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Floy Agnes Lee’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Floy Agnes Lee was one of the few Pueblo Indians to work as a technician at the Los Alamos laboratory during the Manhattan Project. As a hematologist, she collected blood from Manhattan Project scientists, including from Louis Slotin and Alvin Graves after the criticality accident that exposed Slotin to a fatal amount of radiation. After working at Los Alamos, she transferred to the Chicago Met Lab, and later Argonne National Laboratory and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. While working and caring for her daughter Patricia as a single mother, she earned her Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. Over the course of her long career, she conducted research on the impact of radiation on chromosomes. In this interview, Lee recalls her interactions with Slotin and Graves after the accident and playing tennis with Enrico Fermi. Her parents were Pueblo and White, and she discusses how that has shaped her life. She also describes visiting her family at the Santa Clara Pueblo and her ancestors’ involvement in the politics of the Pueblo.

Date of Interview:
February 6, 2017
Location of the Interview:


Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly. I’m in Santa Fe. This is Monday, February 6, 2017, and I’m with Floy Agnes Lee, better known as “Aggie.” I’d like to start by asking Aggie to say her full name and spell it.

Floy Agnes Lee: Okay. Well, my name is Floy, F-L-O-Y, Agnes A-G-N-E-S, Lee L-E-E. I’m a Pueblo Indian, half Pueblo and half white. My father’s from Santa Clara Pueblo, and my mother was a German-American. She came from Indiana as a teacher to teach in the boarding school in Santa Fe, and met my Indian father, who was teaching tailoring, which he had learned there. Then they were transferred to Albuquerque Indian School.

At the Indian School, there were five of us that were born. I’m the fourth of the five siblings. I grew up in the Indian School, although I did not go to the school itself. I was sent to St. Mary’s, then to Albuquerque High School, where I graduated. From there, I went to the University of New Mexico.

I was interested in biology, and I got my degree at the University of New Mexico. While there, I had a job helping one of the professors with his plants to see how they grew, and I put different solutions into each plant. That made me more interested in doing research. 

When I graduated from university, the professor [Edward] Castetter, who was head of the biology department, asked me to stay another month and do some research for him, which I had been doing. It was recording information on what the Indians ate before the states became united. I had to go through different books, which were in the library, and pick out the information. 

I hadn’t quite finished doing the research. I was looking forward to going to Indiana after graduation to see my relatives, my white relatives on my mother’s side. I was ready to go and he asked me, would I stay another month and finish the work? And I said, yes, yes, I will.

While I was doing the research for him, he got a call from Los Alamos. Los Alamos wanted a biology student or a graduate to come and work in the laboratory, the hematology laboratory. He asked me, would I like to go to Los Alamos and work there? I did not have a job lined up, so I said yes. That’s how I got to Los Alamos.

Kelly: Can you tell us what date is this? 1943?

Lee: What date?

Kelly: Yeah.

Lee: It was 1945. The bomb was being developed at that time. My assignment was to collect the blood from the research men, scientists, who were working on the atomic bomb. I had to learn how to take blood, how to read the blood cells, what type of blood cell, and all that’s connected with the hematology. I got along real well in that area. They sent me to go to different sites where the production was being done, and I would draw the blood from individuals.

Some of the scientists would come into the laboratory. When I worked in the laboratory, I was assigned certain people, certain scientists. One of them was Enrico Fermi. We got to talking about what I liked to do and what he liked to, and we got on the subject of tennis. Now, I did not know that this was Enrico Fermi. I only knew him as a number, because they wouldn’t give names out. So we would play tennis. This was before the bomb was dropped, and then afterwards also. He was a short man, and he had a funny little hat.

But anyway, after the bomb was dropped, the GIs who worked at the laboratory—they were engineers, we had three or four working in the hematology lab—came up and shook my hand and said, “You were the person who stuck the hand of the great Enrico Fermi.”

I said, “What?”

They said, “Yes, Enrico Fermi.”

I said, “Oh, I can’t believe that.” Because I was beating him in tennis every time. So when we went out to play tennis later, I didn’t beat him. I tried not to. We became very, very good friends.

Los Alamos was a very, very interesting place. We were sort of like in a prison, but you could get in and out if you had the right cards. We could go to Santa Fe, which we did on certain occasions. There were recreations like ice skating and the tennis and all kinds of activities that went on. I lived in the dormitory where several other women lived.

One night Enrico Fermi was being—he decided to go back to the University of Chicago and teach, after the bomb was dropped. So we were going to have a big party for him, which we did. We had the party in the dormitory. There was a fireplace where I sat—the fire wasn’t going—and sat down, and he came over and sat with me.

