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American Indian engineers present inaugural award to Sandia diversity specialist

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Credit: Photo by Stephanie Blackwell

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Introducing the first recipient of the Blazing Flame Award from the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) requires a customary introduction. Translated from Navajo: "They call me Marie Capitan. I am Navajo and Alaskan. I am born to the Water's Edge People clan and born for the Alaskan People."

Capitan, a diversity workforce specialist at Sandia National Laboratories, is one of five professionals honored this weekend at the 2016 AISES National Conference in Minneapolis. She will accept the Blazing Flame Award, which honors an outstanding professional who has blazed a path for Native Americans in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and careers.

Capitan said such introductions serve purposes like finding relatives and announcing clan and place of birth. Connecting people from wide-ranging backgrounds is Capitan's passion. She said the programs she has developed at Sandia foster trust, teamwork and productivity.

Capitan is the eighth person from Sandia to be honored by AISES, a national non-profit dedicated to increasing the representation of American Indians in STEM.

Asked about being the first person to receive this honor, Capitan said she is humbled, and she never thinks about winning awards. She said what speaks to her is the name of the new award.

"The symbol of the blazing flame is powerful," Capitan said. "When I think of the mistreatment that happens in families, or when relationships become unproductive at work, people may feel like they are living in a dark shadow. The flame lights a path for us to move forward. For me, it's the idea of reconciliation and healing."

Born to a single mother on the Navajo reservation in Utah, Capitan's father, an Alaska Native, was killed in a motorcycle accident before her second birthday. Capitan was shuttled back and forth from the reservation in Aneth, Utah, to Albuquerque. She settled in Albuquerque when her mother got a job as a labor and delivery nurse.

Capitan said her mother was part of a generation that was told to reject her native teachings, and was forced to assimilate.

Her grandmother, Frances Capitan, was her role model, she said.

Her grandmother taught her Navajo traditions, over her mother's objections. She tutored her in language, storytelling, making fry bread and tortillas, hospitality, the roles of women and men and the importance of honoring elders.

Said Capitan, "I am very grateful for her teachings because they have helped me throughout my life. I learned about leadership, compassion, generosity toward others and courage to stand by your core."

Capitan graduated from Eldorado High School in Albuquerque, where she excelled in the sciences. She saved up enough money to pay for her first year of college, but when the money ran out, she seized an opportunity in Washington D.C. to work for American Indian National Bank. A few months later she accepted a position with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

"Being the first in my family to attend university, I found myself chartering my own way. Looking back, I didn't realize there were scholarship opportunities for college," Capitan said. "I thought it was my sole responsibility to pay for school."

After working at the BIA in Washington, Capitan transferred to the Albuquerque district of the BIA as a secretary and a federal police officer. She was the only woman police officer in the BIA Albuquerque district.

"What I enjoyed about law enforcement was the ability to protect people," Capitan said.

During seven years with the Albuquerque Police Department (APD), Capitan served in the patrol, forensics, recruiting and felony investigations divisions. Working while raising her son, Capitan persevered, taking night classes at Central New Mexico Community College and completing her bachelor's in criminology at the University of New Mexico.

Capitan's investigative experience transferred to Sandia 15 years ago, when she accepted a position in the Equal Employment Opportunity office.

Capitan's work as a diversity workforce specialist has made a lasting impact, said Sandia's chief diversity officer, Esther Hernandez, with whom she developed the Labs' Diversity and Inclusion programs.

"Marie is recognized and sought out for her subject matter expertise," said Hernandez. "She has a way of honorably using what she has learned in life and through her culture to help others."

In the community, Capitan inspires local native middle and high school students to pursue education and careers in STEM. She has led Sandia's Dream Catcher Science Program, a hands-on learning outreach for students and their parents, for nearly a decade. She is also a member of Sandia's American Indian Outreach Committee.

"Marie has a true passion for diversity and inclusion, and we would like to extend our heartfelt congratulations," said Sandia Vice President Melonie Parker. "Marie has served as an exemplary role model. Her many years of service and dedication to the community have made an impact by exposing underserved minority students to STEM education and careers."

Thinking again about the image of a blazing flame, Capitan said, "My job is connecting people and creating that path, creating a light."

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Sandia National Laboratories is a multimission laboratory operated by Sandia Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Lockheed Martin Corp., for the U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration. With main facilities in Albuquerque, N.M., and Livermore, Calif., Sandia has major R&D responsibilities in national security, energy and environmental technologies and economic competitiveness.

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