Sammy L. Matsaw Jr.
Shoshone-Bannock and Oglala Lakota
Idaho State University, Ecology and Conservation Genetics
University of Idaho, Water Resources
I grew up in rural southeastern Idaho, spending most of my childhood on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation, both in the housing projects and Fort Hall Bottoms, an area where hundreds of springs emerge from the ground and send cold, clear water into the Snake River. It’s largely undisturbed and has great fishing.
As Shoshone-Bannock and Oglala Lakota, I was raised hunting, fishing, and gathering. My father’s ancestry is Agai Dika, which translates to “salmon eaters.” Today, my academic pursuit as a fish ecologist at the University of Idaho in Moscow is closely tied to that ancestry. I bring my cultural lineage together with my academic background to share the ideas that were taught in the communities where I grew up. My current field of study is the indigenous science and aquatic ecology of freshwater mussels, a “first food” of the Shoshone-Bannock.
My parents struggled to provide a stable lifestyle for us kids. We moved frequently so my dad could work as a pipe fitter and welder. My mom would stay home to take care of us, or find work of her own. After they separated when I was about seven years old, I split my time with my mom in South Dakota and my dad in Fort Hall.
My paternal grandparents were very supportive of us kids and tried to make sure we had what we needed. And my dad’s sister, my aunt Tina, was one of my biggest boosters when it came to higher education. When I was 15 my dad passed away, and I lived with my auntie for a while.
In high school, I transferred from an off-reservation school to the high school on the Fort Hall reservation. That’s where I met Ed Galindo, a science teacher, and we hit it off. He introduced me to STEM opportunities and showed me how to continue them after high school. Ed guided me to a chemistry internship that helped build my confidence in the laboratory. Just after high school I was a team leader with Ed for the Native American Space Association at the Johnson Space Center’s Space Camp.
Ed also introduced me to a project working on salmon ecology and restoration on the Salmon River, of particular interest to me because of my people’s salmon subsistence culture. These experiences influenced me to pursue a degree in ecology with an emphasis on fish ecology as an undergrad at Idaho State University in Pocatello — and, later, to earn a master’s in conservation genetics, also from Idaho State.
Now I’m a PhD student and a fellow in the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program, the National Science Foundation’s interdisciplinary training program for future leaders in engineering and science. Through IGERT I had an opportunity to study abroad in Chile. I was part of a group working with local indigenous people, the Mapuche, on possible development on their lands, something they have resisted for centuries. I found many parallels to my own background in our discussions to see if we could approach a solution, and my team was committed to honoring their worldview. This experience influenced how I perceive the importance of the work I’m a part of with my colleagues, community leaders, and relatives and the world we’re creating for our young ones here and far away.
When I first considered pursuing my PhD, Ed Galindo encouraged me to apply to the Indigenous STEM Research and Graduate Education program, or ISTEM. I was accepted, and the program has supported me with a team of mentors, a financial boost, and a family of colleagues.
I’ve also been a member of AISES since my undergrad days, and was awarded the A.T. Anderson Memorial Scholarship years ago. As a master’s student, I mentored a group of students and we attended the National Conference together. There, I shared my AISES experience and won the grand prize for my presentation.
As a nontraditional student, I’ve faced many obstacles along the way. I joined the military after high school and used the GI Bill® to pay for my undergraduate degree. But I’ve suffered from PTSD as a result of my enlistment. I served in Iraq as an infantry platoon sergeant during 2004 and 2005. So before I could join IGERT, there were some things I had to get in order, emotionally.
In addition to this challenge, my family doesn’t understand what I’m doing in graduate school. My parents didn’t graduate from college, and I’ve heard some family members ask, “Why would you keep going to school beyond a bachelor’s?” I also face financial responsibilities to my wife and children. As a father, I have to make sure I can provide for my little family tribe, which includes our kids Luzahan, 8; Otaktay, 6; Malia, 5; and Abrianna, 2.
But my most challenging obstacle has been institutionalized racism. Day in and day out, my wife, Jessica, and I try to maintain our identity while being immersed in another. We learn about European and Western concepts, and then come home to decompress, reevaluate, unlearn, and relearn. It’s tough. In my experience, instructors teach in a very linear and deductive way, whereas we as Native peoples think more naturally through circular reasoning and holistic thought processes.
Still, my life experiences as a Native American are my source of strength, not a crutch. Being part of a minority group that grows up with hardships has made me more resilient.
Being a Sundancer, especially, has been a critical part of my identity and success as a PhD student practicing Western science. I first got involved with the Sundance ceremony, where we dance in the July sun for four days without food or water, to help with PTSD. In Sundancing we use the Medicine Wheel to digest information evaluated in the four equal quadrants of a circle. There are many aspects of what the Sundance represents and how it helps with interpreting human perceptions and interpersonal relationships. I’m truly grateful to be a Sundancer.
My goal is to be a professor who instructs Native students about how to deconstruct colonization for their own personal success. Our peoples always had STEM — it’s part of storytelling, traditions, customs, and ceremonies. I’d like to bring our old ways into the new, and stop letting others dictate our past — and tell us how it determines our future. I dive deep into my studies, but also think broadly about my goals — back and forth. I live my life every day to keep that balance.
— As told to Stephanie Mann
Reprinted with permission from Winds of Change copyright 2016 by AISES Publishing, Inc.
Winds of Change Magazine
Check out the issue of Winds of Change Magazine, featuring Sammy Matsaw.
GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by the VA is available at the official U.S. government website at https://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill.