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Mike Williams Sr. recognized by state University for his advocacy in the region with honorary doctorate

David Dodman
Mike Williams Sr. finishes the 2013 Iditarod in Nome, Alaska. In 2013, he was awarded the Mushers' Choice Award.

This Friday, April 29, Mike Williams Sr. will receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Williams Sr. is one of three honorees the University recognized for their work as educators in 2022.

For almost 50 years, the Akiak Tribal Chief has been an advocate for sober living. After losing six of his brothers to suicide and alcohol-related deaths, Williams Sr. began working with the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation to set up its behavioral health department to help communities battle substance abuse.

Williams Sr. has promoted sober living through many initiatives, and perhaps the most popular is his campaign for sobriety through mushing. Over his career as a competitive musher, Williams ran 15 Iditarod Sled Dog Races and 29 Kuskokwim 300s with the message to other Alaskans that the tradition of mushing is a healthy, holistic alternative to drugs or alcohol. The Iditarod has named Williams Sr. the race’s Most Inspirational Musher three times for promoting his message of sobriety on the trail. But for Williams Sr., recognition is not as important as making a difference in his community.

"I'm really trying hard to be an example that we can live substance abuse free [lives], being healthy physically, mentally, socially, and spiritually," said Williams Sr.

Williams is also an advocate for Indigenous culture and language, serving as a board member for the Yupiit School District and the Alaska State Board of Education.

Williams Sr. said that his greatest achievement there has been implementing Indigenous education and language immersion programs. "It was one of one of those little wins that we had to incorporate: respecting our Indigenous cultures at the state level. Providing adequate, culturally relevant education to our children."

This year’s honorary degree recipients will be recognized April 29 at 5 p.m. in the Charles Davis Concert Hall. The ceremony is also a chance to honor Williams Sr. for his almost five decades of work to promote healthy lifestyles rooted in Indigenous knowledge and language in Alaska, something he expects to continue.

"It's an honor to be recognized like this," Williams Sr. said of the honor. "And I know I'm a little embarrassed at times, but it's something that I accepted graciously and enthusiastically, and I'm going to enjoy it for the rest of my life."