Wilfred Foster Denetclaw Jr.

Wilfred Foster Denetclaw Jr. was born in 1959. He is a Navajo who grew up in Shiprock, New Mexico. When he was young, Denetclaw helped care for cattle and sheep on his family's farm near Shiprock. Some of his lambs and calves were born strong and healthy. Others were weak and sick. Some died of mysterious illnesses. This early work with animals led to his interest in diseases that affect humans.

Denetclaw studied biology at Fort Lewis College in Colorado. They were few other American Indians studying science. This made him feel lonely.

He also faced a serious problem. He was asked to dissect a cat in anatomy class. Navajos are forbidden to disturb dead animals because this would disturb their spirts.

Denetclaw talked to a Medicine Man before deciding he had to dissect the cat. He hoped the Great Spirit would understand. As a Scientist, he needed to know about animals' bodies.

Denetclaw went on to get a Bachelor of Science Degree. He then got a Doctorate in Zoology at the University of California at Berkeley.

One day, Denetclaw went home to Shiprock to see a Navajo Medicine Man. He said he felt alone. Most of his people did not understand what he did in the lab. The Medicine Man told Denetclaw he was like a modern Indian Scout. In the old days, Scouts explored new land. They searched for good places to take the tribe.

The Medicine Man said Denetclaw was working in an area of science where few American Indians worked. The Medicine Man waid it might be a great place to take the rest of the tribe.

Denetclaw studies diseases that have no cure. Recently, a young Navajo man in the Four Corners area was taken to a hospital. Everyone thought he had the flu. But within a few hours, his lungs filled wit fluid, and he died.

Other young people in the area died too. They died within days of feeling sick. Denetclaw and other Scientists worked furiously to find out why the people were dying.

Many Scientists thought they found the answer. They said the cause of the deaths was a virus carried by wild Deer Mice.

The Scientists said the infected mice passed the virus to the soild through their droppings. When the wind blew, the soil mixed with the air. They thought people breathed in the virus that way.

Denetclaw, however, is not so sure. People from different parts of the country have died of the disease. The virus was not found in their bodies.

He thinks many questions need to be answered. A cure cannot be found until Scientists know for sure what causes the illness.

Denetclaw is studying another disease called Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. One out of 4,000 boys is born with the disease. It causes a young boy's muscles to weaken and break down. Almost no girls get the disease.

Scientists have found a gene that causes the disease. Deneteclaw hopes a cure can be found now.

Denetclaw works at the University of California in San Francisco. He studies chicken embryos. He is learning more about the way musclesw develop.

He is a modern Scout. He encourages teens to take math and science classes. He hopes there will be many more American Indian Scientists. They can help find cures for diseases that affect people everywhere.

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Creator(s): Harrison Lapahie Jr.
Dated Created: 08/27/2001
Version: 2.0
Updated: 11/29/2009
Curator(s): Harrison Lapahie Jr.
Resource(s): SACNAS Biography, Curriculum Vitae
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