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Bernadette Tsosie (left) and her sister, Bonita (right), grew up on the Navajo Nation.
Bernadette Tsosie (right) and her sister, Bonita (left), grew up on the Navajo Nation.

Bernadette Tsosie won’t readily admit she’s a trailblazer, but once you hear her story, there’s no doubt that she forged a new path for Native American women.

“Throughout my life, I've always been under 1% of the population. I was often the only minority and woman in my classes, and when I graduated from New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in 1991, I was the first American Indian to receive a geology degree,” said Tsosie, who is today a site manager for the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Legacy Management (LM).

After her undergraduate studies, she would achieve another milestone by becoming the first Native American to complete her graduate studies at New Mexico Tech, earning a master’s degree in geology. But those achievements meant overcoming challenges that many Native Americans still face.

“We have a high dropout rate among Native students in college, even at New Mexico Tech. There would be maybe 15 of us there initially in the fall and then by the spring there was only eight of us. Over 50% or more left school,” Tsosie said.

The disparities in STEM education resources and their impact on socioeconomically challenged minorities is accounted for in study after study. But among Native Americans, it’s not just the access to educational resources that’s difficult. There’s another barrier to completing or even attending college — homesickness.

“They have a hard time adjusting to the lifestyle of being away from home because their focus has really been on family, and so a lot of them get homesick,” said Tsosie.

She says she was able to overcome that obstacle because she had a strong role model — her mother — who had made the same adjustment when she attended college away from home.

“I felt homesick, too, but my mom kept telling me, ‘You need to stay there,’ said Tsosie. “In fact, during our breaks, she would come down to see my sister and me so that we didn't have to go back home. But she encouraged us by saying, ‘This is a short time in your life. Once you’re done, no one can take your degree away from you.’”

Bernadette Tsosie (left) attended the 2009 Navajo and New Mexico San Juan Basin Water Rights Settlement celebration with Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) (center) and her mother (right).
Bernadette Tsosie (left) attended the 2009 Navajo and New Mexico San Juan Basin Water Rights Settlement celebration with Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) (center) and her mother (right).

Tsosie took those wise words to heart. While growing up, she lived in various areas of the Navajo Nation, and her maternal family currently lives in the area of Shiprock, New Mexico, where uranium mining and processing once occurred. She soon became an authority on uranium contamination, developing a conceptual groundwater model at LM’s uranium tailings site in Shiprock for her master’s thesis. Today, Tsosie is the site manager of LM’s Bluewater, New Mexico, Disposal Site, which is located 150 miles south of where she grew up. She has devoted her life’s work to creating a cultural fluency among natural resources professionals about the complex history (such as treaties and policy challenges) that influence tribal land management both on and off reservation lands.

“I've worked with tribes my entire career as a federal employee and what I hope to do is make sure that the tribal governments are engaged as we're implementing some of these ideas or remedies at the project level,” Tsosie said.

As an LM employee, Tsosie is just one of a handful of Native Americans on staff that comprise 4% of the team, but their voices are highly valued in the office’s nuanced work. Tsosie and all her colleagues are relentless in their pursuit of the organization’s mission to protect human health and the environment.

To the younger, college-bound generation who may feel like the other “1%,” Tsosie offers some wise words of her own: “It's hard now but it gets easier. A lot of times you're going to be that one minority in that room and that's okay. But the experiences you're having now will prepare you for that and help you create a better future for yourself and your family.”