Article by John Loftus, Muckleshoot Monthly
Education is a tradition in Denise Bill’s family. Her father, Dr. Willard E. Bill Sr., set the bar high many years ago when he became the first Muckleshoot to earn an Ed.D.
Her brother Will has a Master’s Degree and a resume’ that includes heading up the Indian Ed. Program for Seattle Public Schools and serving as a Dean at the Muckleshoot Tribal School.
“Our parents really taught us as children that we were going to go to college,” she recalls. “That was an automatic – you didn’t even think about stopping after high school.”
Denise earned her Master’s Degree years ago, but that highest mountain – the doctorate – has been a long steep climb indeed.
“I’m just really happy to have finally completed this degree and especially want to thank everybody at the Muckleshoot Tribal College,” she says. “They’ve been a tremendous support to me, both in finishing my degree and in my job as MOST Program Manager.
Denise dedicated her doctoral dissertation to her two children, Elise and Andy.
“I wanted to show them that they can overcome obstacles in their lives – that they can always get back up and try again,” she said. “I love them more than anything in my whole life, and I just want them to have a great future.”
The title of her dissertation was “Native Educational Leadership in the Pacific Northwest.” It involved in-depth interviews with nine Native educators: Dr. Bill Demmert, Honorary Dr. Cecelia Smith-Carpenter, Denny Hurtado, Dr. Willard Bill Sr., Jim Egawa, Colleen Almouella, Virginia Cross, Romayne Watt and Patricia “Patsy” Whitefoot.
“I believe that these interviews are words that my children can learn from, as well as other children in Washington State,” she says.
Her father’s passing left an empty place in Denise’s life that can never be filled, but his warmth and character will forever reside in her heart.
“My father was always wonderful to me,” she recalled. “He was a really good listener. He was funny. He was very kind to me and my children. And he was always a role model to me of what a Native man should be.”
“I really respect him for all of his accomplishments, but to me he was just a good father and a good grandfather to my kids. I really wish he was still here with us,” she added, her eyes glistening with unshed tears.
Denise believes that preserving the wisdom of her father and other Native educational leaders is what makes her dissertation is so important.
“I have his whole interview on film and on a transcript and, like the other leaders I interviewed, they will always be with us. Even though some are no longer physically among us, their words, and who they are or were will never be forgotten.”
Denise doesn’t plan to rest on her laurels now that she’s achieved her longtime goal of earning her doctorate. She remains committed to carrying on the work that her father and so many others began – to bring educational opportunities to Native people, to pass their lessons on to her children, and to everybody’s children.
And she’s not finished with the work products that went into her dissertation, either. It will be a living document.
“I hope to have my nine videotaped interviews with Native American leaders turned into a film that can be used in schools,” she says. “ I’m really excited about that. And I’d also like to turn my dissertation into a couple of different classes that I would teach at the college level.”
It’s just as her father taught her, Denise says: Education is a process that never ends. It continues throughout your entire life.
“He really instilled that in me.”