Great Tribal Leaders of Modern Times: Mike Williams

Institute for Tribal Government

Produced by the Institute for Tribal Government at Portland State University in 2004, the landmark “Great Tribal Leaders of Modern Times” interview series presents the oral histories of contemporary leaders who have played instrumental roles in Native nations' struggles for sovereignty, self-determination, and treaty rights. The leadership themes presented in these unique videos provide a rich resource that can be used by present and future generations of Native nations, students in Native American studies programs, and other interested groups.

In this interview, conducted in November 2001, Yupiaq Nation Chief Mike Williams discusses his fervent commitment to his people's subsistence way of life and how he runs the Iditarod dog sled race every year to promote sobriety, healthy lifestyles, and education for Alaskan children.

This video resource is featured on the Indigenous Governance Database with the permission of the Institute for Tribal Government.

Native Nations
Resource Type

Williams, Mike. "Great Tribal Leaders of Modern Times" (interview series). Institute for Tribal Government, Portland State University. Spokane, Washington. November 2001. Interview. 

Kathryn Harrison:

"Hello. My name is Kathryn Harrison. I am presently the Chairperson of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon. I have served on my council for 21 years. Tribal leaders have influenced the history of this country since time immemorial. Their stories have been handed down from generation to generation. Their teaching is alive today in our great contemporary tribal leaders whose stories told in this series are an inspiration to all Americans both tribal and non-tribal. In particular it is my hope that Indian youth everywhere will recognize the contributions and sacrifices made by these great tribal leaders."

[Native music]


"Mike Williams is a Yupiaq Eskimo born in the small village of Akiak, Alaska, in 1952 to the late Tim Williams, Chief of the Tribal Government of Akiak and Helena Williams, the sister of the traditional Chief Joe Lomack. As a child, Mike went with his family from camp to camp during the year with subsistence hunting and fishing, gathering food for the family and also for the dog teams. It was very hard but a good life, he recalls. Everything in the village was taken care of by a tribal council. Mike Williams learned the geography, the names of the rivers and landmarks and how his people had existed in earlier times from his grandmother. He grew up speaking only the Yupiaq language. He had two sisters and six brothers. All his brothers died due to accidents in the river or falling through ice. Mike is dedicated to telling the local and global community that accidental deaths can be avoided and that an alcohol and drug free life can be realized by his people. After boarding school at Wrangell Institute in southeast Alaska he attended high school at Chemawa Indian School in Oregon where he excelled in athletics, football, track and field and basketball. But sports alone did not satisfy him. He ran for and was elected student body president. A lifelong interest in politics and the rights of tribes was sparked at Chemawa where he was able also to build friendships with young people from many different tribes. One of his advisers, a Rosebud Sioux, saw his leadership potential and sent him to a summer leadership training institute. After high school Mike was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in South Korea. Returning to Alaska, he worked as a mental health counselor in Bethel and continued his education in Behavioral Science at Kuskokwin Community College. Mike Williams is a dedicated public servant of more than 30 years working with both Native and non-Native organizations. Today he is chairman of the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council. He has been vice chairman of the Alaska State Board of Education and held offices with the National Congress of American Indians, the Alaska Humanities Forum and the Native American Rights Fund. He has served as the Director of the Alaska State Governor's Alcohol and Substance Abuse Advisory Board. Mike has been honored with the Most Inspirational Award in the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. Among the other honors he has received are Alaska State Legislature Award of Honor for Sobriety Advocacy and the Citizen of the Year Award of the National Social Worker's Association, Alaska Chapter. He is passionate about protecting tribal governments, the rights of tribes and building economic self-sufficiency for Alaska Natives. Dog mushing is his culture and it is his tradition. He runs the Iditarod Dog Sled Race to promote sobriety, healthy lifestyles and quality education for his people. Mike married his wife Maggie in 1976 and they have five children. His wife and family have always supported his mushing career. Without their full hearted support he maintains he could not lead the busy life of an advocate for tribes, mental health counselor and runner for sobriety. He also continues subsistence hunting and fishing and enjoys reading and karate. The Institute for Tribal Government interviewed Mike Williams in Spokane, Washington, November, 2001."

