Alaska Native/Indigenous People

James Roberts – Yukon Man

James Roberts. Photo courtesy of Yukon Men Show
James Roberts. Photo courtesy of Yukon Men Show

James Roberts (Athabascan) of Tanana is on the cast of the Yukon Men television show. I caught up with James recently to ask him about what it is like to be a part of the show and to find out more about him. James and his wife, Cindy, live in Tanana with their children.

James just finished wrapping up the fifth season of Yukon Men. He has gained a new appreciation for what goes on behind the scenes of TV shows and movies. James says, “I’m always trying to figure out camera angles and lenses.” It has been exciting for him to participate on the show and has gained a better understanding of how they make it. Continue reading “James Roberts – Yukon Man”

Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Jessica Bissett Perea – Athabascan PhD

Jessica Bissett Perea. Courtesy photo
Jessica Bissett Perea. Courtesy photo

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:

Here is a link to the most recent list of Alaska Native Ph.D. holders:

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 and Jessica in the 1980s. Courtesy photo
Hallie and Jessica in the 1980s. Courtesy photo

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

Jessica and her husband, John-Carlos Perea (Mescalero Apache). Their daughter, Josephine is at right. Courtesy photos
Jessica and her husband, John-Carlos Perea (Mescalero Apache) John is a also a professional musician and academic: Their daughter, Josephine is at right. Courtesy photos

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 at her 2011 commencement. Her beaded stole was made by her mother-in-law, Barbara Perea, and was also worn by her father-in-law, Jacob Perea, and husband, John-Carlos at their PhD graduations. Courtesy photo
Jessica Bissett Perea at her 2011 commencement. Her beaded stole was made by her mother-in-law, Barbara Perea, and was also worn by her father-in-law, Jacob Perea, and husband, John-Carlos at their PhD graduations. Courtesy photo

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.

Jessica Bissett Parea's "Native American Music and Dance" students with hand drums they made in a workshop with Maggie Steele. Courtesy photo
Jessica Bissett Parea’s “Native American Music and Dance” students with hand drums they made in a workshop with Maggie Steele. Courtesy photo


Alaska Native culture, Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Reflections from Amy Modig

Amy Modig shared some thoughts this morning with her friends and family. I enjoy reading thought-provoking stories. She allowed me to share her story with Athabascan Woman Blog readers. Amy is Deg Hit’an Athabascan originally from Shageluk and Holikachuk.  

Friends and Family,

I’ve been thinking a lot about racism and exclusion. No matter how far I’ve gone and the fun and interesting things I’ve done, there has always been an awareness of where I came from.

Amy Modig and brothers, Billy and Ralph. Courtesy photo
Amy Modig and brothers, Billy and Ralph. Courtesy photo

In this picture, my two brothers – Billy on the left and Ralph on the right – and I stand in front of our house here in Anchorage. I was 4 or 5 when we came here. One time I sat in a grand ballroom at the Omni Sheraton in Washington, DC. I suddenly remembered being a hungry and grubby little Indian girl and I remember thinking with wonder, what am I doing here?

I don’t take things for granted. I am always amazed and surprised at the beauty that surrounds us, not only naturally, but in the buildings, the rooms, the cars, the roads. In Tanacross, my dad taught us the history of the mountains, the river, the creeks and the 100s of years of stories that commemorated the whole land there.

Not nearly so deeply, I’ve learned about many other parts of Alaska. And I am trying to build compassion for the racists and see it as a declaration of feeling disconnected, alone and afraid. Not because I want to be so good, but so I can escape the rage and pain that storms inside me when I hear of yet another mine being built, another fight to reopen ANWR, another favorite stand of trees being leveled for a new building, another half a million people dying from tobacco, another shooting, another homeless child.

Each new story of erosion and climate change, makes it very clear that we need to learn to cooperate and look for ways to protect each other. All of our children need to learn to survive and to be friends, regardless of race, education and wealth. They will need to live in peace to survive.

Blessings on this lovely fall day,

Thank you Amy Modig for sharing your story!

Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Teisha Simmons – Strong Athabascan Woman

Teisha Simmons. Courtesy photo
Teisha Simmons. Courtesy photo

A friend and someone I admire greatly shared a story and advice yesterday on Facebook. She graciously allowed me to share her story with Athabascan Woman Blog readers. Teisha Simmons is one of the most inspirational people I know. She has a love and passion for helping Alaska Native people. Teisha is Athabascan from Galena with family from around interior Alaska.

Teisha’s Story
Twenty-three years ago at this moment, I was walking around on my own two legs thinking that my problems were so huge. Socially, I had dug myself a hole and my list of enemies was far longer than my list of friends. Although, I must say that the small group of friends that I did have was comprised of some amazing young ladies who are now absolutely amazing women (Tiffany Simmons, Leah Youngblood, Shannon Kash, Shelly Block, Martha Turner, Charlisa Attla and Mariah Pitka).

Academically, I was getting ready to move to Anchorage to try to successfully complete my sophomore year after changing schools five times during my freshman year. I thought my problems were so big… Most girls my age we’re really mean to me in public. Many family members turned against me and judged me for all of the stupid and shameful things I was doing.

I was moving to a big city where I didn’t know anyone and things just looked pretty bleak. At 9:30 p.m. tonight, it will be exactly 23 years since God put me in a completely different direction. By the end of the day, I would be paralyzed from the shoulders down and would enter into a few dark years of depression and anxiety.

After a lot of love, support, forgiveness, mentoring and cheerleading from family, friends and even past enemies, here I am today living an amazingly beautiful life and I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything.

Teisha (in center) is pictured with her late Jennie Huntington (at left), her daughter, Tassy, and her mother, Marie Simmons. Courtesy photo
Teisha (in center) is pictured with her late Jennie Huntington (at left), her daughter, Tassy, and her mother, Marie Simmons. Courtesy photo

Is being in a wheelchair easy? Absolutely not. One of the things I miss the most is being able to jump out of bed, take a five minute shower and brush my teeth in 60 seconds allowing me to be at my destination in 30 minutes if I ate breakfast on the go. Now, it takes me anywhere from 2 to 4 hours to get ready for work. But, you know what? I get to get ready for work. I have the privilege to wake up each morning and decide how I’m going to face the day.

Am I going to wake up and complain about how long it takes me to get ready? Am I going to complain about the pain I feel in my neck and shoulder muscles from sitting in a wheelchair for 23 years? Am I going to complain that I can’t go out camping with my family for a week at a time? No, instead I’m going to embrace the fact that I was blessed with the opportunity to grab life by the horns and to be grateful for the people who never let me give up, but in fact propelled me to be far more successful than I would have been walking around on my two legs.

If anyone can take any lessons from my life, I hope that at the very least you will take these:

  1. Reevaluate what you complain about and what your problems are. After realizing that I would never walk again, all of the social drama I was surrounded by or the academic failures I had experienced really seemed very small. Prior to 23 years ago, I had the choice to change my behaviors and create whatever type of life I wanted to. All I would have needed to do was make new choices. All of us have that power. Every decision we make every single minute of every single day affects what we experience. Don’t sit around complaining, when you can easily make some changes and experience something completely different.
  2. Grab life by the horns and do what you want with it. If I can do all of the things I’ve done since my injury, just think of all that you can do if you can do it 10 times faster than me. It takes me about 15 minutes to brush my teeth each morning, 25 minutes just to wash my hair, 20 minutes to get dressed, 5 minutes to get into my chair. Just think how fast you can get out of bed and get on your feet. Just doing that alone, you are 4 minutes and 55 seconds ahead of me. What good can you do for yourself or the world with that extra four minutes and 55 seconds that you have?
  3. Believe that the impossible is completely possible. Trust me on this one. When I woke up in the intensive care unit, God himself could have told me that one day I would be the mother of a beautiful little girl, I would have an amazing job and I would have a home with a washer and dryer (hey, after 23 years of doing laundry at the laundromat, a washer and dryer is a dream come true for a village girl 🙂 ) and I wouldn’t have believed Him.
  4. Learn to love yourself and take care of yourself. If you don’t love yourself enough to take care of yourself and respect yourself, you are only going to attract the same type of people to surround you. It wasn’t until I accepted myself and was confident in myself as a woman with a disability that my life truly came together. If you don’t know how you can take better care of yourself in effort to love yourself truly, just ask a few of the people who love you the most and whom you trust. Those people can see the things that we choose to overlook and hide behind. But remember, these aren’t things that we want to hear about ourselves. If you truly want to grow, step outside your comfort zone and be willing to hear those things.

