RecoveryMag has been fortunate enough to interview the professional Iditarod musher and author of Racing Toward Recovery Mike Williams Sr. about his struggle with alcoholism, what the Inuit community in Alaska faces and how he is working to stop alcoholism and drug abuse around the world.
Directly from his latest book:
For the first time, Alaska musher and tribal leader Mike Williams shares his remarkable life story with veteran sports writer Lew Freedman. Williams is a man of many parts, a sports figure, a government figure, a leader of his people, a husband, a father, and a Native man with one foot firmly planted in the twenty-first century and another firmly planted in the roots of a culture that dates back 10,000 years in Alaska. Williams competed in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race fifteen times, and was once the only Yup’ik Eskimo musher, a symbol to all Natives around the state. Although he was never a top contender for the Iditarod title, he was a competitor whom everyone cheered because he resolved that to shed light on one of Alaska’s greatest threats to the health and future of its Native people, he would carry in his dog sled pages—pounds worth—of signatures of people who had pledged sobriety. A Yup’ik Eskimo, Williams saw firsthand how alcohol could devastate people as surely as if they had contracted a deadly flu: each of his brothers had succumbed to alcohol-related accidents, incidents, or illnesses. Williams describes how he recovered from his dependence on alcohol through religion, loved ones, and racing dogs. For many years Williams carried those sobriety pledges in his sled, focusing attention on a troubling, seemingly intractable problem. Williams gained national attention, being profiled by CNN, Sports Illustrated, and Good Morning America. Fellow Iditarod competitors have voted him “the most inspirational musher.
RecoveryMag: For those not familiar, what is a musher?
Mike: We have been mushing for 1000s of years for hunting, fishing and transportation between camps and village to village. Dogs have always been used for running around as well as for saving lives when planes can’t fly in bad weather.
RecoveryMag: How has alcoholism affected your life?
Mike: I struggled myself an am now an advocate for sobriety. Alcoholism is killing many Inuits. This is why I started Mushing for Recovery in 1992.
RecoveryMag: How has alcoholism devestated the Yup’ik community?
Mike: We have the largest percentage of alcohol consumption in Alaska as well as the nation. Alcohol was used to destroy our communities. We also have the highest rates of suicide, domestic violence and sexual assault due to alcohol abuse in this area and Alaska as a whole. It has been an epidemic. Statistics started in the early 1990s and have seemed to have gotten worse for Alaska Natives and the whole of Alaska as well.
RecoveryMag: What do you see as solutions?
Mike: Assimilation and culturalization has succeeded in itself, getting back into our own culture, language and identities and get back what we have lost and deal with land & jurisdiction and hunting and fishing rights back. Our people are the highest regulated people in the world. More local control, self-reliance and self-determination will be a huge impact on combating alcoholism. I have hope for the future – there is light at the end of the tunnel, but the road is long. We need to establish a higher quality of life, we’re all in it together – not just the natives, it will take everybody in Alaska and other communities as well. It can be done.
RecoveryMag: Let’s talk about the Iditarod. DId the support from fans of the Iditarod surprise you?
Mike: It has been wonderful to get support from the mushing community. I have lost all six of my brothers and I have gotten great support. There have been skeptics, but there is overwhelming support.
RecoveryMag: What positives have your efforts had?
Mike: I have been invited to schools and prisons to speak to folks about the alcoholism issue and about the Iditarod dog race. People are very interested in the race.
RecoveryMag: Do you hope that your book can help raise more awareness about your campaign?
Mike: It is an interesting story, it is sad but will probably open some eyes and remove the denial that many people have about alcoholism in the community. We need to find a meaningful purpose in life and appreciate life in general.
RecoveryMag: Do you see your work going wider, to raise more awareness for the whole of Alaska?
Mike: Yes, and everywhere else; America and worldwide.
RecoveryMag: What other threats to Alaska are you campaigning for?
Mike: Attempting to lower the incarceration rate for Native Americans. It is very intertwined in our way of life that I am campaigning for. I am also campaigning against the recreational use of marijuana. I also provide mental health services and in my experience I have seen marijuana addiction have detrimental effects on our communities the same way alcohol addiction has.
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