxed her efforts on a task until it was completed," wrote Frank McNolty, then staff scientist, in a 1991 letter to SWE. "Her superb mathematical skills 'carried the day' in an era when the innovative analyst, rather than the computer jock, was queen."

A quick review of performance reviews throughout most of her career supports this opinion. A 1971 review says: "She made many unique contributions in developing the methodology for determining interception footprints used in extending the techniques for analyzing counterbattery tactics [of launch area defense systems]."

In looking back at her illustrious career, Ross believes the most exciting work was the NASA projects involving planning space missions. "Compared to the classified research, it was a lot more fun since you could talk about it," she explains. "I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been on the ground floor of space technology."

Bridging Tradition to Technology

Mary Ross would be the first one to admit that through most of her life she did not know much about her Cherokee heritage, even though her father spoke the language. Mary was vaguely aware of the Cherokee's forced removal to the west (see Trail of Tears) and when she learned more about it during college was quite upset. However, it was not until a decade after her retirement that she returned to her roots, by becoming involved with the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) and the Council of Energy Resource Tribes (CERT). She had been unaware that these organizations even existed until both approached her (see Continuing a Legacy of Education) to be recognized for her achievements.

One of the basic ideas of AISES is to not give up the traditional culture and simply replace it with technology. Mary explains, "AISES tries to mesh the two together, which is evident at each annual convention. A Council of Elders, who grew up in the Indian tradition and represent various tribes, is in attendance for lectures, discussions, and to educate the younger generation in the old ways. After all, there is a lot of ancient wisdom from Indian culture that would help solve the problems of today," she adds.

Whether it has been during her career as an aerospace engineer or acting as a role model and mentor for Native Americans, Mary has appreciated her good fortune. "I have been lucky to have had so much fun. It has been an adventure all the way."

Acknowledgments: The author would like to thank Mary McCarthy for arranging the interview and providing background information for this article. The author is also most grateful to Mary Ross for agreeing to spend the time with her at such short notice.

A Lifetime of Achievement
SWE Accomplishments
1953: Co-founder and charter member of Los Angeles section
1969: Elected as Senior Member
1968-1969: Member of Executive Committee
1969-1971: National Treasurer of SWE
1971-1973: Member of Executive Committee
1973: Helped organize 23rd SWE National Convention in San Mateo, California
1973: Santa Clara Valley section establishes scholarship in her name
1982: Elected Fellow
1996: Receives special recognition as a Native American engineer at Portland national convention

Other Kudos
1961: Woman of Distinction Award, San Francisco Examiner
Women of Achievement Award, California State Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs
Matrix Table Award for Space Age Communication of Ideas, Theta Sigma Phi
1984: Honorary Life Membership, American Indian Science and Engineering Society
1985: Achievement Award, Council of Energy Resource Tribes (renamed the Mary G. Ross Award)
1992: Inducted into the Silicon Valley Engineering Hall of Fame
1993: Trailblazer Award, University of Northern Colorado Alumni Association
1994: Outstanding Alumnus, Northeastern State University's Alumni Association
Women of Achievement Award in Science and Technology, The Women's Fund

Continuing A Legacy of Education

Though Mary's great-great grandfather was only 1/8 Cherokee (his father was the first Ross to come to America from Scotland), John Ross was principal chief of the Cherokee for 40 years. He was an advocate of the Cherokee remaining on their homelands in the southeast and believed there should be a Cherokee state among the states of the union. By the time Mary was born, however, most of the Cherokees (including the Ross family) had been moved to the state of Oklahoma (see the Trail of Tears); she grew up in what had originally been Indian territory (Park Hill), where John had relocated his home.

John Ross was also a strong advocate of education, since the two generations of Scotsmen before him had all been educated. As chief, he helped establish the first institution of higher learning for Cherokees in 1850. Now Northeastern State University, it was Northeastern State Teachers College when Mary attended it in the late 1920s. He even built his own library. When John died in 1866, the Cherokee recognized him as "a friend of education" who "faithfully encouraged schools throughout the country."

This emphasis on education has continued throughout generations of Rosses. Mary's father was trained as a lawyer and her aunts were all school teachers. Her mother also donated land for school grounds. "My parents believed an education was necessary to make something of yourself," Mary says. "So from childhood I had been encouraged to get the best education possible and make the most of my opportunities. I did not dare miss a day of school." Though she never married, Mary has plenty of siblings whose offspring have continued down the education path.

Besides her teaching experience, Mary has continued her ancestor's legacy by promoting an engineering education to both women and Native Americans. She believes her most important contribution to SWE was her career guidance work in the early years, when Ross was involved in informing families and school counselors of engineering opportunities for students. "Spreading the word about engineering was especially critical during that time since there were so few female engineers," she adds. Ross also was an excellent role model since she held most officer positions at both the section and national level. "But I drew the line at president," she notes.

