Memoir chronicles life of Native leader Hensley

Man's efforts instrumental in success of Alaska land claims settlement

Posted: Thursday, January 29, 2009

William Hensley said that writing his memoir was like most things he's done in his life.

Courtesy of William Hensley
Courtesy of William Hensley

"I didn't know squat about it," he laughed.

And like everything else in his life, doing something he felt he didn't know squat about has produced some extraordinary results.

Hensley's new book, "Fifty Miles From Tomorrow," describes his early years raised by his mother's cousin on the shores of Kotzebue Sound, 29 miles north of the Arctic circle and 50 miles from the international dateline. He would go on to attend a boarding school in Tennessee and then George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

He returned to Alaska in 1966 to find that after Alaska became a state, land that Native Alaskans had lived on for thousands of years was being taken.

Determined to fight for the rights of his people, Hensley helped found the Northwest Alaska Native Association and the Alaska Federation of Natives. He became a state representative and senator.

Hensley's efforts were instrumental in the success of the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act passed in 1971, which gave Alaska Natives 44 million acres of land and about $1 billion.

"We were not politicians; we became politicians," he wrote. "We were not businessmen; we became businessmen. We were not managers; we became managers."

Hensley can now add that he was not a writer, but he has become a writer.


"It's not like I planned to write anything," Hensley said. "I never thought I could write. I began to realize along the way that even though my own experiences were kind of second nature and commonplace from my mind ... those experiences were like another planet for the generation of today."

Although he knew he had an important story to tell, Hensley also had to overcome the Inupiat taboo against tooting your own horn.

"You're not supposed to bring attention to yourself, you're supposed to be modest," Hensley said. "It works against the notion of doing a memoir. First you've got to get over that."

Hensley said he has always loved books, and as an adult has read everything he could find about Alaska, particularly Inupiat culture. And he realized that most of what he read wasn't written by the people who had experienced it.

"We were losing elders left and right from the old culture," Hensley said. "And a lot of knowledge and information and experience were leaving us without them having left a record behind. I realized it was the same in our generation. Most of the writing about the indigenous people here was written by people who weren't from here. You never really got a perspective from the other side, talking about our feelings and observations."

In the midst of his work in Washington, D.C., as manger of federal government relations for Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, Hensley wrote his memoir, finding time on weekends, evenings and airplane trips.

This was still more time to reflect than he had had when he was younger and entrenched in Alaska politics.

"It's hard to be down in the battle zone and on the mountain top at the same time," Hensley said. "You don't have time to reflect."

Hensley's memoir discusses the work he accomplished with land claims, but he sees the story as broader than simply his own life.

"This isn't meant to be a treatise on land claims," Hensley said. "In the telling of my story I began to see that it's a story that hundreds and thousands of us can relate to."

And the more he wrote, the more he realized that his story would also resonate with immigrants from all over the world who had to adapt to a new culture in the United States.

"If you come from the majority culture all you had to do was be who you are and get better as far as the majority culture was concerned," Hensley said. "We were expected to change, as immigrants are expected to change, despite that this is our own homeland."

As most writing about Natives, until recently, has been by those who sought to change them, some key aspects of Native culture were left out, Hensley said.

"I wanted to show the good things as well," Hensley said. "The difficult and wonderful life, at least in our country, we have. And the wonderful elements in our culture no one pointed out because they were too busy trying to change us."

Hensley said he admired Alaska Native writers such as Nora Dauenhauer, and hopes to be able to read more stories told from a Native Alaskan perspective.

"My own hope is that our own people will be inspired to tell their own story," he said. "They don't have to go through a third party."

A changing world

Hensley was in Washington, D.C., on a book tour the weekend before the inauguration of Barck Obama. He gave a speech at a Martin Luther King Tea in which he drew parallels between slavery in the south and the enslavement of the Aleuts by the Russians in Alaska.

But when Hensley first left Alaska in 1956 to attend a boarding school in Tennessee as a fifteen-year-old, he knew nothing about slavery at all.

"I talked about finding myself within a matter of days of having left the Arctic Circle ... finding myself in the Deep South and having never been aware of the Civil War ... and I had to figure out the nature of the system without (anyone) really telling me."

Growing up, Hensley learned nothing of Inupiaq history in the schools.

"It might as well have been as if our own people didn't have a history," he said.

Now having studied both his people's history and the nation's history in depth, Hensley has reflected deeply on the history of Alaska Natives. From this perspective, he called statehood a "mixed bag" for many Alaska Natives.

"For our own people it was sort of the beginning of the end, as far as control of our territory was concerned," he said. "We had virtually no representation in the convention. Have there been benefits since the territorial days? Of course. But many people forget that the state's success has been built on what was once Native land."

And although much of the world Hensley describes from his childhood is gone - "I was there before the outdoor motor, when the qayaq and umiaq glided silently across the water, and I was there when the candle and the Coleman lamp provided all the lamp we needed," he wrote - the core Inupiat values remain.

"Yes we've had a lot of change but the essence of the people is there," he said. "The values are still very strong."

He will be in Juneau for a presentation today at 7 p.m. at the Baranof Hotel Treadwell room and sponsored by Hearthside Books.

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