Laura Waterman Wittstock

Laura Waterman Wittstock is president and CEO of Wittstock & Associates. The firm provides consultation in new projects, creative, development, assessment/evaluation, and governance. Read more about Laura Waterman Wittstock

Back to the Stars

Posted by: Laura Waterman Wittstock Updated: July 29, 2011 - 1:13 PM

The NASA space shuttle Atlantis landed on July 21, ending a 30-year program of space exploration and experimentation. One massive payload it carried was called the “Raffaello Multi-purpose Logistics Module,” a container filled with five tons of supplies and spare parts for the space station (ISS). Now dubbed Leonardo, the module will stay at the space station for the duration of its useful life. Its large size will provide much needed space for the astronauts who visit the station in the future.

That is the big component of the flight. But also nestled in the payload was a very tiny experiment: American Indian tobacco seeds in a microgravity environment. This was the first and only plant experiment involving native seeds cultivated only by American Indians from the Western Hemisphere using native agricultural science over millennia.

Instrumentation Technology Associates (ITA) built the hardware that carries the microgravity experiments. A commercial company, experiments are carried on missions for a fee. The company continues to book space on commercial flights and government-sponsored space programs. Valerie Cassanto, the company owner’s daughter assisted in getting the experiment underway. The company’s small hardware would become the home of the tobacco seeds during the flight.

Kenji Williams with other associates at the Bella Gaia (Beautiful Earth) NASA education team worked with Dakota Astronomer Jim Rock and his wife, educator Roxanne Gould to bring the experiment aboard Atlantis. They met at an environmental science conference in Minnesota. Rock explains how he chose the 800-year old cultivar of small leaf yellow tobacco for the trip, named in Dakota,” Chandi.” Once he was selected to be a part of the volunteers for the group, he immediately thought of tobacco and the “Three Sisters,” the corn, beans, and squash that are traditionally grown together on Indian plots. It soon became apparent that the larger seeds would not fit into the shuttle’s Materials Dispersion Apparatus (MDA) minilabs that have unique power supplies. So Jim fell back to a plan to create an experiment with Indian tobacco alone. The tiny seeds would fit into the MDA spaces.

MDAs are capable of mixing up to three fluids in their environments using a liquid-to-liquid diffusion process. The MDAs are therefore capable of conducting biomedical, manufacturing and fluid sciences processes. The tiny tobacco seeds would get water at a specific time and point in space. The seeds were hard to load because of their tiny size, but Jim was adamant that precision be applied: seven seeds for the Seven Starfire Nations Ocheti Shakowin Oyate. Other containers held 13, 20 and 365 seeds for a total of 405. The astronauts had to turn cranks to deliver water to the seeds at specific times. The number of seeds relates to the Dakota association with loading a pipe for ceremonies and the Dakota/Nakota view of the “river in the sky” the Milky Way, where it is said the people come from a star, an origin: Wakan Titit. And befitting the river association, the seeds were carried to the launching site in tiny canoes, made especially for the voyage.

Even though Jim Rock is trained in science which he also teaches, he brings with him the knowledge of his ancestors, handed down to him specifically by his father, Tabdoka Sapa Itokab Najin Sni, a name that translates as “Do Not Stand In Front Of The Black Buffalo,” acknowledging that which gives life. Rock wrote: “This reminds us to have great respect for the extreme, sacrificial generosity of the buffalo who represents the Universe to us and who is also our stellar ancestor as seen in the racetrack constellations (including Orion and parts of Taurus, Canis Major and Gemini).  There we see the “Black (star) Buffalo.”  It is to my “Ate” (father) we dedicate this “star seeds of life” experiment.”

The seeds are back on earth now, and on their way to the Science Museum of Minnesota where they will continue to be observed. Rock will continue his work as a Dakota astronomer/educator with the Indigenous Educational Design company working with the Minnesota Planetarium Society, NASA’s Beautiful Earth Project, and NOAA’s WorldViewsNetwork, the Science Museum of Minnesota, the University of St. Thomas, the AIOIC (American Indians Opportunities Industrialization Center) and Dream of Wild Health.

America’s indigenous past now has a link with the most ambitious 30-year old space program ever created. For Jim Rock the experiment in flight was a way to reach toward a long-ago Dakota/Nakota past: the Buffalo’s backbone; those three stars in Orion’s belt.



The Minnesota Planetarium Deserves a Good Home

Posted by: Laura Waterman Wittstock Updated: April 26, 2011 - 8:49 AM

 We take looking up at the skies for granted. The stars and moon will always be there. Only the headline of a transit of Venus or the infamous blue moon calls our attention to the reality that the firmament is not fixed and we are a tiny population in a galaxy far away. Romantic maybe, but definitely not something we should take for granted for ourselves but especially not for our children. 

Most people agree that we should educate ourselves all of our lives. There is no room for limited thinking, especially not for the coming generations. It will comfort many Minnesotans to know that the MN Planetarium Society just passed an important 100,000 mark. That many school children have now had lessons about the cosmos, given by Planetarium teacher Sally Brummel. This teacher and a small crew of volunteers, consultant Joel Halvorson, and staff member Mike Linnemann have traveled extensively to bring a portable dome and astronomy program to schools.