The several worlds of Mike William's childhood

Mike Williams:

"Well, when I was a little child my role model was my father of course and he was an avid dog musher and also a subsistence hunter and fisher and a good one. And I wanted to be the greatest hunter and fisherman that ever lived in our lands and to provide for my family, to provide a good home and to manage our resources. So in terms of wanting to do something for the community, I think my parents were really advocates for learning the White man ways and the words as much as we can and that was very important for them. For my dad to tell me that I have to learn as much as I can of the words of the White man and that I would need that western education to protect our resources. So I think that...he did a good job in terms of keeping my identity intact while sacrificing me to this new education and I think he wanted me to know both worlds and I think he did a very good job."

On keeping the Yupiaq language intact, different approaches of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the missionaries

Mike Williams:

"Well, I think the missionaries came to us and the Moravian Church at that time. They came and they advocated for us to keep our language intact and I think it was the BIA schools, the Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, that discouraged speaking of our language in the classes and they are the ones that washed my dad's mouth with soap and my mother's mouth with soap for speaking in our own language in our schools. But the missionaries for some odd reason advocated that our language should be intact and that our culture and the dance should be intact and it was our own people that did it to ourselves with our Yupiaq dance. Missionaries for the most part wanted us to keep our way of life intact. One of the missionaries by the name of John Kilbuck was a Delaware Indian and he came from the Delaware Tribe and came up to us as a missionary to our community in Akiak. And he's the one that spoke to our people about establishing reservations for people and to keep our language intact and to keep our culture intact and he, I think, was a big influence to the missionaries that came to our communities. And he was a big advocate for to claim our land. And in the long run I think the missionaries tried to help as much as they can in keeping our culture and our languages alive. And they have done a lot of translating of the Bible to our language and we have a written language. And they have done a very good job of...my grandfather and my grandmother were involved in translating the Word and they translated the whole New Testament from English to Yupiaq so they did a very good job of that. And right now they're translating the whole Old Testament from English to Yupiaq, word for word. So they're doing a very good job. But all in all I think for the most part the federal government or the Bureau of Indian Affairs tried to assimilate us into who we aren't and to the melting pot of the American society and that our way of life can be better and that our way of life can be better in terms of our living conditions and our ways of doing things. So I think for the most part the education program tried to change us into who we aren't."

As a child and teen, boarding schools contrasted with the traditional life Williams had known

Mike Williams:

"My older brothers were the first ones to go to boarding schools in Chemawa, Oregon, and some of them ended up in Chilocco Indian School and Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka. So at age 14 I was removed and put in a dormitory and all the rules and regulations and the haircuts. It was a very tough change from living in Akiak with loving parents and community and no running water and no electricity and no television and going into Wrangell Institute was a big change when there was television and there were phones. And I remember this guy, one of the teachers, teaching us how to use telephones. ‘And this is a telephone and this is how you dial.' That was a very big change. We never thought about watching television, we never grew up watching television and there we watched, the first time I seen a football game and other programs as TV shows as well. nd that was a big change and having to live with rules and regulations and with others. It was a big change and we were homesick and we wanted to go home because it was a very strange environment. I just questioned why my parents allowed this to happen. We would go home in the summers and then Chemawa Indian School came around and again our parents sacrificed us saying that, ‘education is very important, you need to learn the White man ways and get Western education.' So off we went to Chemawa Indian School. Again it was a very big change from going to Wrangell Institute to high school. And I think that was one of the best parts of going to an Indian school is I have made many friends from all over Alaska and other tribes and all over northwest and in the Navajo country. It was a hard adjustment from a loving family into a dorm life and at a very young age. But again, I think our parents keep telling us or keep writing to us that, ‘education is very important, that we need for you to learn as much as you can so... there are going to be some issues coming up with our lands and our resources that you need to fight on.' So encouragement by our parents to go on and the sacrifice they made for the children to go on was very difficult for us but I think it was... they felt it was necessary and they knew our language was intact and our culture was intact but they felt that we needed to learn the other ways as well. I think that was a very tough experience but I think it was a very good experience in terms of establishing contacts with the people in the northwest and the Navajo country and to see tribal governments in operation at first hand and getting involved in school politics as well. So I think that was a very good experience in terms of playing sports as well. We've seen some football games on TV but we wanted to play. A lot of us Eskimos came down and we've never put on uniforms to play football and we just seen excerpts of football games when we were going to Wrangell Institute. And I never dreamed that I would be playing football and there was several of us Eskimos that put on the equipment. And one memorable experience that I've seen was the hip pads that came along with the equipment. We were discussing the Inupiat and Yupiaq people and the coaches didn't tell us how to put on the equipment but we had to figure that out. And we put on our shoulder pads and the hip pads were very, the hardest one to figure out because of the tailbone or tail guard that we were wondering what we needed that for. But we put on the hip pads and we figured that it was to protect our private parts. So we Eskimos, we turned it around and we thought that tail guard was for protection of our private parts. But that was the most uncomfortable feeling after putting the pants on and a lot of us were running outside to practice but it was very uncomfortable in running and we were wondering why the coaches didn't tell us what those protections were for. That was for tail bone protection. So we reversed it and that was a little more comfortable. But I think with all those changes, those were very interesting and learning experiences for us. It was a big change, a major change from living in a small community and the school was four times big as my community. It was, I think the transition was pretty rapid but again we were homesick, we wanted to go home and hunt and fish and to live that life in the wilderness. I really missed hunting and fishing and that was the hardest part."