He said, “Now that the bomb has been dropped, what are you going to do?”

I said, “I want to go and study more about what radiation does to living cells.”

He said, “You come to the University of Chicago.”

I said, “Come to the University of Chicago?” I lived in New Mexico.

I thought about that and thought about it, and I said, “You know, my mother came from Indiana, and she ended up in New Mexico. She taught at different Indian schools on the way, the Winnebago Indian schools up in Wisconsin, and ended up teaching at Santa Fe, and then Albuquerque Indian School.” I said, “If my mother was brave enough to leave Indiana and come that far, then I can go to Chicago.”

My father, my Indian father and I went to Chicago, because he wanted to see where I was going to be. He looked at Lake Michigan and he said, “All of that water, and none in New Mexico.” [Laughter] He was impressed. [Laughter] I started working at Argonne National Laboratory fulltime. Before I tell you about that, I’ll have to tell you how I got to Argonne.

At Los Alamos, there was a radiation accident after the bomb was dropped, and fourteen people [misspoke: eight people] were involved. [Louis] Slotin was the principal person who was attending the assembly of the fission of the particles of the atom bomb. An accident happened and he was completely exposed. Behind him was Al Graves. Al Graves was half irradiated, and the other half, he was shielded. I was assigned to take the blood of Al Graves and Slotin.

Al Graves, he wouldn’t go to the hospital, he wanted to stay home. So I had to go to his house to take his blood. One day I took a sample and read it, and it was very, very low. His white blood cells were very, very low. Everybody in the lab said, “Oh, Aggie, you must have made a mistake. Go on back and get another sample.”

I said, “Okay.” But I wondered if I was going to give myself away, and let him know what was going on. Because I felt that I had done the right thing. I went back and got another sample and read it and someone else read it. Sure enough, his white blood cells were so low that they didn’t even understand why he was still living. Tell you more about him later. 

Slotin began to increase in size. He became—I don’t know how to say it. Like a balloon. It was difficult to take his blood. I finally had to take it from the ear. His mother and father were called, because they knew he wasn’t going to live. It was just nine days after the accident.

I was taking his blood, and his parents came and stood in the doorway and looked in and saw him. He was just like that, just bloated, and the look on their face was terrible. I got out of there. Sure enough, the next day he died of radiation poisoning.

I’ll go back to Al Graves. He cooperated in every sense, not cutting his hair or shaving his beard—I mean mustache, whatever. He went around with a normal face, and the other face was terrible. But he came through this very well. I don’t remember how long it took before his hair started growing back again, and his eyebrows.

I was at a meeting at Argonne, and I met Al Graves, who was talking with the director of the laboratory. The director was a very snooty person; he didn’t like for anybody to interfere with him. He’d rather have the elite around him and talking to him. But I hadn’t seen Al Graves for ten years, and I ran over and just hugged him, and he hugged me, and the director, “Oh!” He wondered what was going on. We remained very good friends. He and his wife and I and several other people from Los Alamos would go skiing in Colorado, and I went hiking with them. That was when I came back from Argonne on vacation.

Now, I started out by getting to Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago, so I was going to school and working eight hours. I married a graduate student in the same biology division. She’s [Patricia Reifel] the result of it. But he had cancer, melanoma, and he died when she was two years old. I was going to put him through school, and then he was going to put me through school. I continued to work, and I decided, “I went to Chicago to get my Ph.D., and I’m going to get it.” I worked and went to school, and it took me about fourteen years to get the Ph.D. I was in my forties when I got it. But I did it.

The type of work that I did at Argonne was not related to anything that I did at Los Alamos, except that I was interested in what radiation did with lymphocytes and the other cells. At Argonne, I was able to research the effects of radiation on living cells, which were cancer, normal cells. They could be from anybody. We worked mainly with rats and mice and hamsters. I have several publications on the effect of radiation on these animals and their blood cells. 

I stayed at Argonne for about twenty-two years, and returned to New Mexico, because I really didn’t like living in Chicago. No sunshine, and rain all the time. Then I got a job at Pasadena Medical Foundation, and stayed there for a couple of years as director of tissue culture. Because I had worked with—I didn’t mention chromosomes, I did a lot of work with the effects of radiation on chromosomes—because I had done a lot of research on that, the Jet Propulsion Lab was looking for someone who had this experience.

 I had three publications with two other authors. I was not the main author. The fellow who developed the machine to look at the chromosomes, a computer-assisted machine and microscope that was connected a computer. That was what they were looking for, someone at Jet Propulsion Lab, and I had been involved in that. I worked for seven years at the Jet Propulsion Lab in that capacity, using their computer that photographed the foot of the astronaut that landed on the moon.