In 1984, Ross was invited to attend the American Indian Science and Engineering Society's (AISES) annual conference, when she was asked to introduce the keynote speaker, astronaut Bob Crippen. This was Ross' first involvement with AISES, and she also chaired a session there. The AISES annual national conference is the nation's premier event for American Indian students, and the Career Fair offers companies a unique forum for recruiting American Indian students and professionals. Approximately 2,000 people were expected to attend the 1999 conference, with more than half of those being American Indian high school and college students.

Established in 1977, AISES's primary mission is to increase the number of American Indian scientists and engineers, as well as to develop technological leaders within the Indian community. One way this is accomplished is by offering a number of scholarships for Native American undergraduate and graduate students. Preference is given to studies in sciences, engineering, health related fields, business, natural resources/energy resource management, math and secondary education. In 1998, AISES awarded to 273 students a total of $644,700 in scholarships in a variety of technical majors, with a large portion of scholarships given to engineering students.

Since Ross joined, AISES has grown by a factor of 10 to over 3000 members. Current AISES membership includes 2315 members and 48 affiliated high schools. There are 132 active science and engineering professionals, 1162 college student members and 507 pre-college members. The total membership represents 61 tribes in 36 states and Canada.

An important component of AISES is the Sequoyah Fellowship, named for the Cherokee who developed an alphabet and syllabary of the language at the turn of the 19th century, making the Cherokee nation literate in less than one year. The Fellowship is funded with personal contributions to AISES of $1000 or more. Currently there are 514 Sequoyah Fellows. AISES also recognizes members, students and teachers through several leadership, professional and service awards.

In 1999, AISES reached a milestone when Sandra Begay-Campbell, a Navaho, was named the third executive director in the Society's twenty-year history, the first woman to serve in this role. She was also the first woman to Chair the AISES Board of Directors. Begay earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering from the University of New Mexico and a Master of Science in Structural Engineering degree from Stanford University. Previously, she held positions at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories.

Within AISES, Begay also served as a college chapter officer, a national student representative, and a member of the board of directors member. "In order to meet AISES' mission, my overall prioritized objectives as executive director are financial stability, program development, a healthy work environment and to maintain our integrity," she says.

In 1985, Ross also became involved with the Council of Energy Resource Tribes (CERT), when they presented her with the Eagle Feather in recognition of her achievements. She was the first Indian to receive such an award (the counterpart to this award, the American Spirit Award, recognizes contributions of industry leaders) and thereafter the award was renamed in her honor.

Mary also downplays this achievement. "Lucille Echoheart, the associate director of CERT, was looking for a woman engineer role model for the first award and heard about me. I guess I got there first." Ross feels most honored since she considers subsequent recipients more deserving than her. "I had no idea they were going to name this award after me--when this was announced I was the most surprised person there," she adds.

CERT was established in 1975 to train Indians to manage their reservations' natural resources in cooperation with industry, and now represents 39 tribes from the initial 22. Its educational program has assisted more than 300 students since 1980. Ross has participated in career guidance activities in both organizations, as both mentor and role model. "I also attend for the good times," she admits.

Education obviously has always been an important part of Ross' life. "I was still taking classes when I retired," she points out. "There is always something new to learn." If the huge pile of books waiting to be read on her living room table is any indication, Ross still has this outlook today.

Circle of Life

As part of the celebration of their 20th anniversary, AISES offers this special commemorative blanket, "Circle of Life."

Designed in 1992, the Circle of Life, or Elders blanket, is in honor of all tribal elders, the Wisdomkeepers who handown the teachings and spiritual direction to the children. This guidance gives the children a better understanding of their responsibility to the universe and The Creator, that all things are interrelated and an equal part of the whole. The design represents all colors of humankind, the color of Mother Earth, the sun and the four directions of life.

Like the seasons of nature - spring, summer, fall, and winter - the 20th year of AISES is a season of reflection and renewal and looks forward to the transitory time of spring renewal and growth. It is a year to reflect upon and honor the organization's past experiences, learning and achievements - Wisdom from the Past and to draw upon that wisdom for Courage for the Future. The Circle of Life blanket weaves into the fabric the four colors of the medicine wheel a universal archetype of Indigenous people in north and south America. The medicine wheel symbolizes the basic concept of four grandfathers, the four winds, the four cardinal directions, and many other relationships that can be expressed in four:
The four elements must be respected equally for their gift of life.
The four symbolic races are all part of the same human family.