Learning politics and leadership at Chemawa Indian School

Mike Williams:

"I've had three years of sports but politics sort of interested me. I need to do something different, I need to try politics so I ran for student body president and I didn't know...I organized my campaign and had a campaign manager, which I picked out a popular guy in our school and he eventually delivered but I didn't know anything about Robert's Rules of Order and how to run meetings period. I was very green in terms of running meetings and politics and budgeting and setting policy with our schools. I didn't know what I was getting into. I think that was the best move that I've ever made in terms of establishing myself and leadership skills into the future. Of course sports were there but I seen myself not becoming a professional sports person, playing football or basketball. I wasn't tall enough to play college basketball or become a professional athlete. So I seen the opportunity with politics and that was the first time I was prepared for leadership positions where I had a real good adviser that was from Rosebud and he's a Sioux and he was a very knowledgeable adviser. He pointed me in the right direction and went to summer leadership institute and getting me away from fishing. And I went to St. Louis, Missouri for the summer to learn about how to become a leader and that was an institute for student body presidents, which all the presidents, the majority of presidents were from all over the schools in the country, from New York, from Florida, from all over. I think it was a very good experience for me and I learned how to run meetings and to know about Robert's Rules of Order and how to conduct meetings and to provide, how to provide leadership. It opened my eyes during that one summer when I would go there and participate with other leaders or school student body presidents. And it was a good learning experience on how to be a leader."

Alaska becomes the 49th state in 1959

Mike Williams:

"I was seven years old when Alaska became a state and I was 17 years old when Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act was passed in 1971. At that time many of our people were out hunting and fishing and gathering and many of our people did not participate in the statehood movement and I think there was only one Alaska Native in that first constitutional convention that they gathered. Our people for the most part weren't involved in the shaping of our state constitution and it was for the most part people from the outside that established the State of Alaska and our people for the most part did not participate in that because of the remoteness of our communities. But there was news in 1959 that Alaska became a state and without any consultation or without any input by our Native people. And after that I think the state keep selecting lands or taking lands and people keep getting land and that's when I think Morris Udall said, ‘Gee whiz, people are keeping taking land here and there. We need to have a land freeze.' And the oil was discovered in the North Slope and that I think prompted the land to be settled and without any settlement. The pipeline couldn't be built from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez and everybody knew there was oil. And again our people during that time were not fully participating and there was no consent by the tribal governments at that time."

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act passed by Congress in 1971 eliminated 90 percent of Alaska Native land claims in exchange for guarantees of 44 million acres and a cash settlement

Mike Williams:

"And I was in Chemawa Indian School in 1969, '70, '71 and '72 and graduated in '72. But in 1969, '70 and '71 we took the land claims class and we studied the land claims and we were wondering why Alaska Natives were giving away our rights. Our aboriginal title was hereby extinguished; our hunting and fishing rights were hereby extinguished by the act. And all these extinguishments, we were wondering why Alaska Natives are agreeing to this. And being a junior in 1971 after studying the land claims with my peers we disagreed with the act and we felt that it was in the way terminating our rights, our lands and that we rightfully have and especially our aboriginal title to the land that people agreed to. Again we didn't have any say so being a very naí¯ve and very young person but I had strong feelings and my position was that Alaska Native people, our people should not agree to this bill or this land claims bill that diminishes our existence as people and that way we felt that it was a termination process for our people. And we tried to voice those concerns to our representatives and to people in Congress but it fell to deaf ears and we know it was crafted by the lobbyists that had interest in oil development and also by Congress. Congress convinced the Alaska Natives that we had a better deal of 44 million acres and $1 billion that was going to be going to our people to settle the land and that we would finally have land, our land. But I think we lost a lot in that, the land claims."