I heard a great saying a few weeks ago. “A smart man learns from his mistakes. A wise man learns from another man’s mistakes.” Learn from my mistakes…reevaluate your complaints and choices and create the life you would absolutely love to have.

Teisha Simmons and her daughter, Tassy. Courtesy photo
Teisha Simmons and her daughter, Tassy. Courtesy photo

Enaa basee’ Teisha for sharing your story and for inspiring us to look within themselves and to look at what they have to be grateful. I appreciate her candid advice and wishes for people.

About Teisha Simmons
Teisha Simmons has been the Director of the Interior Alaska Campus since 2012. Simmons graduated from the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) with a B.A. in Psychology in 2000 and a M.A. in Clinical-Community Psychology in 2003. She began her career at UAF in 2004 serving as the project coordinator for the Alaska Natives into Psychology Project, then served as the program manager and a faculty member of the Rural Human Services Program. Simmons enjoys traveling, working on Athabascan language revitalization efforts and reading. Most importantly, she enjoys being a mother to her 10 year old daughter Tassy.

Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Crystal Worl – Alaska Native Artist and Aerial Dancer

Crystal Worl. Photo by Dakota Mace
Crystal Worl. Photo by Dakota Mace

Crystal Worl is Tlingit Athabascan from Raven moiety, Sockeye Clan, from the Raven House. She is a child of a Thunderbird and from the Chilkat region in Southeast Alaska. From her mother’s side, Crystal is Deg Hit’an Athabascan from Fairbanks. Raised between Fairbanks and Juneau, she was introduced at a young age to her traditional arts, dance and storytelling. After earning her bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in 2013, Crystal began intensively studying aerial dance and circus arts across New Mexico, California and Seattle.

Crystal currently lives in Juneau working as an artist and aerial dancer. She works on art full-time and helps her brother run Trickster and works. Trickster Co is a contemporary Native arts and gift design shop. They commission artists for designs, but the majority of the artwork is done by her and her brother, Rico Worl. Crystal does graphics art for the company. She also makes fine art, and sells that on her own. Crystal has a booth at the Sante Fe Indian Art Market in August. She has upcoming shows in Anchorage and Juneau this year.

Crystal Worl performing an aerial dance. Photo by Terrence Clifford
Crystal Worl performing an aerial dance. Photo by Terrence Clifford

Crystal began her tour performing around Alaska as a professional aerialist. I got a chance to catch up with her in June to find out more about her work as an artist and aerial dancer. I missed an opportunity to watch her perform as an aerial dancer in Nome, and really wanted to find out more about it.

Crystal says, “Aerial dancing keeps me in tune with my body; enables me to better focus on are; it helps me to sit down.” You have to really be in shape and keep up your flexibility, so you have to work hard to keep in shape and practice aerial dancing. Because she works full-time and more on art, she finds it difficult to go to the gym. Training as aerial dancer gives her a great workout.

“Being a full-time artist is not an eight to five job. It’s a 24 hour job. Even when I’m resting, my hands are working. Everything I do goes hand in hand with my heart.” – Crystal Worl

I fell in love with earrings by Crystal Worl. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
I fell in love with earrings by Crystal Worl. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Crystal finds inspiration from traditional Alaska Native living and incorporates them into her work. She and her family pick berries each summer. Crystal uses blueberries to dye her earrings. I have a pair of her earrings. She is also making fish skin hide to incorporate into her artwork. Crystal says, “A lot of my art is about harvesting materials and using them in my artwork.”

Artwork and aerial dancing are a huge commitment and challenge, but Crystal loves what she does for a living. As much time as she spends on her artwork and dancing, she has to dedicate time to marketing herself as a business person, public speaker. Crystal finds herself doing a lot of writing and promotion for herself and her businesses. She recently submitted a grant for a kiln which will allow her to work with glass and all kinds of materials. When she was at Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA), she enjoyed working with a kiln.

Earrings with a Tlingit fish design. Photo courtesy of Crystal Worl
Earrings with a Tlingit fish design. Photo courtesy of Crystal Worl

Crystal talked about the process of making art. She loves discussing process with other artists and exchanging knowledge. Every artist has their own way of doing things. Crystal says, “Process is forever evolving. It’s the signature in your work. You are not just buying a piece of artwork, you are buying a part of the artist – it’s a whole history and knowledge – who has put time and research into a part of them.”

Through trial and error, Crystal has found a way to process blueberries to be used as dye. She wonders how her ancestors processed and tanned fish skins. She figures they probably spent years to come up with the process and pass it down to the next generation.

Crystal’s Advice for Aspiring Artists and Aerialists:

  • Just do it! Don’t wait for the right time. The right time will never come. It’s a scary thing to do – to do it and to say it. People think that we have a luxury – working. I’m married to my career as an artist.
  • Everyone can do it. It’s a matter of self-motivation. I have a friend in her seventies, and even she can do it. It’s in your own mentality.

Crystal saw a girl aerial dancing and fell in love with it. She wasn’t strong enough physically or had no idea how to do it, but she decided that it was something she wanted to pursue. Crystal says, “Dancing is my oxygen. I need it to grieve, feel good, and be in tune spiritually and mentally.” When she started, she was only able to do one pull-up and she used to be afraid of heights. Crystal trains by running, stretching and conditioning her body every day.

Because there is no aerial studio in Anchorage and Juneau, Crystal has had to create her own. A 20-30 foot ceiling with a steel beam is needed for aerial dancing performances. Although it is a challenge to find a creative space, Crystal is determined to make the time and pull it together to be able to practice the art of aerial dancing. Her brother told her that she would have to pick art or aerial dancing. Crystal said, “No, I’ll figure out.” Her dream is to have an artist and aerial studio in one.

“As an aerialist, dancer, storyteller, and an artist, I use my hands to create lines and form. I am constantly searching for the links between my aerial dance and my art. When climbing the silks I practice various types of wraps and drops that has parallels to weaving. The silks are the warp and my body the weft, when intertwined my body and the silks create a weaving that unravels.” – Crystal Worl

Crystal performs an aerial dance in the forest. Photo courtesy of Cyrstal Worl
Crystal performs an aerial dance in the forest. Photo courtesy of Crystal Worl

Crystal credits her family for being a huge part of her success. Her parents always encouraged her to do her best. Her siblings have taken a big part in her success and are her best friends. She says, “We help each other a lot because we study Tlingit design.” Rico and Crystal complement each other. She doesn’t have time to learn everything I want to learn. Her earring designs require engraving, which her brother is really good at. She is good at kiln cast work, and she help cast his designs. It’s an exchange of art process and business.

Crystal’s dad and step-mom started a business selling the manufactured products on a large-scale. There are operating in Alaska and selling Alaska Native designs.

Crystal’s mom, Beverly, has always encourage her and allow her to do art all of the time. She says, “She’s always been my biggest fan of my art. She’s also learning to tan fish skin with me – learning culture, work with animals, harvesting and using animals, utilizing the land.” Relating to land and animals influences her on how she does her art.

Learn more about Crystal Worl’s fine art on her website. To see her artwork and aerial dancing, you can request to follow her on Instagram (@crystalworl).

As you can see, Crystal is a talented artist and aerial dancer. It takes a tremendous amount of bravery and smarts to work as a full-time artist and to be an aerial dancer. I admire her determination and tenacity to take on both.