Native American Heritage Month: First in flight for women of Standing Rock

The first woman from her tribe to pursue commercial aviation at UND, Elspeth Thomas doesn’t intend to be the last

As Elspeth Thomas tells it, her University of North Dakota aviation story began in Noren Hall, where she’d lived on campus since coming to UND in 2016. Noren is a residence hall popular with students in the aviation program. UND photo.

It took a while for Elspeth Thomas to determine what she wanted out of college, but she knew it when she saw it.

Sitting in the cockpit of an airplane was all it took for her to make up her mind.

With the flight controls at arm’s reach, staring at the flat expanse of earth and its horizon below, Thomas sensed at that moment where her ambitions and her UND major belonged.

“I just knew it was exactly what I wanted to do,” she said.

And, in making that decision, she likely became the first woman from the Standing Rock Lakota Tribe to pursue a commercial aviation degree at UND.

Miracles of flight

As Thomas tells the tale, her UND aviation story began in Noren Hall, where she’d lived on campus since coming to UND in 2016. Noren is a residence hall popular with students in the aviation program.

“I was trying a bunch of different classes at the time, and I ended up making a lot of friends in aviation,” Thomas said. “And one day, I went flying with one of those friends, and I was in the front seat.”

As the small aircraft hummed above UND, Grand Forks and the Red River Valley, she experienced life at the controls, if only for a moment.

That exposure to the miracle of flight likely brought forth long-forgotten memories, based on her childhood experiences and fascination with flying.

“Both of my parents and a couple other family members were in the Air Force, and I was exposed to aviation at a young age,” Thomas told UND Today.

Though she has always called Grand Forks home, her mother was born and raised on the Standing Rock Reservation, and Thomas has been an enrolled member of the tribe since birth.

Her parents, though not on the flight line themselves, were stationed at bases in Cavalier and Grand Forks through much of Thomas’ childhood.

She recalled a time in elementary school when the students were asked to dress like people who inspired them. Skipping the standard fare of superheroes and sports stars, Thomas dressed as trailblazing pilot Amelia Earhart.

“So, in a way, flying was always in the back of my mind, but I never thought I could actually go out and do it,” she said. “It wasn’t until I got to college that I thought this could be something I could pursue as a career.”

Though she has always called Grand Forks home, Thomas’ mother was born and raised on the Standing Rock Reservation, and Elspeth has been an enrolled member of the tribe since birth. UND photo.

First-generation aviation student

Of course, majoring in commercial aviation – especially at the start of one’s junior year, as in Thomas’ case – is a lot more complicated than just checking a box. But from her experiences and friendships, Thomas understood the gravity of her choice and took time to think it through.

The result was taking a full semester off to do her own research. Thomas spent hours reading things online, talking to advisors and doing what she could to understand the financial and academic implications, she said.

“I really wanted to think about my decision and see what it entailed, which turned out to be a lot,” Thomas said with a laugh.

Today, she’s certified as a commercial pilot with multi-instrument ratings, and she’s working on her certification to become a flight instructor. Thomas estimates that she’ll be graduating by summer 2022. In other words, “I’m very close to being done,” she said.

Regarding her status of being “first” from Standing Rock, or among the few Native American women to go into aviation at UND, Thomas said she has thought about it, but knows that – despite the challenges she has faced – going into the program would have been a lot more difficult if she had come from a reservation community.

“Having grown up in Grand Forks, going to the schools here, it wasn’t a big transition coming to UND,” Thomas said. “But I could see how going from life on the reservation to pursuing an aviation degree would be a totally different experience.”

“Even for me, being a first-generation aviation student, I don’t have parents who are airline pilots, which is the case for many other students,” she continued. “That type of background turns out to be a valuable guide in knowing the right people to talk to and finding the right resources. So, in that way, there can be so many challenges and obstacles to overcome.”

Also, the fact that Thomas is a woman enrolled in commercial aviation is almost as singular as the fact that she’s Native American. Women pilots represent only 6 percent of the total pilot population, according to Women in Aviation International.

At UND’s John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, which trains students for not only the cockpit but also other careers in aviation, women make up about 15 percent of the students, according to enrollment data.

As a result, starting out in the program was difficult, due to sitting in classes with only one or two other women in some cases, Thomas said. But as time went on, she made more friends, and the feelings of difference became more trivial as the litany of aviation “unknowns” went away with experience.

In addition, many of Thomas’ female classmates also are first-generation aviation students, and those peers are among her most important resources on campus, she said. She’s taken an active role in a number of student organizations, including the UND Indian Association, American Indians in Science & Engineering, Women in Aviation and the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals.

Thomas notes that while she is not Black, the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals has rapidly grown and expanded its umbrella to represent other minorities at UND Aerospace. It has become a place for minority students “to come together and have a unified voice,” she said.

“What you come to realize is that the people you meet come from all over the country and the world to fly here, and they all have different perspectives on life,” Thomas said. “So, even though I’m one of the few Native Americans in the program, I feel as though I’m among a diverse group of women in the field.”

Sharing in success

Besides building the flight hours she’ll need for her career in the clouds, Thomas is determined to do right by her tribal community, she said. That means advocating for Native Americans who are similarly interested in aviation careers.

“In our Lakota culture, and likely other Native nations, the expectation is to give back to your people and your community,” Thomas said. “I want to see more Native people in this field, and I’m always going to try to inspire young people in my community – to open that door for them.”

With most of her mother’s family living on the Standing Rock Reservation, Thomas makes the five-hour journey to visit when she can.

“I wasn’t raised in a traditional Lakota home, but my mom always made sure that we are connected to our family, community and culture,” Thomas said. “And within that community, certain values such as humility, respect, compassion and generosity have shaped my decisions as a student pilot and as a person in general.”

What that means for her career, she said, is that personal success is to be shared with others. The success of one is the success of the community, in other words; and, in return, she will never be short of support.

“People have heard about how I’m pursuing this career, and I’ll be approached by people I met a long time ago and they congratulate me and say how proud they are,” Thomas said, smiling. “It’s talked about as if I’m doing this for all of us, for the entire community.

“That’s what I think about and feel when I go in for my exams and my flight tests. Like, ‘OK, I have all of these people behind me to do this.’ It’s a source of strength that I have to overcome challenges and succeed.”

–30–