Willie Hensley is one of the key figures in the long push for the rights of Alaska Natives. It’s an effort dating back to the Russian era, one that grew in strength after the United States purchased Alaska without consulting the original inhabitants. The struggle grew dire when the gold rush brought thousands of Americans and Europeans stampeding north, stomping over and laying claim to lands Alaska Natives had depended on for countless generations. Lands that provided game meat and fish for survival, and a home to build their identities from.
The trauma was exacerbated by the practice of sending Native children to boarding schools where the government strove to replace their Native identities with white cultural values. But armed with that education, which introduced them to American governance, Alaska Natives fought back. Not on the battlefield, but in the courtroom, the legislature, and Congress.
Hensley might have seemed an unlikely candidate for greatness when he first stepped into these battles. But in his memoir Fifty Miles from Tomorrow, he shows how it happened. Born in 1941, 29 miles north of the Arctic Circle on the shores of Kotzebue Sound, Hensley’s earliest days were spent financially impoverished, but with a wealth of family and cultural connections. He was educated outside the state, where he was exposed to the civil rights campaigns of the 1960s and quickly saw the connection to his own people’s struggles.
Hensley’s political awakening came when the region of his birth was slated for the creation of an artificial harbor through the “peaceful” use of atomic bombs. One of the maddest schemes of the Cold War, that plan helped launch a drive to secure land and rights for Alaska Natives that Hensley was central to.
That drive culminated with the 1971 passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA), which ceded 44 million acres of land to Alaska Natives, awarded almost one billion dollars in financial compensation for seized lands, and established the network of regional and village Native corporations that remains in place today.
Timing was fortuitous. The plan to construct the trans-Alaska pipeline was stalled as land claims against it were filed by Alaska Natives who had learned in white-run schools how to navigate the American political and legal systems. They forced Congress to act.
Hensley told me that in writing the book, “I wanted the reader to feel and experience what it was like to live in our Inupiat world and to see the impact of changes over which we had little control. I wanted to portray the joy and the loss and the hopes we had for ourselves in our desire to control as much of our traditional lands as possible but to maintain our sense of identity and to continue the values that had sustained us for millennia.”
Hensley writes of his childhood spent with one foot in traditional ways and the other in the white world, illustrated by many personal anecdotes. There is much to be learned here of a lifestyle now lost, and of how Alaska Natives adapted to their new reality. There are also moments filled with the simple joy of life. We follow Hensley into young adulthood as he cofounded the Alaska Federation of Natives, rose to prominence as a leader, fought to push ANCSA through Congress, went on to his own legislative and business careers, and much more.
If journalism is the first draft of history, memoirs are often the second. Fifty Miles from Tomorrow is an essential work for understanding Alaska, written by a man whose life encompasses much of Alaska’s story.
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