CIRI Spotlight: Maria Williams, Ph.D.

CIRI shareholder Maria Williams teaches ethnomusicology, often with a focus on Alaska Native indigenous music and dance. She has spent a large part of her adult life teaching and living in New Mexico and California. Her passion is education, which has brought her to her new career post as director of the Alaska Native Studies Program at the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA), where she will teach and provide departmental leadership.

Williams returns to Alaska from the University of New Mexico, where she taught as a professor. Drawing on a long career in education, Williams, who holds a doctorate in music from UCLA, is inspired by her students and is excited to begin making an impact in Alaska. Williams hopes to expand the Alaska Native Studies Program to include bachelor and master’s degree offerings, a wider range of classes and strengthened and diversified language courses. She also hopes to reach out to other communities, organizations and educational establishments to build partnerships and, ultimately, positively impact education in Alaska.

“I am motivated by indigenous youth and young people. Once, during the first class of an Introduction to Native American Studies class I was teaching, I asked the students who knew what happened during the 1960s,” said Williams. “I looked around and saw wide-eyed wonder and realized that these students were so young, and because of what happened during the 1960s, these students were now sitting in a class that otherwise would not have been. They are my inspiration.”

She was raised in east Anchorage, where she cultivated her love of music while playing piano, violin and viola. She later played in the Anchorage Symphony and is currently active in the Athabascan Fiddling Festival. Williams, who is Tlingit, is the daughter of the late Bill Williams, a CIRI shareholder, and the late Marilyn Williams and is sister to four siblings. She loves the peacefulness and relative quiet that Alaska has to offer and is glad to be home.

Williams did not anticipate entering a career in academia, but after earning a bachelor’s degree in music and teaching music for several years, she yearned for more intellectual challenges. She found what she was looking for in ethnomusicology, an academic discipline that studies music and dance in multicultural contexts. She earned her Ph.D. in Music with a focus on Ethnomusicology in 1996 from UCLA.

Her primary area of research is the current renaissance of Alaska Native music and culture, though she is also passionate about filmmaking. She taught indigenous filmmaking courses at the University of New Mexico’s College of Fine Arts, where she proudly trained two students who eventually surpassed her skill-level and went on to become professional filmmakers. She hopes to eventually implement indigenous filmmaking courses at UAA.

Williams is the editor of the anthology Alaska Native Reader: History, Culture, Politics. The book is a collection of essays and other literature by writers, historians, educators, politicians and many others that gives perspectives on the neocolonial experience of Alaska’s Native peoples. It was published in 2009 and is becoming a staple in many Alaska Native studies courses.

Williams’ hobbies include yoga and running, but her work is her passion. Stay tuned and learn more about the Alaska Native Studies Program at