Focusing on the Community

When Marigold Linton was young, she dreamt about becoming a significant figure in the Native American community. In this dream, she was an adult, taller and more powerful than everyone else in her family. More than 50 years later, one can easily say that Linton's dream came true. As one of the first American Indians who obtained a Ph.D. in science, Linton (pictured at left) has accomplished much that is worthy of praise. More important, she has given back to her community by garnering her knowledge and smarts to help improve the education system for young Native Americans.

Doubts and Fears

Linton, a Cahuilla-Cupeño and a member of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, was born and raised on California's Morongo Reservation. She excelled at the small school she attended in a nearby town. After having her dream of becoming "big" and getting encouragement from her eighth-grade teacher, she decided to pursue college. She wasn't sure what college was about then, but Linton began saving her money.

In 1954, Linton left the reservation for the University of California, Riverside (UCR). Her transition to college life was in many ways "trying to figure out all the tricks of being a white man." For example, Linton had grown up in an adobe house that had no electricity, running water, or indoor toilets. Buses and everyday conversation were relatively uncommon. Thus, it took time for her to get comfortable with doing things the "white man's" way.

It was also a time when Indians and other minorities were not encouraged to go to school, says Linton. Apart from her mother, other people in her community were skeptical. "When you flunk out, we're always here ... you can come back," they said.

Afraid that they might be right, Linton spent most of her time studying. She got A's most of the time; however, the idea of failure loomed in her head. Her peers also convinced her that she did well mainly because she majored in psychology instead of "real" science. Slowly over the years, though, she "snapped out of that."

Making It

Linton continued to push herself academically. Thanks to one of her professors, she worked in a lab studying rat motivation and received credit as an author on published papers.

As she got closer to graduating, she prepared for graduate school. She was not ecstatic about becoming a scientist or a professor, but it was the obvious choice. Linton had asked herself: "What did I know how to do? And the answer was not very much."

But in time, Linton realized a stronger fervor for science and proved to everyone that Indians could shine. She loved her biology and genetics courses and excelled in them. This success in the hard sciences gave her new confidence. "My vision of myself was mainly cringing around, hiding myself in corners," she says, but "when push came to shove, I was not easily shoved." It was this go-getter attitude that propelled Linton further in her career.

After receiving her B.A. and Ph.D. in experimental psychology (in 1958 and 1964, respectively) from UCR, she was hired as a part-time psychology teacher and counselor at San Diego State University. She didn't have counselor training, but she learned the ropes fast. Later, she accepted an offer to teach full-time in the psychology department. However, there were no women on the tenure track, so in 1966 Linton persuaded her department to put all the women on tenure track. She said she did what people in her tribe would have done: "You say: We're all in it together." Such solidarity is a trademark solution for her tribe, "because if you didn't work together in the dessert, you died," she says.

Linton's triumphs continued as she moved to the University of Utah in 1974. There, she became the first woman hired as a full professor. Meanwhile, Linton switched her research interests and began to study long-term memory. In 1972, she began a study of autobiographical memory, using a method that had fallen out of use for a century. Linton became known for looking at her own memories, examining the types of information she recalled and had forgotten. Some years later, she began a new study to figure out how well our minds retain other kinds of knowledge. She found answers to questions such as "How long after you finish a biology class will you remember the terms you memorize?" Having conducted this work for 25 years now, Linton says she is also able to factor in aging and likes to joke, "I'll be the only person who'll be able to demonstrate the onset of senility."

Home Is Where the Heart Is

Linton was ready to tackle something new when she wound up moving two more times to follow her husband, who was hired by Arizona State University (ASU) in 1986 and then by the University of Kansas (KU) 11 years later. She could have done whatever she wanted, but she decided to accept the challenges of administration. This choice inevitably brought her back to the Indian community.

Linton was already aware of the educational problems on Indian reservations. Before moving to ASU, she helped found the National Indian Education Association and served as a consultant for the Indian Education Division in Minneapolis public schools. Moving to ASU and KU, however, gave her more freedom to support Indians interested in higher education and science careers.

Indeed, a great deal of work needed to be done. For years, circumstances have discouraged Indians from taking the academic route. If they come from reservations, they often have academic problems, says Linton. Moreover, a good part of the Indian community is still suspicious of "white man's education." "The education was used so destructively. All of those stories are true that people were beaten for using the language ... [and] for doing anything that looked Indian," she adds. And they felt that anthropologists who studied them just used them. "That leaves a bad taste in the mouth for other [academic] disciplines," she says.

At ASU, Linton became director of educational services for the College of Education and, later, director of American Indian programs. This allowed her to help improve basic reading, math, and writing skills of young minorities and improve reservation schools throughout Arizona.

Linton currently works at KU as director of American Indian outreach and has brought in five grants totaling $15 million. In developing these programs, she hopes to build a strong partnership between her university and Haskell Indian Nations University, a tribal college nearby, and to increase the number of Indians holding Ph.D.s. One program, for instance, introduces undergraduate students to scientific research in the laboratories of a wide range of mentors at KU. Another program provides postdoctoral fellows with cutting-edge research experiences at KU as well as teaching experience at Haskell. Money is also allocated to enhance math and science courses in both universities and build up the resources and office support system at Haskell. So far, such efforts helped double the number of American Indians in the sciences at KU from approximately 80 in 1998 to 160 today.

What motivates Linton to give back to her community? "I still feel terribly sorry for the little girl that I was ... that child who had so much trouble and pain getting there," she says. "I want to help others who are like her."

Today, Linton, president-elect of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science, describes her job as mainly "getting people to work together." Her tribe may still not understand what she does, but she is content with the choices she made, especially in deciding to help educate Indians and other minorities.

Edna Francisco is a contributing writer for MiSciNet and may be reached at

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