We have a few small planetariums like the ones in Duluth, Hibbing, or New Ulm, but only one serves the entire state: the Minnesota Planetarium and Space Discovery Center. But, you can look at a list of the state's planetariums and observatories and not find the Minnesota Planetarium. That's because when the Minneapolis Central Library was torn down in 2003 to build the new Central Library, the Planetarium lost its home. Then known as the Minneapolis Planetarium, four million visitors went there over 50 years. Creaky, old equipment went into the dustbin as plans were made for a shining new edifice to go on top of the new Central Library. Now, eight years later, Minnesotans still have no state planetarium. Even with $22 million in bonding, there was not enough to build. The new planetarium, with the most modern equipment and software has had to wait for a greater will and the gifts needed to make it a reality.

For many reasons, support from the City of Minneapolis and then Hennepin County has lagged. Now, a new partnership with the Bell Museum at the University of Minnesota gives some hope that a new planetarium will be available to the people of the state. Collaborative Bell/Planetarium  camps for kids are planned for this summer and if Legacy funds are approved by the state legislature, more is possible, such as a "Cycle of Our Seasons" program that will link the states many small planetariums in new ways: via shared software, 3-D technology, and the inclusion of real objects from space. 

What's to make all this happen? Only the course of the legislative process will bring real space science to Minnesotans. It may seem like the proverbial "no brainer" to many, but politics on the hill in St. Paul are sharply divided in dozens of ways. The Minnesota Planetarium has brought STEM science to the children of the state like no other effort so far. What is STEM? It is science, technology, engineering and mathematics: the discipline areas vitally needed if the United States is going to be competitive on the world stage. The future is more of STEM, not less, and Minnesota needs to be in the competition, not sidelined by a failure to see the benefits of a future with what the Minnesota Planetarium will offer.

Minnesotans should show their support by picking up the phone, sending an email, or writing a letter to the members of the Legacy Division in the House or the Environment and Natural Resources Committee in the Senate. Do it today.

Let's Separate the Grief from the Blame

Posted by: Laura Waterman Wittstock Updated: January 12, 2011 - 5:08 PM

 We unfortunately have the village response and that is to look for cause or blame when calamity, sickness and death occur. Free hunters in our past stopped to grieve but then moved on while those in settlements wanted answers. They had enemies to contend with and as settled groups, they were targets.  Unfortunate too, along the way, we have invented religions that seem to give "reasons" for why things happen. Either a benevolent god picks one out to be saved by some miracle or a silent god lets others die, sometimes violently. 

The shootings that resulted in injury and death in Arizona compel every one of us to take stock - not just to what happened there but to what might be happening in our own lives. In a strange way, the violent deaths of others causes many to appreciate life all the more. We can link ourselves easily to the young child mercilessly gunned down but also to the adults, particularly those who died while saving others. This is the heroism of which we hope we all are capable when the time comes. It is one of the binders of our society that has us believe the many are of greater good than the one. That idea transcends religiosity and seems to spring from older ideas of survival in a threatening world.

We as a nation make our own threats these days. We have gone to war on a gigantic scale against people the ordinary American has never met nor visited in far away countries where the war is waging. We don't see on our nightly television programs how innocent people who are not armed combatants are being gunned down. Women and small children as well as men young and old are killed because they are in the way, they are perceived to be the enemy, or they represent something reprehensible. Our side does not kill all these people, although we have done enough of that. No, the other side(s), do the killing, but they are armed with weapons bought from Isreal, China, Russia, France, and possibly topping the list: the United States.

We build our own personal bunkers in which we evaluate life from the top, starting with our own family members, then people we know, then public figures, particularly religious figures, then Americans, then the rest of the world. We are skewed to a north-south view, with north generally being good and south generally being less good. Yet is not any death equally valuable somewhere, to someone? 

Each tragedy teaches us a lesson we are told. So what is to be learned when a young deranged man gets hooked on his social networks and a few awful websites, follows his inner voice and buys a gun, too easily it seems. He then enhances the gun's capacity to shoot multiple bullets and goes to where he knows a member of Congress will be speaking and meeting with her constituents. He shoots her, it seems with the intent to kill her, and then he empties the gun's magazine on the helpless, unarmed ordinary people who have come to the same place, but for a different purpose.

With nothing but their bare hands, they overcame the armed man and took his gun away. In that is the lesson I see - and that is that the inner peace we share with one another is always evident so that when the time comes and the greater good is more than the survival of one - we shine in our humanity. That one quality takes us back to our beginnings.

The best thing we can all do now is end the war with nothing but our bare hands and voices that say we are better than this.


The Quiet Hero of Leech Lake

Posted by: Laura Waterman Wittstock Updated: July 22, 2010 - 12:10 AM

People familiar with American Indian nations know how identity is closely tied to the land. Many also understand that tribal sovereignty includes water and valuable minerals or petroleum below the surface. Few know that the air above reservations is not only owned by tribal nations, it too is valuable. Leech Lake is providing a lesson in airway ownership and use that is probably incomprehensible to a postmodern world that takes universal mobile phone coverage for granted. 

