Puyallup Tribal member professors on UWT campus help reclaim Native spaces in their ancestral homelands

By Katie Manzanares, Puyallup Tribal News 

The University of Washington Tacoma campus has two enrolled Puyallup Tribal Member professors who also work with Native American Students to help facilitate and cultivate a space where they can thrive.

Danica Sterud-Miller started at UWT in 2014 as an assistant professor. She earned tenure, which grants professors additional job security and more freedom to express their scholarly opinions, in 2020. Sterud-Miller is currently the associate professor of American Indian studies and co-director of the UW Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies.

When she was in fourth grade, Sterud-Miller wanted to be a literature professor but didn’t quite know what literature meant. She remembered thinking “book professor.” She utilized the Tribe’s Higher Education Department and pursued just that. The Higher Education Department has been able to help hundreds of Tribal Members matriculate and become working professionals.

“I am completely indebted to the Puyallup Tribe’s Higher Education program,” said Sterud-Miller. She shared that the program helped her with tuition and living expenses from her undergraduate years all the way to obtaining her Ph.D. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without the Puyallup Tribe,” she said.

Her education began with her bachelor’s degree from Western Washington University. She then moved to the East Coast to get her Ph.D. in English at Fordham University in 2013. After graduating, Sterud-Miller conducted a national job search. She recalls seeing a job open up in American Indian studies at UWT, which allowed her to start her career back in her ancestral homelands.

“When I walk down the hill in the morning and look out over our land, our water and see the mountain, I know this is exactly where my ancestors want me to be,” said Sterud-Miller.

When Sterud-Miller first started working on campus, there was a lack of Native American presence both in the overall student population as well as in representation in arts, language, and culture. The university is built on the traditional homelands of the Puyallup Tribe of Indians. Over the years, Sterud-Miller helped reclaim the space and bring a Native presence back to the area. Because of her efforts, today UWT has a large Native American student population more extensive than most universities. A lot of her students are American Indian. Half the students in some of her classes have been American Indian, she said, which is unprecedented at a non-tribal college. 

As part of her efforts to get more Native representation on campus, Sterud-Miller began a friendship/mentorship with Sara Eccleston, a fellow tribal member pursuing higher education. Upon graduating, Eccleston was encouraged to come to UWT to start her career.

Eccleston is an assistant professor of community psychology. She joined UWT in the fall of 2022. She said it feels good to teach in her traditional homelands. She enjoyed being in school in  the South, but she missed home and the water as the years passed. She also had a daughter while in school and wanted to raise her here, at home.

Sterud-Miller explained what things need to happen to bring Native students on campus. She shared that the first thing you can do is hire Native faculty. In 2014, UWT hired its first full-time Native faculty. The second thing that you can do, she said, is create a Native space where students can have their own designated space. UWT Native Center is an area where students and faculty can connect through hanging out, studying, and watching movies together. It’s a place to build that community connection. You can always expect to have a snack and a friend to hang out with. Students can use this space to thrive and make connections with students of similar backgrounds.

Over the last 10 years, UWT has made advancements with the Native students by creating spaces, offering land acknowledgments and installing art pieces to depict the Native presence on campus. On Feb. 14, a land acknowledgment sign and paddles were installed in the new Milgard building. They were carved by Michael Hall and painted by Jack George.

“I love walking past the Puyallup land acknowledgment in Milgard and seeing it is beautiful,” Eccleston said. “I am so grateful to have that recognition; I think it should be in every building. “I am so grateful to be coming in the footsteps of people like Danica who were before me to pave the way to get some of that recognition happening here on campus.”

Both women said that without help and services provided by the Tribe’s higher education program, they wouldn’t be where they are today. The Higher Education department encourages members to shoot for the stars by attending the university or college of the their choosing and helps with purchasing books and supplies. It offers a monthly living stipend or can help with room and board if students want to live on campus.

The Higher Ed department can help students with comprehensive financial support. Eccleston described it as a relief to not have to worry about paying for books and tuition, allowing her to just focus on her education.

“It was so significant coming out of college without debt, which almost none of my peers had experienced,” Eccleston said. “I feel so overcome and indebted to that, which is why it was important for me to come home and bring that educational competency that the Tribe helped me get to bring that home to try and contribute back.”

For more information on the Puyallup Tribe’s Higher Education department, please email: [email protected]

For UWT admissions, please visit https://www.tacoma.uw.edu/admissions