First, Not Last
Ada McDaniel is part of the inaugural Muckleshoot Cohort and, when she graduates in June, will be the first person in her family to earn a doctoral degree.
Ada McDaniel is the ninth of 10 children born to her Indigenous mother Pauline Lozier of the Muckleshoot Tribe. The 63-year-old McDaniel has five children and 21 grandchildren. Needless to say, McDaniel has a very big family. Consider the size once all of the aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, and cousins have been counted. Now, consider something else. “There is no doctorate on either side of my lineages, so I’m the first one,” said McDaniel.
McDaniel is a member of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe and is currently working on her Educational Leadership Doctoral (Ed.D.) degree at UW Tacoma as part of the Muckleshoot Cohort. “Earning a doctoral degree is a vision I’ve had for a long time,” she said. “It’s just something that I wanted.”
Born in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood, McDaniel experienced hardship at a young age. “I had 10 siblings and they started dying when I was four years old,” she said. “That emotionally set me back.” The family struggled financially, but McDaniel says they were resourceful. “We never starved,” she said. “There was always a pot of beans on the stove or bread in the oven or plenty of fish to eat.”
McDaniel’s formative years also found her grappling with a sense of identity. Her father is Black and her mother is Indigenous. “I was initially raised in a Native community and then I started going to school so I moved back over to the Hilltop,” she said. “I wasn’t comfortable in either community so I put myself in the middle of both of them.”
McDaniel’s father grew up during the Jim Crow era. He quit school in the eighth grade to help support his family. Later, he was drafted into the military and served in World War II. “To him, education wasn’t about going to school,” said McDaniel. “He was more concerned with showing me how to do things like pay the bills, and keep a job so that I could retire one day without having to depend on anyone and to become independent.”
McDaniel’s mother and grandmother survived the brutal boarding school era in the United States. For nearly 100 years, Native youth were removed from their families and sent to distant boarding schools with the goal of forced assimilation. Despite this, McDaniel’s mother tried over the years to return to school and earn a degree. “By then she had 10 children and didn’t have a lot of time,” said Ada McDaniel. “She’d go to different evening classes but something always prevented her from reaching her goal.”
Education is important to McDaniel partially because it was denied to members of her family, but that’s not the whole story. “My fifth oldest sibling made sure we got up every day and went to school,” said McDaniel. “When she joined the military, I would write her letters, and she would edit the letter with a red pen and send them back to me to correct.“
That’s not to say McDaniel’s success is due to someone else. “I’m just dedicated,” she said. McDaniel started her college career about a decade ago. She stepped away after high school to raise a family and establish a career.
McDaniel served as the Emergency Management Director for the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe for 13 years and is now the Tribe’s Unsheltered Relatives Outreach director. “My vision in this role is to bring these folks inside, get them comfortable again being in an environment where they can open up,” she said. “Ultimately, that starts with helping them get their needs met.”
McDaniel returned to school in 2012 and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees at Antioch University. “I’m driven to learn,” she said. “Even before I took college seriously I was always taking certificate courses. I probably have 120 certificates in my file from courses I’ve taken over the years.”
When it came time to pick a doctoral program, McDaniel knew what she wanted. “I’m an elder now, I’m comfortable at home,” she said. “I didn’t want to leave, I wanted to stay close.” UW Tacoma’s School of Education and the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe signed a memorandum of agreement in February 2020 to develop an Indigenous-based Ed.D. program.
McDaniel applied to the program and is part of the inaugural Muckleshoot cohort. “I love it,” she said. “I feel it’s a healing process for me to be able to write about my experiences. I transformed into someone else. I’m more confident now.”
McDaniel is set to finish her degree in June of this year. She plans to take this confidence and share it with others. “I’d like to go back to the Hilltop and try to be a positive role model for people of color, especially the children,” she said. “I know that being a person of color, being a Black Indigenous woman, that we’re seen and not heard. I want to share my story with them so maybe they can pick up the work and carry it forward to upcoming generations who have a story that is similar to mine. Through storytelling, we can begin the healing process each of our ancestors envisioned.”