NASA engineer talks culture, resilience at annual Native American heritage celebration

By Kristin Molinaro DLA Land and Maritime Public Affairs

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An aerospace engineer and Haudenosaunee tribal member headlined the Defense Federal Community’s Native American Heritage Month celebration Nov. 29 at the Defense Supply Center Columbus.

Joseph Connolly, of NASA’s Glenn Research Center, reflected on his experience as a Native American working for the federal government and delved into the history of America’s first people in the program’s theme of “Sovereignty, Trust and Resilience.”

The Federal Community Choir opened the program singing the National Anthem followed by a Native American-themed invocation delivered by Defense Finance and Accounting Service Columbus’ Mark Baisden giving thanks to the Great Spirit and speaking of Ohio’s Wyandot Chief Leatherlips. Mistress of Ceremony Ann Large, of DFAS Columbus, was recognized for her 23 years of service to the Native American Program. Large, a member of the Dine’ (Navajo) Nation, has participated in the program since 1995.

“Throughout this month we honor and celebrate the First [People] and recognize their contributions and sacrifices,” DFAS Columbus Native American Program Executive Champion James Likes said in opening remarks. “They helped early European settlers survive and then thrive in a new land, they contributed democratic ideas to our constitutional framers, and for more than 200 years Native Americans have answered the call to defend our nation, serving with distinction in every branch of the Armed Forces.”

Following Likes remarks, the day’s keynote speaker took the stage.

Connolly’s presentation gave insight into how the federal government can most effectively engage Native American communities to bring more Native people into federal agencies. He also emphasized how important it is to retain current employees by understanding the culturally and historically complicated relationship between Native people and the government.

The Haudenosaunee – also known as Iroquois – are a historically powerful Native American confederacy once known as the Five Nations comprising the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga and Seneca. They became known as the Six Nations when the Tuscarora people were accepted into the league. While considered six separate nations of people, all share a common traditional law of governance. Today, thousands of Native people claim membership in the tribe.

To communicate how cultural support and understanding translates to career success, Connolly gave the example of his initial experience attending OSU and “landing flat on my face.”

Connolly grew up in Niagra Falls, New York – about 90 minutes from the Six Nations of the Grand River Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) reservation where many of his relatives live. Growing up among family and surrounded by his culture, he was known as the “smart kid” and said he generally didn’t have to try very hard to pass school exams. However, that changed when he moved to Ohio and began college at The Ohio State University studying aerospace engineering and sociology.

“You can’t just not study and be successful in these top programs,” Connolly said. “One of the things I realized was that I didn’t have the culture, ceremonies or family to rely on to make me a resilient person to be able to rebound from that initial failure – and I didn’t really find any success in my academic career until I started to build those areas up.”

With his family hundreds of miles away, Connolly started locally by engaging with OSU’s diversity office and a few friends to restart defunct Native student groups on campus. Connolly helped start a student chapter called the American Indian Science and Engineering Society.

Success in the cultural and community realms translated to success in his academic career.

Connolly went on to earn two bachelor’s degrees from OSU in 2004, a master of science from Case Western Reserve University in 2009, and his doctorate from OSU in 2018.  He’s worked for NASA since 2004, and currently develops dynamic models of supersonic propulsion systems for research.

Connolly believes many opportunities early on would’ve been missed if he hadn’t made that culture – to – career connection.

“One thing I took for granted before going to college was how much support I had around me to be a successful person,” he added.

Connolly tied his OSU experience to the Defense Logistics Agency and DFAS, and other federal organizations.

“Everyone relies on these organizations to be successful – to be a good Soldier, to be a good Defense Department person. Not too many people in the general public may know that DLA perhaps even exists, but you better believe that if DLA didn’t exist all of the sudden you would fall flat on your face and not be successful,” he said. “It’s that background sense of community, those obligations, that whole support network and the community that wraps around you that makes you resilient. And it’s a profound thing that we need to carry forward and be very proud of as federal employees.”


Watch the full presentation. (CAC-enabled)