Kelly: Were you in Pasadena, California? Were you in California?

Lee: Yes, this was in California. Then the contract that we had at Jet Propulsion Lab ran out, so I returned to Los Alamos and did not continue that type of work. I worked with plutonium and other radioactive materials. I say I retired from Los Alamos, and actually I had only five years at Argonne—I mean, Los Alamos. I had only five years at Los Alamos. But you could retire, and that’s where I finally retired. Decided after I was age sixty-two to do something else, because for forty-five years I had been doing research, biological research, particularly the effects of radiation.

Patricia Reifel: What did you do after you retired? 

Lee:  After I retired? I really retired. I played tennis, I played golf. I did some artwork, and I read. It all depended on what I was not able to do. I just relaxed, and didn’t write any books or anything else.

Kelly: But you earned it. I’m surprised you beat Fermi in tennis. He was a great athlete.

Lee: Yes, he was.

Kelly: You must be a super athlete. Are you still playing tennis?

Lee: No, I had to quit golf because of my eyesight. I couldn’t see where the ball went.

Kelly: That’s a problem.

Lee: I looked through a microscope for forty-five years—I figured that out. I think radiation material, which we had on slides, I have a feeling that perhaps maybe the exposure to all that light coming from radioactive material and the light from the microscope had something to help develop my blindness, but I don’t know.

Kelly: That’s another research project. Did you get a sense for what kind of person Louis Slotin was?

Lee: The only time I experienced being with Slotin was in the hospital, taking his blood, but he had several people come and they would talk about, well, mainly physics. I do remember Philip Morrison. He came quite often, and they would discuss things in the future, which I did not understand. But he went so fast that it was almost impossible the last probably three days to even talk to him.

One thing about Al Graves: when I went back to get his blood—I forgot to tell you this—he looked at me [inaudible]. I said, “Al, I borrowed Bill White’s bike to take your blood cells back to the lab. And I dropped the whole thing and they broke, the little glass apparatus we put the blood cells in.” I said, “They broke. I have to come back and get some more blood.”

He said, “Okay.” He was very cooperative. After ten years, he said to me, “Aggie,” he said, “It was written all over your face when you came back to get my blood the second time.” I was trying so hard not to let him know that there was something wrong.

Reifel: When Alex [Levy] here and I first talked about this interview to set it up for you, I mentioned to her that you told me that they weren’t sure if they would hire you because of your father being from Santa Clara.

Lee: Yes.

Reifel: And it was too close.

Lee: Yes. They felt that my father being Santa Clara, born in the Santa Clara Pueblo, although he was not living there anymore, and all his relatives were and my relatives were. They decided that maybe I shouldn’t be able to work at Los Alamos, because he might get secrets, and I don’t know how he would do it. But finally they said, “Okay, you can go, but your father can’t come visit you. He can’t get near the lab.” But I could go visit him. That’s the way we did it.

Finally, after the bomb was dropped, I got my father up to see what I was doing and where I worked. Everybody in the dormitory, the rest of the women’s dormitory and the men’s dormitory, we all got together and had a little party for him. He enjoyed it so much.

Kelly: I bet he was very proud of you.

Lee: Well, I guess.

Kelly: You got that. Were there many other people from the Pueblos working at the laboratory?

Lee: There were, yeah. The chef was Santa Clara. My technician was Maria Martinez’s aunt. Her name was Pilar Aguilar, and she was my technician at Los Alamos the second time I came back.

I don’t know if at the time when I was there, that there were any other Indians working in the same capacity I was. I almost didn’t get hired at Los Alamos the second time, because I was a minority. It was one of the reasons. The head of the division I was to be in did not like minorities. Because I was an Indian. I just didn’t ever realize why he had it against me. But that’s the way the world is sometimes.

Kelly: But eventually, you did work for that person? You worked for him?

Lee: Yes. He was the head of the division, but I worked for some other group leader.

Reifel: That was in the ‘70s, right? The second time.

Lee: Yes.

Kelly: The ‘70s. Did you feel discriminated or discrimination during the Manhattan Project? Did you have that same feeling?

Lee: No, he was the only one.

The first time I was at Los Alamos, there was no discrimination that I was aware of.

We didn’t know that we were working on the atomic bomb, except for the physicists. We thought they were doing chemical warfare. They had the WACs and the Army engineer men, soldiers. They let Santa Fe know that the reason the WACs were there: they were hiding pregnant WACs. Santa Fe loved that story. I mean, they believed it.

