Authors Stan Jones, William Hensley in town this week

Posted: Thursday, February 25, 2010

Inupiat culture and the landscape of Kotzebue are prominently featured in the writing of two well-known Alaska authors appearing in Juneau within the next week, though each writer approaches the subjects in very different ways.

Stan Jones, well-known for his mystery series featuring Alaska State Trooper Nathan Active, arrives in town first. He will sign copies of his books from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday at Hearthside Books' Nugget Mall location.

On Tuesday, William Hensley, author of "Fifty Miles From Tomorrow," will be at the downtown store from 12 to 2 p.m. for a book signing. He also will give a reading at 7 p.m. that night at the Nugget Mall location.

Stan Jones

Jones is best-known for his mystery series, so far consisting of four books: "White Sky, Black Ice," "Shaman Pass," "Frozen Sun" and, the latest installment, "Village of the Ghost Bears," released last year.

Set in Chukchi, a fictional village that the author says is modeled on Kotzebue, "Village of the Ghost Bears" deftly balances the motivations of a cruel and greedy killer with those of a loving and loyal brother, interweaving the men's lives through the woman they both love.

The first scene of the book immerses readers into the drama very quickly: A Super Cub pilot drops a couple off at a remote camp in the foothills of the Brooks Range. The couple, hero Nathan Active and his girlfriend, soon come across a dead body with no face. Their gruesome discovery is quickly followed by the return of the Bush pilot, who has come to inform Active of an arson that has left eight locals dead.

Active, who is Inupiat but was raised by white parents, is soon embroiled in both investigations, and as he searches for connections and motivations in the killings, he is helped along by his ability to listen - in particular to a crazy-seeming man who lives in mortal terror of a man he calls "qavvik" (wolverine).

Jones' descriptions of Alaska and life in the villages have garnered Jones high praise from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune. (Visit to read reviews.)

The author, himself a former journalist and Bush pilot, was born in Anchorage. Except for part of his childhood when he lived in Tennessee, his parents' home state, Jones has spent his life in Alaska. In his late 20s, Jones moved to Kotzebue, and it was there that his imagination sparked Nathan Active's character. He eventually moved back to Anchorage, and lives there now.

Jones also has recently released a nonfiction book with Homer-based author Sharon Bushell, "The Spill: Personal Stories from the Exxon Valdez Disaster." This book commemorates the 20th anniversary of the spill by gathering first-person accounts of the tragedy and its aftermath.

William Hensley

The real-life Kotzebue lies at the heart of "Fifty Miles from Tomorrow," an autobiographical story by William Iggiagruk Hensley, a prominent advocate for Native land rights.

Hensley's story is told in two parts. The first describes his childhood growing up on Kotzebue Sound with his extended family - hunting for caribou, gathering berries, keeping warm, playing games, and learning and living by the traditions of his ancestors.

The second part is deeply informed by the first. In it, the author describes his political career and successful efforts in helping reclaim Native land from the American government in the years following Alaska statehood, a long and involved process that continues to this day. Coming after Hensley's personal descriptions of his bond with the land where he was raised and where his family lived for thousands of years, the political parts of the book take on much more weight and humanity. The author explains, in accessible language, the thoughts behind his political activities - breaking down what could be complex concepts for those unfamiliar with Native land claims issues, and making historical events very vivid.

One strong passage at the beginning of chapter 12 - which acts as the hinge of the two parts - describes how Hensley returned to Kotzebue in 1966 after graduating from George Washington University in D.C. to find that his family home, occupied for generations, had been bulldozed, the land sold for a bottle of whiskey. His adoptive mother, Naungagiaq, had taken up residence in the corner of a church, and the rest of the family had scattered.

Hensley's anger and frustration at this traumatic event is soon given voice. Later that year, while attending graduate school at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, he took a course in constitutional law with former chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court (and former Juneau resident) Jay Rabinowitz. With Rabinowitz's encouragement, Hensley composed a research paper on Native land ownership.

After writing that paper - articulating his focus after years of research - Hensley was spurred to action. He became a Democratic state representative later that year and went on to become a driving force for Native land rights.

Hensley's efforts and those of many others were rewarded when former President Nixon signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, or ANCSA, on Dec. 18, 1971. It was the largest land claims settlement in U.S. history.

In addition to fighting for Native land issues, Hensley was deeply concerned about the lack of a unified voice representing Native interests. He was involved in the creation of the Alaska Federation of Natives in 1966, and has served as its executive director, president and co-chairman. He also helped found the Northwest Alaska Native Association (NANA), and served as that group's director for 20 years.

His professional roles also have included ten years in the Alaska Legislature, chairman of the Land Claims Task Force under former Gov. Wally Hickel, commissioner of Commerce and Economic Development under former Gov. Tony Knowles, and manager of Federal Government Relations for Alyeska Pipeline Services Co.

Hensley, now an Inupiat elder, lives in Anchorage. "Fifty Miles from Tomorrow" is his first book. To read the New York Times review, visit½8/books/28garn.html.

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