Native Village
Youth and Education news
Volume 2   September 2011

The Native Astronomer
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Dennis Lamenti Native AstronomerIndiana:  As far Dennis Lamenti knows, he is the only Native American in the contiguous United States with, or working toward, a Ph.D. in astronomy.

Lamenti, a Navajo/Zuni, grew up on the Navajo Nation Reservation. He spent his 20s and 30s working in the corporate world and looking for meaning in his life. Then, in the 1990s, he started participating in Navajo ceremonies and decided he wanted to better know his Creator.

“And the way to do that for me was to learn more about the creation,” he said.

The physics and mathematics model appealed to Lamenti so in 2002, at age 44, he enrolled at San Francisco State University (SFSU). During his sophomore year,  Dennis became an intern at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He was placed in its astrophysics division.

Now 53, Lamenti is enrolled at Indiana University-Bloomington (IU). He's completed his masters and has about two years to go on his Ph.D. in astronomy.

Some of Dennis's projects:

Assisted in developing an algorithm for for sky transparency at the observatory on Mauna Kea, HA. in Hawaii.

Creating a portal for observers to examine nightly observations of supernovae candidates for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey II. The Survey is the second phase of an international, multi-institutional effort to map of the universe.

Studying the spectrum of giant stars in globular clusters.

Examining radial velocities of stars in the Beehive. The Beehive is an open star cluster in the Milky Way galaxy some 600 light years from Earth.

Dennis' educational path has not been easy. For nearly 10 years, he was far from home and the Navajo ways.  At SFSU, he searched for Native American physics students. He hoped they could talk about their struggles like cultural differences, spiritual conflicts and crossed value boundaries.

“There was a certain type of loneliness, but it was also coupled with my own bias of being an older person" he said."Most of my colleagues are half my age. I tended to isolate myself,”

Lamenti overcame those challenges by being willing to change. He prayed and connected with Native and non-Native people.  He also helped create IU’s First Nations Educational and Cultural Center
in 2007 for IU’s Native American student population. The FNECC serves all 277 of IU's Native students. It's a place for them to get support and information.

Lamenti would also like to return home and educate Navajos on the universe. He also hopes to inspire some to pursue careers in astronomy. He believes indigenous thought is needed for a holistic approach to science and to understanding the universe.

There are some programs encouraging Natives to become astronomers. One is the Navajo-Hopi Astronomy Outreach Program at Lowell Observatory in Arizona. The program pairs astronomers with elementary and secondary school teachers at tribal schools.  The teachers share traditional star stories, and the astronomers visit their classrooms to discuss astronomy topics and engage the students with hands-on activities. Hopi teacher also developed lessons for the program. His lessons include Hopi words for cosmic terms, like muuyaw for moon, soohu for star and soongwuga for Milky Way.

Lowell also hosts overnight fieldtrips to the observatory and star parties, where the astronomers setup telescopes on school property at night. Students and their families then get a chance to explore the skies with their own eyes.

Lowell's program was modeled after Project ASTRO, a national program launched by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Today, there are more than 500 teacher-astronomer partnerships.

A Project ASTRO at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Arizona, works with Indian Oasis. Indian Oasis is a K-8 school on the Tohono O’odham Reservation, home to Kitt Peak National Observatory.

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