Kelly: Well, there were a lot of babies born in Los Alamos.

Reifel: There were a lot of babies born in Los Alamos.

Lee: Oh, yeah.

Kelly: Were you one of the few women technicians when you were in the Manhattan Project?

Reifel: Were there many women technicians on the Manhattan Project?

Lee: Yes. Well, there were three women, and there were three soldiers. There were quite a few women working in different capacities. I don’t think there was any overload of men or women, equal. I never thought about it, but going back in my memory, it did seem like there were more men than women. Maybe there was.

Reifel: In your career, they want to know, did you ever feel discriminated against because you were a woman scientist?

Lee: No. Only at Los Alamos. As a matter of fact, when I was in Chicago, they didn’t know I was an Indian. They thought I was from either Czechoslovakia, or one of the European countries.

Reifel: How about as a woman scientist, did you feel discrimination?

Lee: My only experience was Los Alamos. Dr. Mary Lou Ingram and I worked together at the Pasadena Foundation Medical Research in the Jet Propulsion Lab, and we were the only two women scientists in the department. It was called Health Research Laboratory. With any degree—it just seemed to be one individual that was discriminating against women.

Kelly: That was at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory?

Lee: No, that was at Los Alamos.

Kelly: At Los Alamos. Just that one person.

Lee: At the Jet Propulsion Lab, that was a great place.

Reifel: Talk a little bit about Santa Clara and your family history, how your father ended up becoming a teacher. Because that’s a good story, too.

Lee: My father at five years of age was sent to Santa Fe Indian Boarding School, because his brother, who was a year older, could not go. There was one boy in the family that had to be sent to the boarding school.

At five years of age, he was playing in the back buildings where there was a lot of bushes, and he and his friend were running around. A white man—this is the way he described it—a white man shot him in the stomach, thinking he was a rabbit. His parents came down in a wagon drawn by two horses, of course, and picked him up from the Santa Fe hospital, because they couldn’t do anything for him. He was going to die.

They took him back and put him in the kiva, and then the medicine men worked with their herbs on his wounded area. He survived, and went back to school and became a tailor. They at the time were only giving the Indians a tenth-grade education, and the rest of it was manual training.

He became a tailor and he was so good as a tailor, they decided to keep him on when he graduated as the head tailor. That was back in probably 1913 or ’12, something like that. That was unusual for that to happen, to have an Indian responsible for being a tailor master. But he also played the French horn, and he was a head of the band, the musical band.

He taught for maybe two or three years, then my mother came along. My mother was, I say, destined to marry an Indian. The reason for that is that she would tell me that she read books on Indians, any book she could find. She was so interested in Indians that she decided that she was going to teach the Indians, and then she became a teacher and taught the Indians, Winnebago Indians in Wisconsin and Indians in Michigan at Haskell Indian School before she went to New Mexico. Really, the reason she got to New Mexico is they thought she had tuberculosis, and that she should come and dry out. That’s when she met my father, who was teaching, and, of course, she was a teacher.

She taught for a few years at Albuquerque Indian School. She was an academic teacher, and one of the things that she taught was art. A couple of famous artists, Harrison Begay, were students of hers. She would help them with their artwork, but she wouldn’t do anything. She said, “I just gave them something, they were doing wrong or do this or do that.” She quit teaching after, I guess, having five children.

Kelly: Wow. So what year were you born?

Lee: 1922. I’m ninety-four.

Kelly: Amazing. Wow. Are your other siblings still living?

Reifel: Your brothers and sisters?

Lee: No, they’re all dead. My brother died probably six months ago, my older brother. Now I’m the only survivor. I have one first cousin that’s still living, and she’s as old as I am. That will be the beginning of the generation.

Well, I’ve been very active, actually. I flew airplanes when I was in University of New Mexico. I joined a group, Jacqueline Cochran’s students—I didn’t say I joined, I was accepted to learn the basics of flying so that I could go into the Women’s Air Force. The government did not provide the flying, so I had to work in grocery stores and anyplace I could get money to pay for flying lessons. That was back in the ‘40s, and that was, I recall, $6 a half an hour. That’s a lot of money in the ‘40s.

Kelly: What were you earning in the grocery store?

Reifel: What was your hourly wage?

Lee: Well, it was 25 cents an hour at the university. I think at the grocery store, it was a little higher. I took flying lessons, soloed, and was ready to go into the Women’s Air Force, at least I was going to go. I didn’t. I shouldn’t say I registered. But I had one more maneuver to make before I could go, and that was to do cross-country. Cross-country means leaving Albuquerque and going down south and coming back. The war was over before I got that in. [Laughter] So I didn’t.