We have four aspects to our nature: the physical, the mental, the emotional, and the spiritual. Each of these must be equally developed in a healthy, well-balanced individual. There are four colors represented. White, the north color, caretakers of the fire, mental; red, the east color, caretakers of the earth, spiritual; yellow, the south color, caretakers of air, emotional; black, the west color, caretakers of water, physical.

Trail of Tears

"I saw the helpless Cherokees arrested and dragged from their homes, and driven at the bayonet point into the stockades. And in the chill of a drizzling rain on an October morning I saw them loaded like cattle or sheep into six hundred and forty-five wagons and started toward the west…

…One can never forget the sadness and solemnity of that morning. Chief John Ross led in prayer and when the bugle sounded and the wagons started rolling many of the children rose to their feet and waved their little hands good-by to their mountain homes, knowing they were leaving them forever. Many of these helpless people did not have blankets and many of them had been driven from home barefooted."

In this 1890 letter to his children on his 80th birthday, John Burnett retold the grim events of that fateful day in 1838 during one of the darkest moments in American history. As a private in the U.S. Army and being fluent in Cherokee, he and 7000 other soldiers had been assigned to this gruesome task. More than 3,000 Cherokees were rounded up in the summer of 1838 and loaded onto boats that traveled the Tennessee, Ohio, Mississippi and Arkansas Rivers into Indian Territory. Many were held in prison camps awaiting their fate.

In the winter of 1838, 14,000 more were marched through Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas into rugged Indian Territory. By the time the Indians had traveled 900 miles to their exile in Oklahoma, it was March of the next year and as many as 4000 had died from hunger, exposure and disease (the official government count was less than 500). The dead included John Ross' first wife, Quatie, who died of pneumonia after giving her only blanket to a child. The Indians called it the "Trail where they Wept."

The white man's greed for land and ultimately gold, which had been discovered in Georgia in 1829, culminated in this removal. President Andrew Jackson, whose command and life was ironically saved due to 500 Cherokee allies at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814 (John Ross acted as his scribe), later authorized the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The U.S. government then used the Treaty of New Echota in 1835 to justify the removal.

This treaty, signed by about 100 Cherokees known as the Treaty Party, relinquished all lands east of the Mississippi River in exchange for land in Indian Territory and the promise of money, livestock, various provisions and tools, and other benefits. Opposition to the removal was led by Chief John Ross (though at one point he had suggested selling the Cherokee's land to the government for $20 million). The year before this treaty was signed, John Ross' brother Andrew had offered a treaty that would cede all Cherokee lands in the East in return for certain compensation. With only a few signatures, it was defeated by the Senate.

In November 1834, John Ross was arrested by Georgia Guards, along with his houseguest, John Howard Payne, an American editor (who had written the song "Home, Sweet Home.") Ross was released after about a week, followed by Payne a few days later. Ross and an Indian delegation then traveled to Washington in another attempt to have the removal decision reversed, but President Jackson refused to receive the delegation.

The New Atocha treaty required that the Cherokee leave within two years after its ratification. Most ignored this requirement, with John Ross continuing to make trips to Washington in an attempt to void the treaty. Unsuccessful, Ross finally accepted the inevitable but did manage to take over the removal process along with his brother Lewis. The first detachment of 13 under his command left at the end of August 1838. John Ross and family eventually followed, arriving in the west to again take up the reins of chief.

During the Civil War, Cherokees fought on both sides. In 1861, John Ross had first urged the Cherokee to take a policy of friendly inactivity, then later proclaimed a strict neutrality. In fall of 1861, he signed a treaty with the Confederacy but later switched sides. Ross was in Washington in 1863 trying to make a treaty with the Federal government, when the treaty with the Confederacy was abolished by the Cherokee.

John Ross died in Washington DC in 1866 at age 75. Though a few of his actions have been questioned (for instance, he protected the assassins of the Treaty Party leaders and may even have been involved—his son Allen was at the meeting where the leaders received their death sentences), he fought ferociously for the rights of the Cherokee all his life and for the most part held them together as a people. For this reason, John Ross has been called the Moses and the George Washington of the traditionalist Cherokees. The Cherokee are now the second largest tribe in the nation, with a population around 200,000.

For Further Information
John Ehle, Trail of Tears; The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation, Anchor/Doublebay, 1988.
The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, established on Dec. 16, 1987, marks the routes used between June 1838 and March 1839 for the forced removal of the Cherokees. The Trail follows two routes: 1,226 miles (1,977.4 km) by water and 826 miles (1,332.2 km) by land. Contact the National Park Service, Long Distance Trails Group Office - Santa Fe, PO Box 728, Santa Fe, NM 87504-0728 Telephone: 505-988-6888.

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