The First Female Native American Engineer

Mary G. Ross was born in a small town in Oklahoma in 1908. She was the great-granddaughter of John Ross, the Chief of the Cherokee Nation, who helped lead the resettlement of Native Americans from Georgia to Oklahoma during the disgraceful Trail of Tears created by the administration of President Andrew Jackson.

Realizing that her hometown would not provide for her education, she lived with her grandparents where educational opportunities were better. At age 16, she entered college and studied mathematics. She was 20 when she received her degree.  

She taught math and science for nine years during the Great Depression. That was followed by working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs and as an advisor to Native American girls at the boarding school in New Mexico. She was able to earn a Master’s degree during that time.

Her career took a significant change when she was hired by Lockheed during World War II. With her mathematics background, she was able to support advances in aircraft design for the war effort.

When World War II ended, many of the women who supported the war were let go to provide places for men returning to civilian life. Lockheed chose to keep Mary on its staff. She was so well thought of that Lockheed supported her pursuit of a professional certification in engineering at UCLA. She was 41 at the time and the first Native American female engineer.

When Lockheed created a secretive program known as the Skunk Works, Mary was one of the 40 founders and the only woman in the program. Her work with Lockheed involved satellites, ballistic missiles, and other defense technologies. When President Kennedy announced the goal of landing men on the moon, her work with the launch rockets was vital.

After retirement, she became active in recruiting women and Native Americans to pursue STEM careers. She was a founding member of the Society of Women Engineers. At age 96, she participated in the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian. She passed away at the age of 99.                          

* * *

“I was the only female in my class. I sat on one side of the room and the guys on the other side of the room. I guess they didn’t want to associate with me. But I could hold my own with them and sometimes did better.” – Mary G. Ross

How To Use

Useful guides for incorporating messages into discussion.