It was my father’s suggestion that I go and join the Armed Forces to get money to go to university. He said, “They will pay for your university.” He said, “Go with the WACs.”

I said, “Oh.”

“Go to the WAVs.”

“No, Dad.”

He didn’t know about the Women’s Air Force, but I learned about it at the University of New Mexico. 

Reifel: Was your tuition paid for?

Lee:  No. The government didn’t. They gave us a uniform. Tuesdays and Thursday night, I wore a uniform.

Kelly: What was your uniform like?

Lee:  Oh, it was just a plain, drab tan uniform. It didn’t have anything that identified you as being a potential soldier.

Kelly: Was it a skirt?

Lee: No, it was pants.

Kelly: Pants.

Lee: Um-hmm. One of the girls that  attended the session also, she and I used to fly together. In Albuquerque at that time, the bus only went to Central [inaudible], and we’d take the bus to go to [inaudible] Airport. We’d have our logbook. Anybody that came along in a car knew what a logbook was, and would pick us up if they were going to the airport.

Kelly: That’s great.

Lee: The reason she became such a good friend of mine was that she was an A-student, completely A-student at UNM. But she came to me one day and said, “I don’t know how to use a”—they called it a little, like a slide rule, only bigger, an E6B computer. She said, “I can’t work this. Can you show me how to work it?”

I thought to myself, “Is Harriet Lantow coming to me and asking me how to teach her to use this?” I thought, “Oh, great!” So I did, and we became good friends after that. I never knew her before then. She came to Los Alamos to work when I went up there. When I left to go to school, she came to Chicago also, but she didn’t like Chicago, so she came back to New Mexico.

Kelly: When you were in Chicago, where did you live?

Lee: South Side, near the Hyde Park, along Kenwood.

Kelly: That was a good commute to Argonne Laboratory. Where was Argonne Laboratory located then?

Lee: Where was Argonne? It was across the Midway, south on 66th Street.

Reifel: Then they moved it.

Lee: What?

Reifel: Then they moved it out to Lemont.

Lee: Yes. They moved the laboratory to Lemont, and called it Argonne. At the time when it was at the University of Chicago, it was called the Metallurgical Laboratory.

Kelly: Do you remember the kinds of health effects of radiation that you discovered? What did your research lead you to conclude about the dangers of radiation on chromosomes and cells?

Lee: And the nucleus of the living cell, yes. The latter part of my research was mostly on chromosomes, and I was able to identify a chromosome that a young child had. The chromosome had some of it missing, and that was using the computer at Jet Propulsion Lab. At that time, you could see 64 levels. That was great. Now, I don’t know how many levels. But I identified this chromosome that was defective. I don’t know if the child continued to live or not, but she did have some problems. She was from the East. 

We did a lot of research on, as I said, the rats and the mice and hamsters. It all involved looking at cells that had been irradiated. A lot of times, we did the radiation at different times to see how long it took for some effect to take. At other times, it was looking at cells that had doses of radiation where the chromosomes were completely destroyed. But most of the high-level radiation cells had broken chromosomes, and that was what I was looking at. I was able to get a little at Argonne. Then going to Jet Propulsion Lab, I was able to see deeper into the effects of radiation on chromosomes.

Kelly: Very important work.

Reifel: Can you talk about how the research changed from when you first started to when you retired, and then if you have been keeping up with that even since then?

Lee: I guess the way it changed was more technology was introduced, and the possibilities of looking at effects differently than we did originally.

I can remember when I was hired at Argonne. The reason I was hired was that when they had the radiation accident involving Slotin, two doctors from Chicago came. One was a pathologist from Argonne National Laboratory, and his name was Dr. Hermann Lisco, and the other was a hematologist from Billings Hospital, Dr. [J. Garrott] Allen. I worked with both of them as a technician, just getting things prepared for them, for whatever they were doing, taking tissues. 

They both heard that I wanted to go to Chicago to the university, and they both asked me to come and work with them. Dr. Allen said, “You can stay with us. You wouldn’t have to pay room and board if you babysat with the kids.”

I said, “Babysit? I did that all my life.”

Dr. Lisco said, “You come and work at Argonne.” I decided I’d go to Argonne. I thought I was going to work with Dr. Lisco, but I instead was assigned to be one of the assistant research people for Dr. [Austin] Brues, who was the Director of Biology and Medical Division at Argonne. I worked with Dr. Brues.

It was just after Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been destroyed by the two atomic bombs. He was sent over to Japan and before he left, he said, “I want you to have living cells growing on nylon film.”

