- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 11, 2009


By William L. Iggiagruk Hensley

Sarah Crichton/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24, 288 pages


On one level, this strongly written and evocative book is the story of a man, his people — the Inupiat, or “the real people” — and their world and culture. On another, it’s the story of the politics of land use and energy development.

William L. Iggiagruk Hensley was born in Kotzebue, Alaska, “twenty-nine miles north of the Arctic Circle, ninety miles east of Russia, and fifty miles from the International Date Line, a place shaped by the winds and waves of the Bering Sea.”

For many of us, Alaska is a country in the mind, exerting a nearly inexplicable, magnetic pull. For Mr. Hensley, however, the relationship is organic. “Alaska is my identity, my home, and my cause. I was there … before Gore-Tek replaced muskrat and wolf skin in parkas … before the snow machine, back when the huskies howled their eagerness to pull the sled … before the outboard motor showed up … before the telephone, when we could only speak face-to-face, person-to-person about our lives and dreams; before television intruded upon the telling and retelling of family chronicles and legends.”

Mr. Hensley also came to understand the world into which he was born represented “the twilight of the stone age,” where there were few illusions about the ability of his people to succeed, or even survive, in the culture that had swallowed them, their way of life, even the land - especially the land - on which they’d lived for centuries.

Mr. Hensley attended Bureau of Indian Affairs schools in Kotzebue, was sponsored for a boarding school in Tennessee by a Baptist missionary, and graduated from George Washington University. In 1966, returning to Alaska “like a salmon heading for the waters where he was spawned,” he found the shack he had been brought up in had been razed, and the land it sat on auctioned off. This was land occupied by Alaskan natives for centuries, and Mr. Hensley, with the advice and guidance of Alaskans like Justice Jay Rabinowitz, set out to make himself an authority on land claims and aboriginal rights.

It was Mr. Hensley’s contention that Alaskan natives retained aboriginal rights to their lands, and his mission became to codify those rights, working through the Northwest Arctic Native Association, helping to found the Alaska Federation of Natives and establish the non-profit organizations that formed the basis for the regional native corporations, and winning election to the Alaska House of Representatives, where he served with Ted Stevens and Don Young.

His cause received a huge boost in 1968, when oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay and the oil companies and government officials proposed building an 800 mile pipeline, from Prudhoe to Valdez. It was Mr. Hensley’s position, however, that no pipeline could be constructed until native ownership issues involving the lands through which it would run were settled. And against all odds, Mr. Hensley and his allies won.

Mr. Hensley went on to a distinguished career, serving on a number of boards and in various capacities under successive governors of Alaska, both Democrat and Republican. But the high point of that career undoubtedly came on Dec. 18, 1971, when in a room at what is now Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, he and representatives from tribes and villages across the state assembled for a historic occasion.

“A familiar voice echoed through the room, piped in from Washington, D.C. ‘I want you to be among the first to know that I have just signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act,’” said President Nixon.”

It was the most sweeping native American land settlement in history, involving 44 million acres and nearly $1 billion to invest. And with the settlement, the way was cleared for construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

First, however, Congress had to approve it. After extended debate, the U.S. Senate voted in July 1973, 49 to 49. Vice President Spiro Agnew, as president of the Senate, cast the tie-breaking vote, and construction was authorized. Interestingly, although Mr. Hensley doesn’t mention this, among those voting against the pipeline was a young senator from Delaware, Joseph R. Biden Jr..

Writes Mr. Hensley: “Alaska’s Natives actively supported the construction of the Trans-Alaska pipeline. We knew that without it, and without the revenues that would flow from the project to the state’s coffers, Alaska could never provide the schools, housing, electricity, airports, and other facilities we so badly needed. I personally believe that if the oil companies had not been able to find, pump, transport, and sell the oil under Prudhoe Bay, Alaska might have had to rescind statehood.”

Any comment, Mr. Vice President-elect?

• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author with Linda Bridges of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement,” published by Wiley.

FIFTY MILES FROM TOMORROW: A MEMOIR OF ALASKA AND THE REAL PEOPLE By William L. Iggiagruk Hensley. Sarah Crichton/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24, 288 pages. REVIEWED BY JOHN R. COYNE JR.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide