I have yet to meet Jessica Bissett Perea in person, but I am impressed with her nonetheless. She is Dena’ina Athabascan and Scottish American and is a San Francisco-based musician, educator, and scholar. Jessica grew up on southcentral Alaska and resides in California with her husband and daughter. She holds multiple degrees including a PhD in Musicology and a post-doctorate in Music (Ethnomusicology). I reached out to her so I could learn more about her.
While studying for her Ph.D. at the University of California, Los Angeles, Jessica was one of the only Alaska Natives Ph.D. candidate. She began to wonder how many Alaska Natives had earned their Ph.D.’s. Jessica asked around and found out University of Alaska Fairbanks Professors Ray Barnhardt and Oscar Kawagley (Yup’ik) had an initial list of 20 Alaska Native Ph.D. holders.
Jessica turned her curiosity into a research paper entitled, A Tribalography of Alaska Native Presence in Academia. During her research she discovered up to 57 had earned their Ph.D.’s. In 2013, Jessica’s paper was published in the American Indian Culture and Research Journal. Since 2013, Alberta Jones of Sitka has discovered over 70 Alaska Native Ph.D. holders. The list is an inspiration for many aspiring Alaska Native Ph.D. candidates and creates a sense of community. Jessica is glad to see an explosion in Alaska Native faculty and Ph.D. holders in the past five years.
Read A Tribalography of Alaska Native Presence in Academia by Jessica Bissett Perea: http://jbperea.faculty.ucdavis.edu/research/.
Here is a link to the most recent list of Alaska Native Ph.D. holders: http://ankn.uaf.edu/Resources/file.php/20/AN_PhD_List_Aug_2015.pdf
Jessica recommends that people not be afraid to reach out to Alaska Native advanced degree holders to ask for advice. Look at the list and call people to ask for advice. Jessica says, “They know the struggles and are more than willing to answer questions.” There are more and more degree holders in a variety of fields. She also recommends reaching out to organizations like the CIRI Foundation for advice and for help in making connections with other degree holders.
When Jessica was earning her doctorate she found that some people had negative perceptions about Indigenous people. She questioned whether the field of music was for her because it was not very diverse. What may have been perceived as an obstacle was what drove Jessica to keep going. She says, “You can always learn valuable lessons from negative situations. Most importantly, you find out first hand what needs to change, for example, in higher education in order to make it a more positive experience for those that come after you.”
Hallie Bissett, Jessica’s sister, earned her MBA. Jessica is proud of her sister and glad to see more Alaska Native people earning. Jessica says, “Hallie has always been one of my heroes; she just takes life by the horns and goes with it; and she is a true warrior on my mind.” She believes in highlighting and celebrating Alaska Natives who have earned degrees to show others that is a path that is available and accessible to them.
“Education is one of many paths. Earning advanced degrees not only does the pragmatic thing of setting you up for a higher paying job – those pieces of paper open doors that are unexpected. A lot of positive things can happen if you just put yourself out there.”
– Jessica Bissett Perea, Dena’ina Athabascan
Being so far away home, I wondered how Jessica stays connected to her culture and how she carries them on with her daughter. She draws strength from knowing where she comes from and visiting with her Alaska-based family and friends whenever possible. Jessica says, “Tradition is what you make it.” She and her husband expose their daughter to as much of the inter-tribal culture as they can. Her husband, John-Carlos Perea, is a also a professional musician and academic.
Jessica seeks out other Alaska Native people in the Bay area. When she first moved to San Francisco in 2009, she met and befriended Dr. Betty Parent (Athabascan), the first Alaska Native woman to earn a PhD and one of founding faculty of the American Indian Studies Department at San Francisco State University in the late 1960s. Jessica also enjoys regular opportunities to collaborate with Dr. Shari Huhndorf (Yup’ik), who was recently recruited to UC Berkeley and now chairs the university’s Ethnic Studies Department.
“There is a rich history and long lineage of Alaska Native men and women living and working outside of our state, and I can’t overemphasize how critical and important it is that we represent ourselves by teaching others in the ‘lower 48’ about the diversity of Alaska Native histories and cultures.” – Jessica Bissett Perea, Dena’ina Athabascan
As you can see, Jessica is an inspiration and is always willing to support students. As my daughter considers her future after high school, I’m glad there are people like Jessica to look up to. If she can do it, so can others. Jessica has opened a door through hard work and is not afraid to hold it open for other Alaska Native and indigenous people. Thank you Jessica!
More About Jessica Bissett Perea
B.M., Music Education – Central Washington University
M.A., Music (Musicology) – University of Nevada, Reno
Ph.D., Musicology – University of California, Los Angeles
Postdoc, Music (Ethnomusicology) – University of California, Berkeley
Jessica Bissett Perea (Dena’ina/Scottish American) is a San Francisco-based musician, educator, and scholar. She studied double bass and vocal performance, music education, and history at Central Washington University before pursing an MA in Music at the University of Nevada, Reno. She completed her Ph.D. in Musicology at the University of California, Los Angeles and was awarded a Postdoctoral Fellowship in Music (Ethnomusicology) at UC Berkeley. She currently works as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Native American Studies at the University of California, Davis.
Jessica’s research has been supported by the Hellman Fellows Program, the UC Institute for Research in the Arts, the UC Center for New Racial Studies, the UC Davis Humanities Institute, the UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, and more. Her research and teaching focus on music, sound and media studies; Indigenous aesthetics and philosophies; Alaska Native and Circumpolar Inuit cultures, histories, and politics; intertribal and intercultural alliances and cultural production; ethnohistories of popular, folk, jazz and improvisational performance cultures; critical race and gender studies; research methodologies and critical pedagogy. Her work has been published in journals including American Indian Culture and Research Journal, MUSICultures (formerly the Canadian Journal for Traditional Music / La Revue de Musique Folklorique Canadienne), Yearbook for Traditional Music, Journal of the Society for American Music, Grove Dictionary of American Music (2nd edition), and an edited volume Jazz/Not Jazz: The Music and Its Boundaries (University of California Press).
Jessica was born in Anchorage, Alaska and raised forty miles north in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. She is an enrolled member of the Knik Tribe and a shareholder in Cook Inlet Region, Inc. (an Alaska Native Corporation). Her innovative research, teaching, and dedication to community outreach were recognized with a 2010 Alaska Native Visionary Award, presented by the Alaska Native Heritage Month committee and board of directors, and a 2015 UC Davis Native American Community Honoring, presented by the Native American Culture Days and Powwow Committees.