Nelson Capitan grew up strong on the Navajo Reservation. As a teenager he explored the forests and rivers of the Chuska Mountains where his ancestors farmed, hunted, fished, and found building materials for generations. “During the summer I would be out there the whole day with my friends and come back all brown, dirty, sandblasted,” he says.
After school he worked in the town of Tohatchi painting, pulling weeds, fixing roads, and doing odd jobs. “I always felt attached to the land and to the community. It made me strong in many ways,” Nelson (2712-2) says. “I have a connection to the reservation.”
Nelson kept that bond when he left Tohatchi for college and later a job at Sandia. As a member of the Labs’ American Indian Outreach Committee (AIOC) he has worked tirelessly for more than 20 years to support science education on reservations and pueblos and encourage fathers to be more involved in their children’s lives.
“I’ve been doing it so long I really didn’t think anyone noticed,” Nelson says. But the work made a difference, and Nelson was named a winner of the 2014 Governor’s New Mexico Distinguished Public Service Award. He will be honored at a gala banquet Dec. 2 at the Marriott Pyramid in Albuquerque. The program developed by Albert Rosenthal, director emeritus in public administration at the University of New Mexico, has recognized exceptional service by individuals for more than 44 years.
“I feel fortunate getting the award,” Nelson says. “I hope I can set an example. Volunteer work is out there and needed. It has been very rewarding to me. I hope more people can be involved in the schools and communities.”
A mother who taught values and culture
Nelson’s family is from Naschitti on the Navajo Reservation, but he grew up in nearby Tohatchi. His father left home when Nelson and his brother were little. “We were raised by my mom,” he says. “A lot of who I am came from her. She gave us a sense of hard work and connection to our native ways. She taught us family and belief in our cultural heritage. She taught us respect for our grandparents.”
Nelson attended Tohatchi schools through high school. He played football and basketball, ran track, and was vice president of his senior high class. He considered joining the Navy after graduating but a teacher suggested he first do a year of college. In the fall of 1986, Nelson enrolled in environmental studies at New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas and never looked back.
“In college I saw the big picture of what my future could be,” he says. He transferred to the Albuquerque Technical-Vocational Institute, now Central New Mexico Community College, and later the University of New Mexico, earning an associate’s degree in environmental technologies and a Bachelor of Arts in biology with a minor in geology.
Sandia had a summer employment program for Native Americans, and Nelson joined in 1992. “I’ve stayed with Sandia ever since in more ways than one,” he says.
Nelson did work-study, internships, and onsite contracting in Sandia’s Environmental Restoration project. He became a full-time employee in December 2001 working in active ceramics. He transferred four years ago to the Neutron Tube Manufacturing group. “I like the lab work,” he says. “I’m with great people.”
Science and fatherhood
Nelson lives in Laguna Pueblo with his wife and children. He joined the AIOC in the early ‘90s as a
Sandia intern and became more involved over the years. One focus has been science fairs. Nelson recruits Sandia researchers to go to pueblos and reservations to help students with science projects. “We want more kids to interact with professionals from Sandia,” he says. “It’s good for them. The scientists are great role models. They spend quality time with the students.” Hundreds of students participate every year.
Nelson also cofounded the Laguna Fathership Program, which encourages mostly young dads to be more involved with their kids. “We give them tools,” Nelson says. “When a father and mother split up, hopefully there is common ground where they can come together for the sake of their children and be there for them in the best way.”
Nelson speaks from the experience of his father leaving the family. As an adult he crossed paths with his dad on the reservation and brought him back into the lives of his children. “It wasn’t just for me. I wanted my kids to know their grandfather,” he says. “It was a struggle for me at times to resolve those feelings, but we are supposed to forgive, and I had to learn that, too.”
Nelson also is the Laguna-Acoma co-chair of the Indian Parent Advisory Committee in the Cibola County School District, and works with young people through his church.
His message to Native American youth is to be diligent in school, take time to read, study the scientific method, and think higher education. “I tell them not to stop, to keep going, and don’t get off track,” he says. “I encourage them to think about careers early because that’s what young people off the reservation are doing.”
It’s a message his own kids took to heart. Nelson has a UNM-graduate daughter doing a fellowship in public health in Washington, D.C., a son studying mechanical engineering at New Mexico State University, and a son in high school. “I pass on to my kids the values, faith, perseverance, and the lessons of past generations,” he says.
He says those lessons keep him connected to his home and people. “I think back to my childhood in the mountains, and those are the days I miss, growing up in Tohatchi,” he says. “I learned to love nature and the land and to accept what life gives me.”