Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
NPR Latest Update: RNC in Milwaukee

First Muckleshoot cohort became 'a close-knit family of sisters'

 Members of the Muckleshoot Cohort stand for a group photo after their graduation.
Eric Wilson-Edge
University of Washington Tacoma
Members of the Muckleshoot cohort who graduated June 9, 2023. Front row, left to right: Joannie Suina, Eileen Jimenez, Mona Halcomb, Ada McDaniel, DeAnn Dillon. Back row, right to left: Jennifer Vasilez, Ronee K. Wapsock Pawwinnee, Merisa Jones, Debbie Hales and Amy Maharaj.

Educators can play an important role in providing opportunities for young people who traditionally have not had the chance to earn a college degree.

Stats from the American Council on Education show just 1% of college students in the U.S. are Indigenous or Native American.

To provide more resources for educators, the Muckleshoot Tribal College and the University of Washington Tacoma began offering an educational doctoral program centered on Indigenous curriculum and taught by Indigenous instructors.

The program, dubbed the "Muckleshoot cohort" accepted 15 students from Washington, Oregon, New Mexico and Utah. Due to the pandemic, much of the program had to take place online.

But on June 9, with an in-person ceremony, 10 members of the Muckleshoot cohort received their doctoral degrees.

We invited the graduates, all women, an opportunity to share their experiences from the program, and seven of them accepted. Click "Listen" above or read on to learn about the graduates and their experience.

Mona Halcomb, Umatilla Indian Reservation in Eastern Oregon

"I work full time, I have always taken one class a night. And I'm a great-grandma. Having sisters from around the country with different perspectives was really important. And centering Indigenous pedagogy, methodology... I have never had this rich of instruction that was Indigenous-focused. Most importantly, why I'm even here is just to encourage and inspire my great-granddaughter who's 11 years old, and I want to change the dynamic of education for not only her, but her grandchildren and great grandchildren."

Jennifer Vasilez, member of the Puyallup Tribe

"I love education, I've always wanted to pursue my doctorate. And it's in my field, right? But I had planned on waiting a lot longer. But the unique opportunity it offered to allow me to learn from Indigenous women, and Indigenous professors, Indigenous peers, I really couldn't pass it up. This program awakened something in me that I didn't even know about myself at the time. And now I have this vision for my own children, to have an opportunity at an education that fully represents them and allows them to be their whole self, and allows them to reconnect with parts of themselves that I was not able to find when I was in school myself and in any other setting until now."

Joannie Suina, an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Cochití, New Mexico

"I actually began my doctoral journey a year previous to joining the Muckleshoot program. And I started my journey at the University of New Mexico in another educational leadership program. But after reflection and research, I decided that I wanted to dive into something that provided more of a global Indigenous perspective. And that also looked at the experience of Indigenous people beyond the southwest. The experience, the research, the collective sisterhood that's been talked about today…and really, the facilitation and instruction through the curriculum by our faculty is something that's not only nurturing but continues to perpetuate ongoing healing from intergenerational historical trauma, which is something that you don't get from a traditional institution."

 Members of the Muckleshoot cohort sit in a row during a graduation ceremony
Eric Wilson-Edge
University of Washington Tacoma
Members of the Muckleshoot cohort sit in a row during a graduation ceremony June 9, 2023.

Ada McDaniel, Muckleshoot Tribal member

"My dissertation is about women of color, and we are all women of color. And we share similarities and we want to go back to our communities and just start the healing. We're a very close knit family of sisters here. Three years of COVID allowed me to sit still and learn and be at a computer. I mean, what else was there to do, but to pursue this doctorate? I had nowhere to go, nobody could visit me. But at the same time, I learned and I had to wonder what these ten different cultures and traditions that my sisters held. You know, beneath them, they were trying to share with us over the internet. And I just had to vision that and dream of it."

Eileen Jimenez, Ñätho, part of the Otomí Peoples, Michoacán-Guanajuato, Mexico

"My full time job, I'm the Dean of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at South Seattle College. South is committed to being an anti-racist, anti-bias institution – and the way that I approach that work is through my findings and through my research: how do we put emotion back into learning and education? and I hope to continue to do that in larger institutional systems. I have so much hope."

When I came into this program, I was already burned out. I had almost lost hope that there could be educational justice for my community and for our people and I think this program really helped me see that that's possible.
Eileen Jimenez

Ronee K. Wopsock Pawwinnee, member of the Ute tribe in Fort Duchesne, Utah

"Now that we're three years in, you begin to go back through and you reflect on all of the work that not only you've done, but your sisters in the cohort have done. And you learn not only from your professors, but also from the other women in the cohort. I think that's probably been, the best experience that I've had is, even though I've never met any of them in person, and I've done all this work online, navigating through Covid, it was drawing on their strengths. I'm not the first person to start a doctorate degree, but I'll be the first person to finish a doctorate degree for my tribe. And I try not to think of it as a big deal, but every time I sit and reflect, I’m like, 'it is a big deal'. I think moving forward, it's just put me in a better position to not only continue to learn but to begin to advocate more for my people."

Debbie Hales, community member of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe

"I'm not Indigenous, I am not a tribal member, and I do not speak on behalf of the tribe as that would not be appropriate. But what I mean is that I've been given the opportunity to live and work and call Lower Elwha home. I wasn't sure what was going to be like when we came here. I didn't know if it was going to be a competition, or are we going to try to outdo one another? Are we going to help? What was gonna go on? But we made a choice a long time ago, to help one another."

We started as [a group of] 15 and as people were dropping out, we said 'no, we're going to cross the stage together and we're going to do this together' and we have really done that.
Debbie Hales

Members of the inaugural Muckleshoot cohort say they plan to take what they learned back to their communities. The program will continue at UW Tacoma, with the application process opening again in April 2025.

Emil Moffatt joined KNKX in October 2022 as All Things Considered host/reporter. He came to the Puget Sound area from Atlanta where he covered the state legislature, the 2021 World Series and most recently, business and technology as a reporter for WABE. Contact him at