Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Alaska Books: Fifty Miles from Tomorrow

I have not posted in over a week, but during that time I read a book dealing with a crucial turning point in recent Alaska history.  The book is Fifty miles from Tomorrow, by Willie Hensley.  For those who don't, Hensley is an Alaska Native former state legislator from Kotzebue who was instrumental in building the foundation for native political and land rights.  His book, which is a year or two old, is an excellent look at the story of his life. 

Cover of the book

Hensley was born in Kotzebue in 1941, during the territorial days.  He speaks of not knowing his biological father, and was taken away from his mother by relatives when he was still a toddler.  His uncle's family takes him in, and he spent much of his youth living a subsistence lifestyle.  His family traveled around from camp to camp, living of what the could hunted and fished.  At 15, he takes up a job with a local Kotzebue white man, who helps to send him down to a boarding school in Tennessee.  From there, he is able to attend college and returns to Kotzebue an educated man, but with no job.

Hensley as a state legislator

The real turning point for Hensley's life happens in 1966, when as graduate student at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, he takes a course on Alaska Law taught by the Chief Justice of the Alaska Supreme Court, Jay Rabinowitz.  Over writing his paper about Alaska Native Land Rights, he has an epiphany.  In the statehood act, the state of Alaska will be able to pick millions of acres of federal land to become state land.  He knows that the state will pick the spots with the best chance of natural resource development, and that Alaska Natives would be shut out if the status quo continues.  The nomadic peoples of arctic Alaska had never had a real concept of doling out parcels of land, and miners and newcomers had taken advantage of this to shut natives out. 

Jay Rabinowitz

Hensley leaves school to make Native land claims his life, writing letters to the editor, speaking with groups, and making everyone aware that the land swap must not go through without settling native claims.  Long story short, once oil is discovered on the north slope, claims must be settled before the pipeline could be built.  Ultimately, this effort by Hensley and others results in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, ANCSA, which lays the foundation for the modern Native Corporations that own the land and send out stock dividends to their native shareholders. 

Anchorage Daily News announcing the ANCSA up for Congressional Votes

All in all, this book is an excellent read, highly recommended.  A real important look at the growth of Alaska native political power and the life of an extraordinary individual.

Willie Hensley

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