PennVet | Dr. Evelyn Galban and Captain John
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Dr. Evelyn Galban and Captain John

By: Katherine Unger Baillie Published: Mar 10, 2017

Growing up in Rochester, New York, and Reno, Nevada, Dr. Evelyn Galban developed a strong connection to her Native American heritage—a connection she maintained as she trained to be a scientist and surgeon. Galban is a Clinical Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery at Penn Vet and 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 mentorship.

A descendent of the Washoe and Paiute people of California and Nevada on her father’s side, Galban would listen as a child 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 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 recalled.

For Galban and her family, the desire to soak up this opportunity to investigate their past was obvious and urgent. A similar impulse for support and camaraderie has led Galban to seek out the fellowship of Native American communities in her professional life.

Galban’s father was one of the first Native American electrical engineering graduates from the University of Nevada, Reno, and he introduced her to the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES). “That group was really influential,” Galban said. “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 American students 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 said.

In addition, on a national level, she’s beginning to think about how to create an organization that would bring together Native American veterinarians.

And as Galban works with communities on campus and beyond to grow a Native American support network, she’s grateful to have Captain John as a touchstone to her ancestry.