Frank Reese sits in a tiny office that's crammed with books, studies, and reports. He quietly answers the phone when anyone calls. No one screens the calls of Leech Lake's Management of Information Systems Director. He has an engineer's demeanor and ability to answer questions with more information than can be comprehended in one bite. He works in a pleasant but nondescript building but in terms of geography, his responsibility is enormous.

The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe is  situated in north central Minnesota, about 230 miles from the Twin Cities. The reservation touches four counties and its land area is 972.5 miles. If water were considered, it would be the largest reservation in the state. Over 25% of the Leech Lake reservation is water.

All that is a considerable challenge for an engineer who has a vision for computer connectivity, data handling, tower technology, wireless technology and, oh yes, an operating radio station. Distance is horizontal, not vertical on a land surface that has been flattened by glaciers present in what is now Minnesota from as long ago as two million years and as recently as ten to twelve thousand years ago. The only way to get up in the air for lower cost access to more bandwidth is with towers, and they have to be high ones. But none of these challenges phase Frank Reese.

In addition to the tribal leadership of a chairman, secretary/treasurer and three district representatives, Leech Lake has thirteen communities represented in twelve local councils. The tribe has close to 9,000 tribal members on its roll and about half live on or near the reservation.

The MIS department that Reese heads supports tribal administration and several points on the reservation with telephone and data service. A new water tower with an estimated 150,000 gallon capacity will soon be emblazoned with the nation's colors. And on the tower will go antennas for greater wireless capacity. The tribe will also lease out parts of the tower space to companies that need height. And in the corporate boardrooms of the U.S. the fight for high places is intense.

Reese will build his own tower for the radio station, KOJB-FM, scheduled to go on the air late this year or in the Spring. The station will have 45,000 watts of power and it will reach everyone on the reservation that wants to tune in. Station Manager Brad Walhof is already on board and making plans for digital recordings of pow wows, conversations with tribal elders, and other scenes that capture the ongoing life of the Leech Lake Ojibwe people.

All this is happening because of the quiet dedication of Frank Reese, grandfather, engineer, designer of telephone and data networks and services, and visionary of what can happen up there in the air over the reservation. 









Never Shout "Baby Killer" In a Crowded Room

Posted by: Laura Waterman Wittstock Updated: March 22, 2010 - 3:39 PM

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Michigan was speaking on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives last night when someone was heard to shout "baby killer." Only after the speaker of the house (pro tem) gaveled the meeting back to order was Rep. Stupak allowed to continue. He was explaining why he thought the pro-life aspects of the soon to be passed Health Bill would be protected when he was interrupted. Stupak is known to be "pro life."

It took until this afternoon for the culprit to come forward. Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas (shown, right) said, "I have apologized to Mr. Stupak and also apologize to my colleagues for the manner in which I expressed my disappointment about the bill. The House Chamber is a place of decorum and respect. The timing and tone of my comment last night was inappropriate."

In Minnesota 46.0 percent identified themselves as "pro life" in 2009, a steady increase from 41.1 percent in 2005 (source Survey USA). This compares to the national "pro life" preference of 51%. This is the first time Americans have chosen this preference in the majority since the Gallup Poll began measuring the question in 1995.

So what are the numbers of abortions alone telling us? MN counted 12,948 medical abortions in 2008 (Medical News Today). By comparison, the deaths of poor MN infants whose parents  lack insurance is  7.4 deaths per 1,000 births. (The MN Department of Health is source of this information).

The report also said, "Though not always statistically significant, women of color and American Indian women had lower rates of infant death when covered by Medicaid than those in the non-Medicaid population. It was also true that teen mothers covered by Medicaid had lower infant death rates than teens in the non-Medicaid population."

So where does "pro life" figure in the debate of more insurance which will lower infant death rates compared to what we have now? Infant death rates are one thing, the uncounted numbers are non-medical fetus loss due to poor nutrition, uncared for disease, and various kinds of drug and chemical use. Preventive care is the best care for healthy fetuses and their mothers. But that cost depends on a society that cares enough for fetuses and infants to see that they are properly cared for.

Few Minnesotans have likely heard of the Office of Minority and Multicultural Health. It has been fighting to lower the numbers of fetal and infant deaths for years. The MN Commissioner of Health is Dr. Sanne Magnan. She said, .... we know that significant disparities remain in multiple areas,{such as infant mortality} and we must continue our efforts. During the 2009 legislative session, we sustained our investment in health reform, including the Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP), which will address tobacco and obesity, the leading preventable causes of illness and death. We also sustained the investment in implementing health care homes. Both of these initiatives are being held accountable in legislation to decrease health disparities."

The Office, working together with communities all across Minnesota, has managed to bring down Infant mortality without shouting in the streets, or in the State legislature. Increased health insurance will bring the boost needed to lower the numbers even more.

"Baby killer!" isn't shouted at those who would refuse insurance for the poor. It is only shouted when the question is medical abortion. It's a cruel twist on the realities of poor people who are bringing new life into the world.

 (Disclosure: the author is on the Office of Minority and Multicultural Health - Eliminating Health Disparities Initiative advisory board). 


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