When Chas Hoff’s children started asking questions about his Native American heritage, he realized he didn’t have many answers.
Hoff, a public affairs specialist at the NASA Safety Center in Cleveland, grew up in Dowagiac, Michigan, a center of Potawatomi culture near the Indiana border. And while he knew that he had family connections to the Potawatomi people, he never asked his relatives for more information.
“Now I’m trying to patch together the stories and documents of my great grandmother, but like a lot of Native American history, it’s complicated,” he said. “After the forcible removal of the Potawatomi people to lands in Kansas, many ancestors would marry people from other cultures and give up their names and religions, so you lose clues.”
After Hoff graduated from Grand Valley State University with a degree in film/video, and advertising/public relations, he landed at the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). He traveled for the next 20 years creating films, editing programs, and serving as a public affairs officer in support of military families around the globe.
World travel and working for the DoD exposed him to an extremely diverse workforce, how people live around the world, and how good we have it in the United States. But he also acknowledges that we can do better and create more opportunity for diverse communities, especially at NASA.
“NASA has a highly educated workforce that has had access to high quality education and opportunities,” says Hoff. “But those opportunities are not always available to children in Native American communities where their rural schools don’t have the tools or resources to pull kids into STEM careers.”
He also believes that NASA outreach efforts sometimes miss these communities because of their remote locations. The additional challenge is that Native Americans are a tightly knit people and children are reluctant to leave their families, so they often don’t choose careers in far-flung cities, according to Hoff.
“I’m a cyclist and I’ve ridden across Ohio and other states, and most of it is rural,” he says. “It’s a part of America that many people forget.”
When Hoff joined the Advisory Group for Native Americans at NASA Glenn, he was moved by the mission to create connections with American Indian students and communities.
“There is so much talent out there,” he says. “I am hopeful that as we move toward a more remote or hybrid work model, Native American students can have a more level-playing field to get internships and other opportunities.”
Nancy Smith Kilkenny
NASA Glenn Research Center