After military service Williams decides to train himself to be an educator and a politician

Mike Williams:

"After high school, I always wanted to be a coach and to involve myself into politics. And my thoughts were to become a teacher and to involve myself in making my people stronger in terms of getting ready for land claims and the land settlement. And also the problems that I've seen in the Native community that I wanted to do something further with our young people. And that is one of the reasons why I have been focusing on educational programs in Alaska. My brother and I were the last ones to be drafted into the United States Army. And I know I could have gotten deferment but we were the last ones to be drafted in the draft era and my brother ended up in Vietnam and he was there prior to my entry to the U.S. Army. And they couldn't send us both to Vietnam so I ended up in South Korea. And while he was serving in Vietnam I was serving in South Korea in the Army. That was one of the best experiences that I had in terms of learning more about discipline and about the protection of our country and the importance of services and being in the service. And my thinking at that point, ‘Well, I'll go along with the draft and further take advantage of the GI bill.' After my service in South Korea I became disabled and lost one eye and got out on a disability and decided to come back home. My brother and I came back home at the same time and he came back from Vietnam alive and I came home the next day. So we had a real good reunion at home. And we were finally, the family was finally together. But unfortunately after three months of stay by my older brother he overdosed on alcohol. And he survived the bullets in Vietnam but he didn't survive alcohol at our home. And that, I just felt, why [did] that happened? But I think he really had a hard time adjusting from the Vietnam experience into Akiak where he was not comfortable and he went through Post Traumatic Syndrome. And we had to deal with that in the three months that we were home and we had to deal with that and the only way that he could numb some of that terrible experience that he's gone through in Vietnam that the only way he could numb himself is through the use of alcohol and other drugs as well."

He begins advocacy for sobriety in the mid 1970s

Mike Williams:

"I decided to get back into the education where I wanted people to change or to avoid the terrible effects of alcohol. And I think that was the beginning of my advocacy for sobriety. And that was a terrible experience that we've gone through and we decided to advocate for sobriety. My dad was one of the first people that advocated for sobriety. So I decided to advocate for mental health programs and also substance abuse programs for treatment of people with problems."

Williams and his wife decide to raise their children in Akiak. He becomes active in the movement for tribal sovereignty.

Mike Williams:

"I was working full time and going to school full time for the two years and started mental health programs throughout Alaska and also substance abuse programs and saying that, ‘we need to take this problem to our own hands and deal with it.' And from there I think that my advocacy for running our programs started in terms of developing our own programs the way I think will work for our people. And at that time I took classes and kept going to school. That is when I met my wife and I decided to, after establishing mental health programs and my college education in Bethel that, and we got married and decided to raise our children back in Akiak, back in our village. And she had gone to school and taken business courses and became a bookkeeper for a very big corporation there in Bethel. So we decided to go back after getting married and raise our children in the village and that was our choice. There I became involved with our tribal government and to reassert our sovereign status and that was...well, when I began the tribal sovereignty movement in our communities and eventually I got elected to the tribal council and as a young man I have been involved with the tribal councils ever since and became, eventually became the chief of the village and of our tribal council. We began the movement at that time that we need to retake our programs and we needed to assert our rights as sovereign governments and despite the Native corporations, both regional corporations and village corporations under the Native Claims Settlement Act and that we need to keep our sovereign rights alive despite the efforts to terminate our rights in Alaska."

Based on the powerful grassroots actions of tribes Congress passes the National Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978

Mike Williams:

"And one of the major issues that we took on at that time, there was the tribal child that was removed by a state social worker and at that time we said, ‘We're tired of seeing many of our children being removed by the state social workers and put them into non-Native homes.' And at that time in 1975, '76, when that child was being removed that we objected to that permanently removing that child from a Native mother to a non-Native family. So we put a stop to that and it was Indian Child Welfare Act at that time and we got this lawyer guy by the name of Bert Terse from New York. and we knew that he was a lawyer from going to meetings, attending NCI meetings and other meetings that go around in the country and we began talking to Bert. We asked who would be a good Indian lawyer that would help us in our community to get that child back and we were very successful. Eventually that child came back to our community. I think that was a significant move by our tribe and that our children will never be removed without our consent or without the agreement of the tribal council, that we really wanted to keep our families together and keep our children in our communities. And I think that was one of the first major work that started in Alaska and we were the major players in asserting our tribal government's rights or keeping our children within the families or relatives in our communities. So that was significant work that we started up there and eventually this kid grew up in Akiak and went to high school in Akiak and during his high school years he became a heavyweight state champion. So I think I love to tell that story where one of our children we protected that eventually became a successful heavyweight champion of the state and he beat the guy by the name of Superman, his last name is Superman. So I think I like to tell that story because it was one of the success stories that we've seen and the significant victory that we had as tribal council in the state. And right now I think the majority of the policies in Alaska before children are being removed that they have a real good working relationship with the tribal governments with the state social service system. So I think that was significant and we also established a Yupiaq Nation where we are sovereign tribes and we want to tell the whole world that we haven't given up our rights and we started the Yupiaq Nation, which we, that despite the land claims and our other rights that were eroded or being extinguished that despite all that we want to keep our rights intact that we still have jurisdiction over our land and we still have jurisdiction over our members and we still have jurisdiction of our resources, which are the moose, the caribou, the fish and everything. And I think under that Yupiaq Nation charter we keep our rights intact."

In 1975 Congress passes the Indian Self Determination Act giving tribal governments more control over their tribal affairs and funds for education assistance

Mike Williams:

"And another significant issue that we took on was the education, the BIA program. And in 1980-85 we decided to contract those educational services to our K-8 program. And we used the Self Determination Act to contract with BIA. When we first started that, BIA said, ‘No, you can't do the contract, you can't do that because you've never ran the education program before and you're not qualified to do that.' We said, ‘Well, according to the Indian Self Determination Act we could do that and despite your objections we're going to do that. Here's the resolution.' And low and behold the Bureau of Indian Affairs said, ‘Okay, let's negotiate. Let's get the budget going.' And so from 1980-1985 we contracted the education program within our community and we hired and fired our administrators and our teachers at will. And that was the first time that we ever had total control over our educational program. And that was significant in a way that after the BIA told us that we could not operate that we went ahead and did that. So those are the two significant movements or efforts that we made at our tribal government level is the protection of our children and also education of our children."

How to prepare for difficult and adversarial situations

Mike Williams:

"Well, I think you have to do your homework and I think with...you have to do a lot of reading and preparing yourselves to really answer the questions that may arise beforehand. And I think with that effort, with the establishment of mental health programs, I think I did a lot of convincing to Indian Health Service and the negotiations. And we ran those programs and we convinced Indian Health Service that we could do that. We convinced that our kids can be protected and we did our homework with that. And also with the establishment of our educational programs, we also did our homework in convincing the passing of the resolution and establishing the school board and then getting the curriculum going and hiring our teachers. I think it takes a lot of planning and it takes a lot of meetings with our community members and we have engaged our tribal members in that process and whatever they mandated us to do we went ahead and did that. So when there is a mandate and when there is a charge for us to carry out something I think we need to be really prepared and have that blessing from the community to do that. And I think for the most part you need to have help from people that have done it before. During the Indian Child Welfare issues that we dealt with we collaborated with the south 48 tribes and we weren't the only ones that were dong that in terms of protecting our kids and there were other tribes from throughout the country that expressed some of those concerns that they had in terms of removal of Indian children from the parents and putting them into non-Indian homes. So we had collaboration going with that as well as the education programs. There were contract schools going on throughout the Indian Country from south 48 so we were collaborating with the Indian tribes that were doing contract work with the educational program. And I think you need to really collaborate with the other people that have done many of those things already so that's what we did and getting the best Indian lawyers we can find and the best people or finding people who've done it before."

Urban and rural issues and conflicts in Alaska

Mike Williams:

"For the most part I think the urban Native and the rural Native in terms of subsistence resources are together. Regardless of where the Alaska Native lives, we feel that that person has all those rights still intact that they can hunt and fish and survive the way they have done for thousands of years. We support that. But in terms of oil development I think that is the real, another real tough issue where the Inupiat people want to have oil development in the Anwar and the Quechan Indians wanting to protect the porcupine caribou who herd in that Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and to protect from that development to occur."

