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Drivers of Innovation: Native Roots Help Build Positive Future

In honor of Native American Heritage Month, we spoke with Trenda Neff about her Cherokee heritage, what led to her career in science and the importance of keeping Native American history alive.

Close-up of Trenda in orange hat and sunglasses while hiking in mountains.

November 29, 2022

As UL Solutions celebrates Native American Heritage Month in the United States, we spoke with Trenda Neff, an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Neff is a customer services manager with the Testing, Inspection and Certification Consumer Product group at UL Solutions and a co-chair of the company’s new Tribal Voices Business Resource Group (BRG). We discussed her heritage, path to UL Solutions and encouraging young people to pursue careers in science, engineering, technology and math (STEM).

Please tell us a little bit about your background.

I’m an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, one of the country's largest federally recognized tribes. My father’s side of the family came to Oklahoma through the Trail of Tears.

My family has always known our heritage, and I am of German, Cherokee, Irish and Scottish descent. I was officially enrolled in the Cherokee Nation when I was around 8 years old.

How did you get interested in a science career?

I always liked science and math in school, and I felt I naturally did well in those courses. I think the moment I realized I wanted to go into the sciences was in high school, though. We did a lab in my chemistry class where we bronzed a penny, and I was just so impressed with that. I just loved learning what I could do with science, what was possible.

My mom was pushing me to go into a biology track, but I preferred chemistry. I went to a small liberal arts college, the University of the Ozarks. I majored in chemistry with minors in math and history.

What brought you to UL Solutions?

I started working for Consumer Testing Laboratories, which UL Solutions acquired around 2015. I’ve been in this role for 16 years, as of July 2022, with seven of those years with UL Solutions.

What are your favorite things about your role and working for UL Solutions?

I like the changes in projects and roles. It helps keep me from getting bored.

I also like the BRGs and DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) initiatives at UL Solutions. I like that the company willingly builds an inclusive culture, bringing in speakers and hosting webinars and whatnot that enlighten people.

I think UL Solutions pushes a lot of soft skills. For example, at another company, there was a lot of worry about number matrixes and error rates. Not that we don’t have that here, but there is more in addition to those concerns. You get more well-rounded career development with the soft skills here.

How has being a part of the Tribal Voices BRG impacted you and/or the community?

What I’ve noticed, at least locally, is people asking about traditional clothing items we wear for events like Ribbon Skirt Day and Rock Your Mocs. It starts conversations from genuine curiosity. People ask how I know that I’m Cherokee or Indigenous. They ask questions about etiquette and powwows and other things they’ve wondered about.

As the Tribal Voices BRG gains visibility, it increases the chances for people to learn. It helps me point people in the right direction to find the information they are looking for. In Oklahoma and Arkansas, you do get questions about heritage. People in almost family have stories handed down to them through generations about Cherokee heritage. But people wonder if they can track it down and legitimize those family stories.

The largest Cherokee population is just across the state line from us [sic, in Arkansas] in Oklahoma. Lots of Tribal governments are active there. Cherokees had inter-married Europeans even before the Trail of Tears. Finding some Native heritage is not unlikely, but you have to know where to look. People just have to be persistent to find the information.

I like how much I have learned from other members of Tribal Voices. My knowledge of other tribes has grown from what people have shared. Being part of the group has broadened my knowledge of other North American tribes and what the similarities and differences are.

Why do you think Native American Heritage Month is important?

It comes down to wanting to share your identity. This month is a time to let people know that the different tribes are not their stereotypes from Hollywood. We need to show people that there are Native communities alive and thriving today.

It’s essential to keep our history alive. Currently, many different tribes are making a huge push not to lose their Native languages. A lot of Native speakers, whose first language was Cherokee, are getting older and passing away. In my own family, my grandpa and dad speak some Cherokee but are not fluent.

Unfortunately, our history of forced assimilation has decreased the number of fluent speakers. Into the early 1900s, sending Indigenous children to boarding schools where teachers punished students for speaking their Native languages was common. Residential boarding schools and even local schools really tried to Americanize students. Those generations had trauma from being taught not to speak their languages, so they did not pass them on to their children.

Youth choirs are now utilizing music to teach children Cherokee. They feel it is easier for kids to learn the language through music and songs. There are also language immersion schools that teach Cherokee.

What are you most proud of about your heritage? Are there traditions you enjoy?

I always liked knowing that I am a Cherokee Nation citizen. It has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, and I enjoy learning our history and understanding traditions. I want to learn the Cherokee language, too.

Members of the Cherokee Nation choose how involved they want to be. I enjoy the Cherokee National Holiday, which occurs around Labor Day each year. It’s the largest powwow and features various styles of dancers. During the celebration, there is also a big art show. Artists from any federally recognized tribe can show their Native art and compete for awards. It’s a time to get immersed in Cherokee culture, enjoy the dancers, see creations from countless artists and listen to Cherokee bands from all over the country. I also like the smaller stomp dances in the spring and the wild onion dinners run by Native churches.

How can we encourage more Native American students to engage in STEM education and careers?

I think STEM education is important for everybody. We need to meet kids where they are and connect STEM to them somehow. Whether we’re working with girls or Native Americans or any other group of kid, we need to make it fun. Show some excitement and get them involved. The struggle to get people into STEM is engagement. We need to show how these fields can be fun and cool.

Mary Ross is someone you hear about often. She was a Cherokee who worked in engineering in the space industry. Ross designed rockets and things like that for Lockheed Martin. She is a great example for kids to learn about. She grew up in a tiny town in Oklahoma just outside the Cherokee capital. Ross's story is very similar to the women from Hidden Figures.

Are there other ways your Cherokee heritage impacts your life?

Tribal leadership has been non-patriarchal for generations, so I am used to seeing women in leadership and having significant roles. That’s something Cherokee people carry with them. We don’t find it odd to see women in leadership or with a voice at the table. Wilma Mankiller was the principal chief when I was growing up. Her example showed me that anything is possible.

I also credit my experiences within the Cherokee Nation for showing me the importance of communication and working well with others. Everybody has a voice, and you’re willing to listen to everybody’s voice.