He came back, and I had living cells growing on nylon film, and I didn’t know why. The reason was, he wanted to detect the radiation in the cells, and the radiation was carbon-14. That had short rays, but it would go through nylon film. It wouldn’t go through glass. He could put a radiation monitor over the dish, or the bottle that I had the cells growing on, and pick out radiation. That was my first start. I worked with him for twenty-two years.

Kelly: Oh, my.

Lee: Dr. Brues was a wonderful person. He was so knowledgeable in physics and everything as far as radiation was concerned. In twenty-two years I never saw emotion, sadness or anything—until the day that J. F. Kennedy was assassinated. We were in the laboratory and we heard that JFK had been assassinated. I thought I saw him crying. That’s the first time, and I never saw it again.

Reifel: Did he do any work with the effects of radiation on the Japanese survivors?

Lee: No, no. I was asked to look at chromosomes from some of the survivors on Bikini [Atoll]—let’s see, one of the islands where the bomb was dropped and the island was very close. But the  material that they sent me was just impossible to read. That was the only time I got anywhere near radiation outside of the United States.

Reifel: How did you feel when you learned that the work that was done at Los Alamos was to develop a bomb, and that it had been dropped on Japan?

Lee: As I said, we didn’t know until after it was dropped. The only reaction I had to that was that a lot of American soldiers were saved, and that it was a good thing. Some of the scientists didn’t think so, though.

Reifel: Going back to Louis Slotin, that must have been very unusual to see that accident. Did that affect you in any way, or how did you feel about that?

Lee: It did. I couldn’t believe what was going on, on this person I was taking blood from every day, and then for him to get so large in such a short period of time. I knew that something was going to happen. I didn’t think he was going to live, because his blood cells, white blood cell count really went down faster than Al Graves.

Kelly: What did they do to treat Al Graves? How was it that he was able to survive?

Lee: No, no, there wasn’t anything. They didn’t have anything. No, his blood cell finally started coming up a little. That was a week after it went way down, and then it started to come up a little, and a little and a little more. My God, everybody was so happy. If he wasn’t able to make white blood cells, he would have been dead before Slotin, I think. I don’t know.

Kelly: Was he able to have children after that? 

Lee: I don’t know, I don’t think he had any after that. No, not that I know of. His wife was a physicist at Los Alamos also. But I lost track of them when I left Los Alamos, until I met him and would come back to visit. I met him in Argonne and would come back to visit him, to visit everybody at Los Alamos.

That was when we would all go skiing. The ski run at Los Alamos was made by us. We would go down and walk back up, and then go down.

Kelly: Was that Sawyer Hill, or Pajarito?

Reifel: What was it called where you went skiing? Did it have a name?

Lee: It was called Pajarito Hill, but then it became Pajarito Ski, whatever.

Kelly: Do you remember Enrico Fermi skiing and other people like Hans Bethe or other scientists?

Lee: Oh. Well, Bill Brite, Becky, Wes Jones. I’m trying to think of Becky’s last name. There were several of us. We used to go out on the weekends, not many, but some. Go up to Colorado and ski. We did the same thing with one of the other ski runs, which is very popular. It would take us an hour to get to the top, and two minutes to get down or less. And then walk back up.

Kelly: Did you climb up on your skis?

Lee: Yeah, that’s the only way we would get up, yeah.

Kelly: That’s a lot of work.

Lee: Yes, it was.

Reifel: Can you talk a little bit more about when you would go to the Pueblo to visit? To Santa Clara to visit? Because growing up, you didn’t live there, so talk about that.

Lee: I didn’t visit my father at Santa Clara, he was in Albuquerque. But I would go down and visit the relatives. Quite a few of them in the ‘70s took certain jobs at Los Alamos. I went to the dances, the Indian dances, which were held quite often. The big one was on August 12th, which they called Feast Day, and I would go there.

In the meantime, my grandson, Pat’s son, lives in Manhattan, New York, and works there. He has come back—I shouldn’t say he has come back—but he has now, for the last two years, participated in the Indian dances. He’s only a fourth Indian—he’s an eighth, you’re [Reifel] a fourth. But he has been accepted so well in the Pueblo that the council agreed to let him participate in the dances. I think that’s absolutely wonderful.

I did not live in the pueblo, but my visits have always been with relatives which are cousins. Most of them that live in the pueblo have jobs outside in Santa Fe or other places. The pueblo is almost the same as it was when I first visited, that I remember visiting. I was five years old when I was going to be in the Indian dance, and I had to practice the day before, to be in one of the dances the next day. But my grandmother died the next day, so I didn’t get to. I didn’t participate in any dances after that. I didn’t participate in that one either.

