Growing up in Rochester, N.Y., and Reno, Nev., Evelyn Galban
, a clinical assistant professor of neurology and neurosurgery at the School of Veterinary Medicine
, developed a strong connection to her Native American heritage, one that she maintained as she trained to be a scientist and surgeon. As one of only a handful of Native American faculty members at Penn, she’s now hoping to create more spaces where Native Americans, particularly those interested in science, can find guidance, fellowship, and mentors.
A descendent of the Washoe and Paiute people of California and Nevada on her father’s side, as a child, Galban would listen to the vivid tales her great aunt shared about her great-great-grandfather, a Paiute leader, warrior, and medicine person known as Captain John. The only physical connection to him, however, was a series of photos depicting him in “war dance dress,” with an eagle-down headdress and kilt.
That changed this past summer. After learning that some of Captain John’s belongings were held by the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, five members of the Galban family hastily arranged to make the trip.
At the Peabody, they followed a curator through a labyrinth of stairways, crawled through a half-sized door Galban described as “out of ‘Being John Malkovich,’” and finally arrived in a room with Captain John’s belongings—including the outfit he wore in the photos—arranged on a table for them to view and hold. The moment of reconnection with their ancestor was a powerful one for everyone involved.
“It was just shocking, a feeling of disbelief,” Galban says.
For Galban and her family, the desire to soak up this opportunity to investigate their past was obvious and urgent. A similar impulse for spiritual support and camaraderie has led Galban to seek out the fellowship of Native American communities in not just her personal life, but her professional life as well.
Galban’s father, who also came along for the trip, shares his daughter’s interest in science. He was one of the first Native American electrical engineering graduates from the University of Nevada, Reno, and introduced Galban to the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES).
“That group was really influential,” Galban says. “I would go to their annual meeting and meet a lot of people, none of whom, interestingly enough, were veterinarians.”
While attending Cornell University for her undergraduate, master’s, and veterinary degrees, Galban received both financial and spiritual support from the school’s AISES chapter. With growing interest in Native American studies at Penn, including the recent creation of a Native American and Indigenous Studies minor, Galban would like to attract more Native students to Penn and engage those who are here by creating a chapter of AISES on campus.
“Knowing how much that group meant for me, I’d love to be able to bring that here,” she says.
In addition, on a national level, she’s beginning to think about how to create an organization that would bring together Native American veterinarians.
As Galban works with communities on campus and beyond to grow a Native American support network, she’s grateful to have a touchstone to her ancestry.
“A running family joke was that one of Captain John’s obituaries said that, ‘He killed and cured many,’” Galban says. “At my vet school graduation, my brother made reference to that obituary and said that I was definitely going to follow suit.”