Tribal governments, regional Native corporations and nonprofits make a complicated environment for getting things done

Mike Williams:

"We have 229 federally recognized tribes in Alaska and we have 12 nonprofit corporations within each region and we have of course 12 regional corporations and a 13th regional corporation outside of Alaska so it is very unique situation that we are in Alaska and I think in dealing with all those other organizations it makes it more complex. If we had one Indian Country and no corporations it would make life a lot easier in Alaska and do away with Native corporations and nonprofits and just have tribal governments. That would make life a lot simpler and we could do economic development, still run our casinos like the lower 48 and the land and trust issues and healthcare programs and BIA education programs. I think it would make life a lot easier if we had one organization."

Alaska Native subsistence fishing rights were upheld in the Katie John case

Mike Williams:

"For the most part I am a hunter and a fisherman. I am a subsistence hunter and fisherman. I depend on the fishing and hunting to survive and I practice what I preach. And that I will always have and that I will always practice and that I will always do that. Just before coming to NCI I had to really quickly get some fish and I'm trapping fish underneath the ice and I have to fish during the summer and put away and live as I did, as I described growing up in earlier years of my life and the way I was taught and I'm going to live that wonderful way of life that I still enjoy today and having dogs and everything that I need to survive. But the Katie John case, I think the issue has been with us for over 10 years and Katie John is a very good friend and the grandmother of all of the tribes in Alaska as we have gotten to know her and her lawsuit to keep her fishing rights intact where she has always done in Batzulnetas where she always had that fish wheel. She was told that she could not do that where she always filled so she was told that she's got to go way down to the river to get her fish not where her family always have done in Batzulnetas. I think over the years that we've been in court we've become, she has become well known in Alaska and I think the decision for Governor Knowles not to appeal the case was one of the most significant decisions that the governor did in not appealing this case to the United States Supreme Court and that was the major victory by Katie John and that State of Alaska was no longer going to fight her in court and that there was too much risk going in to the Supreme Court that the state might lose and Katie John might, it might become a lose-lose situation instead of a win-win situation for all of Alaska. And I think the governor did the right thing in not appealing the case to the Supreme Court."

Williams service commitment includes work for tribes on the local, regional and national levels

Mike Williams:

I'm currently the Chairman of the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council, which we enthusiastically organized in 1992-93. And I think we did the right thing in organizing the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council, which we have 187 tribal governments membership just on tribal governments and we just have that membership. And I've been involved ever since in 1970s, 1980 tribal sovereignty movements and organizing of the United Tribes of Alaska and Alaska Native Coalition and then eventually the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council. And currently I'm chairman of that for; I think I'm on my third year now. It's been never a dull moment in that organization and also our involvement with the National Congress of American Indians and I just have been serving my first term as Juneau area vice president for NCAI and I think that is a very important organization that supports tribal sovereignty throughout Indian Country at the national level. I'm in my last term with the Native American Rights Fund Board of Directors. I'm on the executive board right now and I'm on my last year and my last term and I've served for five years and it has been a wonderful experience working with John Echohawk and with the tribal sovereignty issues that we are dealing with throughout Indian Country. I think there's a lot more work to be done in the future with the protection of tribal governments or tribal sovereignty initiatives that we are working on right now. And I think with all that time commitment that is necessary and resources, sometimes I wonder where I'm finding all the time to do all that plus running the Iditarod and that takes more time and seems to...I don't know how I've done it before with full time work. I decided not to work full time anymore because I don't have the time to hold down a job but with the public service commitments that I've made I think that's one of the things that my dad taught me to do is if you believe in public service then do it. And with the support of my family and with the support of my tribe that I'm able to do the statewide organizations that I'm in and national organizations that I'm doing. My tribe has allowed me to do those things as well as my wife and children. So they strongly believe that in order to make a difference you need full support of the tribe and especially your family. So I'm fortunate to have a wife that really supports in what I do and she really believes that what we're doing is because of our future and because of our children. And I think that is what they see as what Chief Joseph did and see what the other warriors did to protect and do things for our future. So I think that's what I'm doing and I feel like I'm doing and I feel like I'm committed to do what is best for my children and for my future. And I have two grandchildren that I think need to be protected. For many years that I've been involved I have seen erosion of tribal sovereignty at the Supreme Court level and I've seen a lot of wars or I've read about all the wars that I've seen in the Indian Country ever since, for the last over 500 years and I feel that those issues are very important right now and we need to continue that battle."