When I do go back to the pueblo, I see a lot of the same structures that were still there when I was five years old. My grandmother’s house is not there anymore. I guess the adobe does not stand the rain very much, and we have been having rainfalls that they were not predicted in New Mexico. Her roof was just mud and straw and viglas, I can remember that. The floor was just dirt that was packed very hard, and then rugs in different places.

My grandmother, when we went out to play, she would take blue corn tortillas and heat them until they became hard enough to eat like potato chips. We would come in from playing when I would go to visit the pueblo, we’d come in from playing and that was our candy. She would give us corn tortilla. I remember that much about my grandmother.

The only other thing I remember that has stayed in my mind is that when she died, someone had to be with the body for four days. I took my turn, and I can still see my grandmother lying. She had the Indian boots, the white leather Indian boots, and she was in her boots on the table. I think I probably had two hours, maybe more, I don’t remember that much. But that has always stayed in my mind.

Kelly: Did she have a dress on?

Lee: Yes. Oh, yes. Uh-huh, the Indian dress.

Kelly: How old was she when she died?

Lee: How old was she? I think she was in her nineties. I think that’s what they said. Grandpa had died before I really knew him. But it is interesting to know that my great-grandfather is hanging on the wall in the lobby [at La Fonda].

Kelly: Really?

Lee:  Yes, Santiago Naranjo. Tell them where he’s hanging.

Reifel: He’s all dressed in white leather. His portrait is hanging in the lobby.

Kelly: Was he the chief of the Santa Clara, the head of it?

Lee:  He had been, yes.

Kelly: That’s why they chose him for the portrait.

Lee: My grandfather was always sent to Washington for land agreements and other different things. He was, I guess, quite a politician. He had something to do with forming the winter party. They resented that, most of the people did. There’s a winter party and there’s a summer party. Like the Republicans and the Democrats.

Reifel: Alex just asked, was it unusual that your Indian father and your white mother got married in that time?

Lee: Yes, it was.

Reifel: Talk about that.

Kelly: What year was that?

Reifel: What year did they get married?

Lee: They got married in 1914 or ’15. They went up to Animas, Colorado, and were married there. Then they sent the wedding invitations to Indiana. They would not send them before they got married, because they knew that my white relatives would object to her marrying an Indian.

Reifel: But her mother was very supportive, right?

Lee: Was very what?

Reifel: Your mother’s mother was supportive?

Lee: Yes, uh-huh.

Reifel: She lived with you for a while, right?

Lee: Grandpa, my white grandfather, died in Indiana and Grandma came to live with us. I think I was probably ten or eleven years of age when she came. I can remember having coffee with her. That’s how I learned how to drink coffee, but she would put a lot of milk in it. We would talk, and she would be doing crocheting or whatever, and she said, “You got to learn how to do this.”

I said, “No, Grandma, I have to work on my stamps.” I was a stamp collector.

She said, “Well, that’s not learning anything.”

I said, “Well, Grandma, do you know where Afghanistan is?”


“Do you know where such-and-such is?”

“No, where?”

I said, “Well, that’s what I’ve learned from my stamps.” We got along real well. We talked a lot. She died of a massive heart attack. I was a freshman when she died, at UNM. I remember that, yes.

Once Grandma came to live with us—at the Indian School, there were Indians that were teaching and we all gathered together. She became part of the whole society, and she seemed to love it. New Mexico was another world from Indiana, and you have different views of how people live. They just thought people were uncivilized savages.

When I went to grade school at St. Mary’s, the nuns would come from the East to teach, and they would talk about the savages at the Indian School. Because that’s all they knew, that the Indians were called savages. That really got to me. But I finally realized the reason for some of the prejudice, that part, people just didn’t know, and they still don’t know. They don’t know about New Mexico.

Reifel: Over the course of your lifetime, do you think the relationships in New Mexico between the different cultures and races have improved, or changed?

Lee: Oh, I think they have been—yes, they’ve improved and they’ve changed a lot.

Kelly: Can you explain?

Lee: I think they begin to realize that Indians are not savages, Indians are just as intelligent as white people are. From our pueblo, there’s the two Dozier boys have Ph.Ds., Edward Dozier and his brother—I can’t think of it. Our cousin, Joe [Abeyta], that we were talking about, he has a Master’s degree from Harvard. There are others who have Ph.Ds. that I’ve never met.

