MiSciNet's Ancestors of Science: Philip Nathan Lane, Sr.


Philip Nathan Lane, Sr., also known as Mato Gi (his Yakota name, which means "Brown Bear"), achieved success as an engineer despite unfavorable personal circumstances against considerable odds. Lane was a Native American trailblazer.

A role model in the Native American community, Lane worked to ensure that future generations had more professional opportunities than he did. He served on the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) Council of Elders from 1987 to his death in March, 2004, and was honored at the 26th Annual AISES Conference. At the conference, Lane's grandchildren, Deloria Lane-Many Grey Horses and Kai Bighorn, eulogized their beloved "Lala" (grandpa). They recalled his enthusiasm for AISES students, who he called the "greatest role models and warriors of the day."

Lane was born on 11 January 1915, on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, located on the western border of the Dakotas, into the White Swan Band of the Yankton Sioux Tribe. His mother, a Sioux, died when he was six, and his father, a white rancher, died when he was 13. Lane's grandfather was his primary caretaker, and like many other Native American children at the time, he attended boarding school at the Haskell Indian School in Lawrence, Kansas.

While a 17-year-old student at Haskell, Lane met Lena Rose "Bow" Vale, a Chickasaw from Oklahoma. After graduating in 1934 Lane moved to Oregon and worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs survey crew at the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. His supervisor, Charlie Chester, suggested he pursue his degree at Chester's alma mater, Oregon State University (OSU).

Lane's college days were difficult because his high school coursework didn't prepare him for higher level education. Fortunately, his friends formed a study group, which helped him overcome his academic inadequacies. Lane graduated from OSU in 1941 with a bachelor's degree in forestry, which included training as a civil engineer. In 1943, at the age of 27, Lane married his school sweetheart Lena and settled down to raise a family.

During World War II, Lane worked on Third Locks--a project to increase defense capability and ship transit capacity in the Panama Canal--as a member of the Naval Air Corps and the SeaBees Naval Construction Force. In 1948, he transferred to the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, in McNary, Oregon, where he designed dams on the Columbia River.

Lane retired in 1971, after 30 years as an engineer, but he didn't slow down. Retirement gave Brown Bear more time to devote to his people. In 1969, he and his son, Philip, Jr., established the first Native American prison group in North America at the Washington State Penitentiary. In 1982, he became a founding member of the Four Worlds International Elders Council.

During his lifetime Lane received numerous awards, including the Baha'i Human Rights Award (1975), the AISES Eli S. Parker Award (1987), and the E.B. Lemon Distinguished Alumni Award (1992). Lane's innovative design for fish ladders helped save migrating salmon, and his design of vertical locks merited two Presidential Citations from Lyndon Johnson.


  • B. Wakshul. (Summer 2004). "In Memory of Our Friend." Winds of Change. Vol. 19, No. 3.

  • (April 2004). "The Passing of Mato Gi Brown Bear Phil Lane Senior." Turtle Island Native Network Discussion Board. Retrieved from the World Wide Web, Yale University Web site on 15 November 2004.

  • (Fall 1992). "To Reach Out to Others, He Reaches Back to His Roots." Focus on Forestry . Retrieved from the World Wide Web, Oregon State University, College of Forestry Web site on 9 December 2004.

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