Margaret Hiza Redsteer: Passing on Goodwill

Margaret Hiza Redsteer moves like a calm stream through the teeming crowds of a San Francisco convention center. When she turns in response to my greeting, I see a kind face--a mix of humor and intelligence underlain by strength as tenacious as the rocky landscapes that she studies.

Dr. Hiza Redsteer is a geologist with the U. S. Geological Survey (USGS) in Flagstaff, Arizona. Her interest in geology began when she became concerned about the quality of the water on the native lands on which she lived. Like a breached dam, once her scientific curiosity was unleashed it carried her on an unpredictable, often tumultuous, journey. Along the way support and encouragement came from unexpected sources, forging a determination within Hiza Redsteer to pay forward the goodwill that was critical to her own success to future generations of Native American scientists.

Getting Started

Born to a Crow father and a white mother, Hiza Redsteer grew up in Story, Wyoming. Like many Native American kids, she never expected to attend college. By the early 1980s, she was living on Navajo Nation lands southwest of Black Mesa, Arizona (now part of the Hopi partitioned lands) with her husband and three children.

Living conditions were harsh, and day-to-day survival presented needs more pressing than education. But when the then 28-year-old mother began to question the quality of drinking water that she hauled daily for her family, education became the only avenue she could see to ensure the survival, not just of her family, but of her whole community.

"A lot of times the water we had wasn't all that great. I felt that I had to do something that would make life better for all of us," says Hiza Redsteer. "So I started thinking about environmental science and geology as a way of addressing some of the water quality issues where we lived."

Going back to school was an act of courage and defiance. Many, including her mother, told her outright that she was crazy. "There was no support at all for my decision," says Hiza Redsteer. "I'm a half-breed kid, and I wasn't supposed to succeed." Her decision was the final straw in the demise of her marriage.

So, she packed up the kids--two boys, aged six and four, and her newborn daughter--and enrolled at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. While her classmates were fussing about social events and romantic intrigues, Hiza Redsteer had to contend with being a single mother of several children, supporting her family and finding affordable childcare. By her sophomore year she was on welfare.

"I tried going to school and working to support the kids and myself but the jobs would barely pay enough to cover the babysitter. There was absolutely nothing left over for groceries. Welfare was the only option that I had. I never planned on doing anything like that, and I felt really horrible when I did."

Although she set out only to get an undergraduate degree, she was soon swept up in science. She won a National Science Foundation Fellowship to pursue a Master's degree at Montana State University, studying how volcanoes erode to form new layers of sedimentary rocks. "The fellowship made a huge difference. It paid for my Master's thesis and there was enough for us to live on too. I don't think I could have considered doing a Master's degree without it," says Hiza Redsteer.

"Then it just seemed like the opportunities kept opening up for me to continue my studies," she says. The USGS offered her a graduate internship to fund her doctoral research and she was off to Oregon State University to study the chemistry and ages of volcanic rocks in the Absaroka Mountains of Montana and Wyoming.

By going with the flow of her scientific interests, Hiza Redsteer ended up with the perfect mix of education and skills for doing what she does now: managing a USGS project dealing with landscape change on Navajo-Nation lands.

In studying how climate change and traditional land-use alter landscape, Hiza Redsteer is compiling information that will be crucial for land-use planning by Native communities. When water aquifers, rapidly eroding arroyos (seasonal river beds that are wet in the rainy season and dry the rest of the year), and shifting sand dunes are involved, knowing where to put infrastructure can be a challenge. "I've seen schools undercut by an arroyo on one side and inundated by blowing sand on the other. People think, 'Maybe we shouldn't have put the school here, but where should we put it?' I'm trying to give them the information they need to make those decisions."

Support Systems

Hiza Redsteer often felt inundated and undercut herself. With no support from her family during her undergraduate degree, she relied on her kids and her studies to pull her through. "I didn't get a lot of help early on, but at Montana State University there was a woman named Mary Lukin who works in the Advance By Choice (ABC) office. She was just there to listen to me--whenever I needed. That kind of support--it sounds silly--but it was really important to me." The ABC helps low-income, disabled, and first-generation college students succeed at Montana State through counseling and tutoring services.

Anita Grunder, Hiza Redsteer's graduate advisor at Oregon State University, also played an important role. A mother with small children, Grunder balanced a full load of teaching duties, research interests, and assorted other professional demands. "Just the fact that she could do it--sometimes she was frantic, sometimes she just laughed about the whole thing--was good for me to see," says Hiza Redsteer.

Although there were no formalized mentoring programs for minority students when she was going to school, Hiza Redsteer managed to find people who were willing to help and that was all she needed. One of her staunchest allies called her up out of the blue one day: John David Love, a legendary Wyoming geologist, learned of her research and wanted to help.

"When I couldn't pay my light bill or buy groceries, he would send money. All he asked for in return was that when there was another student coming down the road that needed help, I help them. He kept me going through my Ph.D. and I would not have made it through some of the really tough times if it hadn't been for him." Now Hiza Redsteer is following in Love's footsteps by encouraging Native American students to pursue careers in the earth sciences.

Building Bridges

In her work with Native communities, Hiza Redsteer engages with Native youth, modeling a powerful way they can contribute to their communities: by becoming scientists.

As Native students become interested in her work, Hiza Redsteer hires them to work on her project. "I think that gives them a leg up that they wouldn't have otherwise. They get student employment that supports and is related to what they are interested in. And they are creating a bridge between their own communities and earth science research."

Hiza Redsteer has no doubt this can lead to employment and increased community involvement. Many tribes require geologists, hydrologists, and engineers to advise them on natural resource issues. She suggests that, while many of these jobs are filled by non-Natives, the tribes would welcome Native scientists if they were available to fill the positions. "There are many ways that you can help your community with an earth science education. You just have to believe in yourself and not give up," says Hiza Redsteer.

And she is the perfect champion of the cause. Like the water that led her to that first geology class, she learned to flow around obstacles and never give up. Now, the strength that she has developed over her career is inspiring other students to ask questions and pursue the answers, wherever they may lead.

More than anything else, every day Hiza Redsteer demonstrates that you can be a Native American and a scientist at the same time. She says, "You don't have to give up your traditions to be a scientist. You may have to be a different kind of scientist than a lot of other scientists, but you don't have to give up your traditional ways to do it."

For more information, read about Margaret Hiza Redsteer on the SACNAS Biography Project.

Anne Sasso is a freelance writer and may be reached at

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