I say, “Well, this person who has a PhD has a white father and an Indian mother.” I have a white mother and Indian father. The rest of them I know who have other degrees have Indian mothers or fathers. Where the intelligence come from is a combination of the genes. It’s not necessarily the white gene or the Indian gene. The Indians are getting some recognition, but certainly not from Washington, the president.

Reifel: In your understanding, what is the effect of Los Alamos [National Laboratory] on Santa Clara Pueblo?

Lee: Well, at least it’s made some of the Indians, I would say, more wealthy. But I think the worst effect of Los Alamos—not just on the pueblo, but all the surrounding area—is the radiation that has caused leukemia. I have four relatives, two are my sister and my brother, died of leukemia. A cousin, two cousins have died of leukemia. My technician I had at Los Alamos in the ‘70s, she is dying of leukemia. I think that the radiation has something to do with it. I have no way of proving that; it’s just a speculation. Radiation is bad.

Reifel: Talk a little bit about going to visit the pueblo while you were growing up.

Lee: Well, all I can say is that we played with cousins, and I had cousins coming out of my ears. We played all the games that the white children played: kick the can, baseball.

I can’t really tell you anything about the politics of the pueblo, except that several of my relatives have served as either governor and other related political positions.

Kelly: How does the pueblo regard women? You’ve talked about a lot of your male relatives becoming governors and having an important role in the pueblo. How are women regarded? Are you kind of an exception, that you’ve gone on have a scientific career?

Lee: Oh, they just accept me as I was. I mean, they’re proud of me, but it’s not that, “You’re better than I am.” I don’t think I’m better than they are.

Kelly: How about other women who are members of the pueblo? Have they had opportunities similar to you? Do you know other women who have gotten Ph.Ds. from the pueblo?

Lee: Have they had the opportunities? Well, there is money provided now for students who are going for bachelor’s degree and doctor’s degree.

Now, when I was at University of Chicago in the ‘60s, I had maybe a couple of years to finish. I was just financially unable to really do—I paid the bills, but I couldn’t buy things I wanted. I went to the Department of Education in Washington, D.C., and as I walked down the hall—this was, excuse me, Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C.

As I walked down the hall, the nameplates stuck out. There was one, Mrs. Frenchville, Dr. [Reuben] Perry. Dr. Perry was the superintendent of the Albuquerque Indian School, and Mrs. Frenchville was, I guess, his secretary, if I remember. They took me into Dr. Perry’s office and he was so surprised. He didn’t believe that I was going for a doctor’s degree. Then he told me to go talk to Mrs. Frenchville. I was trying to get the money to finish my education. She said, “There is no money allocated for Indians to go on after a bachelor’s degree.” That was it. So I walked out, and came back.

It’s different today. The Indians have some help. I don’t know how much. I haven’t really talked with any of the Indians that are going to school now, but I do know that there is some money available. I wasn’t able to get any money to get my bachelor’s degree. I had to do it on my own. I did get one scholarship after I graduated from Albuquerque High School, and that was it. It was just enough to pay one tuition, for one semester.

Reifel: When your parents got married, you were talking about how they sent the wedding invitations back to Indiana after the wedding. How about on Grandpa’s side, on the Santa Clara side? Were they at all worried about your mother being white?

Lee: Oh, they just loved my mother, and my mother just loved Indians. She, as I said, was destined to marry an Indian, and she just became one of them. When she was teaching in the Indian School, her children were just like us. She treated them the same way. She must have had some Indian blood in her.

Reifel: Did you know Louis Hempelmann?

Lee: Yes. He was a nice guy. He was great. I was invited to his house here in Santa Fe—it was north of Santa Fe, between Espanola and Santa Fe—for parties. I forgot what name. He was just an all-around person, no prejudices. [1:45:00] He was fun to work with, I remember.

I knew Dr. Louis Hempelmann when he was Director of the Medical Division at Los Alamos, while the bomb was being developed. I worked with him in the laboratory when he was there. I probably went to Chicago before he left, but I don’t know anything about that.

Reifel: Did you know the Oppenheimers at all?

Lee: I didn’t know him [Robert Oppenheimer] really in a social way. He seemed to be a very, very nice person. I agree with practically everybody at Los Alamos, who were there at the time that I was, that he was not a communist. That was a terrible thing for [Edward] Teller to say about him.

He directed the laboratory in such a way that it was a pleasant place to be. He went against [Leslie] Groves’ suggestion that all the Los Alamos people be dressed in uniform and be like soldiers, and he objected to that. Groves accepted his challenge.

Reifel: Did you ever work with Kitty Oppenheimer in the lab?

Lee: No, I didn’t. I knew Dr. Robert Oppenheimer at Los Alamos. But I was not socially involved with him or his wife.

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