Social, environmental and political dangers that Alaskan tribes face

Mike Williams:

"Well, I think the greatest danger that we face is again, like I've said, is the alcohol and substance abuse that are killing our people up there and suicides that I'm seeing at a very high level and the health programs or the health problems that we are seeing; cancer and diabetes and health problems that are deriving from the mineral development or environmental problems that we are seeing. I think that is the greatest threat I see is our people dying from all the diseases that were brought from the first contact. We had great deaths from influenza, tuberculosis, small pox and other health problems but the industries that develop our resources also has affected environmental problems as well as the changes that are made very quickly with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, especially our people changing real fast and changing overnight from being hunter/gatherer into the society where we're depending on cash and that transition problem going too fast. And then our people committing themselves, hanging themselves and shooting themselves and especially our young men. Also the erosion of our rights, the hunting and fishing rights and the erosion of tribal sovereignty in Alaska and the threat of being terminated completely as tribes and as Native people there. For many years the State of Alaska under its constitution and its statement that tribes do not exist in Alaska, there was no tribes in Alaska until the last time or this past year that the governor of Alaska finally recognized that there... tribes exist in Alaska. And also selling, the individual Native allotment owners selling their land to the highest bidder or the person that wants to buy it and that has... that's one of the biggest threats is of the loss of our lands and the control over our lands in Alaska."

Education and the protection of tribal self-governance will be Mike Williams' call for years to come

Mike Williams:

"We are intact and we need to make sure that that is protected and regardless of any administration both in federal level or the state level that we keep our tribal sovereignty intact and our sovereign rights intact at the statewide level. And I think we need to continuously educate the public, the organizations, our own Native corporations, our own people, our own backyard where we continuously educate the new people that are coming up from the lower 48 to Alaska and to continuously educate them about our issues and the importance of subsistence hunting and fishing rights and the importance of protection of our lands and protection of our resources. There are a lot of the industries; the oil companies, the mining companies and everybody that wants to take all the trees and everybody wants to come and develop and make the fast buck and go away and leave all the mess to us. That we don't want to see and that we as tribes benefit from that as well. We live in the richest state in the Union but we still live in the third world conditions and we're still trying to get funding from the Department of the Interior for a program to run our programs but we are so rich in our land but we are so poor. We still live in the third world conditions and we need to improve that."

Poverty and tragedy in Native communities and the need for the federal government's response

Mike Williams:

"In our Native corporations I've seen $20 in thirty years out of my Native corporations and that's how much we've seen as shareholders -- $20. Not everyone benefited from that and a lot of small Native, village Native corporations are on the verge of bankruptcy. So we haven't really seen any of the benefits and we still live in the third world conditions. And despite the oil development and despite the dividend program, despite the pipeline and those tribal communities within the pipeline, still haven't seen a dime and we still live in the third world conditions despite all the billions and billions of dollars that we generate. We still haven't really seen the benefits. With the issue of the September 11th disaster, I think our people have gone through that and personally I went through that in my own family in losing six brothers and more of my uncles and my relatives dying of diseases and dying of cancer and dying of what has been brought to our communities. And with the issue of that disaster on September 11th people need to realize what we as Native Americans have gone through or Alaska Natives and we were highly populated once but there were great deaths and that affected by people from the outside bringing in diseases to our communities and loss of our lands through these settlements. We've lost so much and people think that these health programs and education programs and these other programs think it's a free program. No, we paid for it big time already through the loss of our lands and through the people that have died along in the process. So we've had our own disasters here. And when the airline industries are in trouble the federal government just, $5 billion right there and... What about the housing issues and what about the healthcare problems and highest...? We have lowest per capita income in the country. It just...when we keep asking for by resolutions about more funding and better housing, water, educational program, healthcare program, all we hear is budget cuts. And that I think, here our people are dying, what are you going to do? Are you going to give us relief? And we haven't seen that. I wish the government would treat us as they treated the airline industry or the savings and loan scandal, when the banks are in trouble then the federal government comes in, ‘Here, we'll bail you out,' and I think we need that kind of treatment instead of having the lowest bottom of the totem pole getting that kind of money for tribal programs. So I think if we're going to be treated as governments and here we have our problems, we need to have that government to government relationship intact and people need to know that so we can have the American dream that everyone has in this country. A lot of our people still dream of that, the American dream where we live in the richest state of the Union and they can make, the government can make all kinds of weapons but what about our people. When we ask for improvement in the healthcare, improvement of our life and prevention of health problems that, why don't they give us the full resources and instead of fighting our tribal sovereignty which we always had and we have always had that inherent tribal sovereignty ever since, even before the contact, even before Columbus landed on this continent, we had our tribal governments intact and we took care of that. And I think this country owes us a lot and we just don't, we shouldn't be in a way fighting for every red cent to run our programs. We should have the full funding and full assistance from this very rich country."

