Fred Begay was only 6 when his mother and father, both Navajo healers, began teaching him the songs of the Blessingway ceremony. Then Begay was plucked from the reservation when he was 10 to attend a Bureau of Indian Affairs school in Colorado. The BIA teachers did not see the science of healing in young Begay's future: They trained him to be a farmer and released him when he turned 18. Fifty years later, Begay still knows the songs of the Blessingway and he remembers a good deal about farming. But his mind is also filled with non-Navajo theories of energy and matter.
Begay's accomplishments are noteworthy by any standards: A doctorate degree in nuclear physics, experience on NASA's high-energy gamma ray project, teaching fellowships at Stanford University and the University of Maryland and a tenure of nearly 30 years in LANL's laser program.
It has been a long road from the red dirt of the Navajo Reservation to the thermonuclear research laboratories of Los Alamos. But Begay has found fascinating parallels between Navajo concepts of religion and medicine and modern scientific thought.
Begay sits behind a computer at LANL, where he has worked in the area of thermonuclear fusion since 1971. He recalled with humor how close he came to walking behind a plow on his mother's farm outside Shiprock instead of sitting here.
Born to a father who was Navajo and a mother who was Navajo and Ute, Begay spoke both Indian languages but did not learn English until the BIA school in Ignacio, Colo., when he was 10.
After the BIA school, he enlisted in the Army and went to fight in the Korean War. When he came home in 1955, he returned to his mother's 30-acre farm with the intention of growing corn and raising children.
The Navajo tribe had come into federal education money for veterans and was recruiting Navajos who might go to college. Begay was plucked from the Shiprock community and tribal officials decided he would study mechanical engineering. He hitchhiked to Albuquerque and enrolled in the University of New Mexico on the strength of his BIA farming certificate and a promise that he would go to high-school classes at night. English classes were troublesome for Begay, but he easily learned German, which is similar in structure to Navajo, and he quickly picked up science and math concepts. At the urging of professors, Begay changed his major to physics and graduated in 1961, still lacking a high-school diploma. Begay left UNM in 1971 with seven children, a pickup truck and a doctorate in nuclear physics. He headed for a job at Los Alamos.
Ph.D. in Nuclear Physics, University of New Mexico