Running the Iditarod for the health and future of his people

Mike Williams:

"Ever since the deaths of my six brothers, I decided to become proactive and take the story to the community. And of course I've been involved in the sobriety movement in Alaska for this past decade and ever since the last... My first brother died in 1973. So upon coming back from Vietnam and then right after that my brothers keep dying from accidental deaths and I keep advocating for sobriety and, ‘hey, let's prevent these from happening,' but in that process my brothers keep dying. At the end even though I was advocating I keep advocating for sobriety they keep dying. But I've been involved with the sobriety movement in Alaska and running the Iditarod and mid distance races to raise the awareness that we don't need this alcohol, we don't need these drugs and that we need to live a good life. And my message has been that once we are sober and educated we can do anything we want to do. We can protect our resources, we can protect tribal sovereignty, we can protect healthcare, we can improve healthcare programs and we can improve our education program and we can become really involved in making a healthy community for ourselves once again, as I have seen when I was growing up. So running the Iditarod has, it's a 1200-mile race through Alaska and what I've been doing is promoting sobriety movement and getting pledges over the years. And so far I have garnered over 60,000 sobriety pledges that people have said they're going to be sober for a year. And I think if 50 percent of those 60,000 pledges have succeeded then that next generation will succeed and it has a small snowball effect. And I've been trying to raise funds for advocacy programs and have been very successful in raising funding. But I have not been very successful personally in terms of raising funds to keep doing the Iditarod and I'd love to keep doing what I'm doing but I need some help. But I've raised enough funding for other programs and getting the awareness to the level that it has gone but personally I still need help to keep running that program."

The Great Tribal Leaders of Modern Times series and accompanying curricula are for the educational programs of tribes, schools and colleges. For usage authorization, to place an order or for further information, call or write Institute for Tribal Government – PA, Portland State University, P.O. Box 751, Portland, Oregon, 97207-0751. Telephone: 503-725-9000. Email: tribalgov@pdx.edu.

[Native music]

The Institute for Tribal Government is directed by a Policy Board of 23 tribal leaders,
Hon. Kathryn Harrison (Grand Ronde) leads the Great Tribal Leaders project and is assisted by former Congresswoman Elizabeth Furse, Director and Kay Reid, Oral Historian

Videotaping and Video Assistance
Chuck Hudson, Jeremy Fivecrows and John Platt of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission

Green Fire Productions

Photo Credit:
Bill Hess – Photographer, Wassila, Alaska
Mike and Maggie Williams

Great Tribal Leaders of Modern Times is also supported by the non-profit Tribal Leadership Forum, and by grants from:
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Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs
Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, Chickasaw Nation
Coeur d'Alene Tribe
Delaware Nation of Oklahoma
Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe
Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians
Jayne Fawcett, Ambassador
Mohegan Tribal Council
And other tribal governments

Support has also been received from:
Portland State University
Qwest Foundation
Pendleton Woolen Mills
The U.S. Dept. of Education
The Administration for Native Americans
Bonneville Power Administration
And the U.S. Dept. of Defense

This program is not to be reproduced without the express written permission of the Institute for Tribal Government

© 2004 The Institute for Tribal Government

A Fearless Fight Against Historical Trauma, the Yup'ik Way


They were building the young man’s coffin in the front yard when we arrived. Portable construction lights harshly illuminated the scene as men worked in the shadowy dawn that lasts almost until noon out here on the tundra. The men worked steadily and quietly in a manner that suggested front-yard coffin construction was a routine task. I soon learned that it was.

We arrived about 30 minutes earlier via a shaky nine-seat bush plane, the only way in and out of most villages here on the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta east of Bethel, Alaska. There are over 50 Yup’ik villages on this great frozen sponge of a place, where the great flat expanse of land leading to the Bering Sea is actually just permafrost and thus, constantly shifting...

Native Nations
Resource Type

Pember, Mary Annette. "A Fearless Fight Against Historical Trauma, the Yup’ik Way." Indian Country Today Media Network. March 16, 2015. Article. (https://ictnews.org/archive/a-fearless-fight-against-historical-trauma-the-yupik-way, accessed February 23, 2023)