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Alaska Native policy advocate talks teaching, boarding schools

A long-time advocate for Alaska Native policies Willie Hensley is returning to the classroom this fall. He will teach a course this fall called "Alaska Policy Frontiers" at the University of Alaska Anchorage campus.

I'm Tripp Crouse, and joining me in the studio is Willie Hensley. Would you like to introduce yourself?

Willie Hensley: Good morning. My Inupiaq name is Iġġiaġruk, I was named for my grandfather. The meaning actually happens to be "like a small mountain," otherwise they call me Willie, Willie Hensley. 

Tripp Crouse: And this semester you are sort of reprising a graduate class that you've taught before. 

Hensley: Yes, actually this is my seventh year and I've been very pleased to be at the University of Alaska and it's been a challenge for me, but I think it's been interesting for the students. 

Crouse: Can you give me a little bit of a walk through about what you plan to teach these young minds?

Hensley: Well, actually, some of them aren't so young (laughs) and as it turns out many of us Alaskans have not known too much about our own space. It's only been recent years that we've been required to teach anything about Alaska studies or Alaska history, so it was a handicap for many of us especially during the years that we were trying to convince Congress to give us our land back. But this course is actually in business and public policy and it covers a lot of territory. So it's a combination of history, both the Russian history and the early American history it's about economics; it's about colonization; it's about indigenous impacts; and then we cover modern-day issues like mining, energy state fiscal policy, boarding schools, CDQ (community development quota) fisheries. So it covers a lot of territory. 

Crouse: How do you sort of narrow everything down so people don't get lost? 

Henlsey: Everybody wonders why don't we diversify the economy, well there are some -- factors that we should know about that sort of inhibit that. We get into some of those factors. We cover the fur trade, because that was the driver in the Russian era. And we get into whaling to some extent. We talk a little bit about the reindeer industry which became very big in western and northern Alaska. Of course, we also get into mining and energy. And so I've had very good reactions from my students and I think they get -- what it is its an effort to both give a sort of a nationalistic perspective on colonization, but it's also an effort to try to look at it from the indigenous standpoint. I think that’s a little unusual. 

Crouse: Alaska itself is in kind of a unique situation, in that for a long time it wasn't considered part of Indian Country because of the territory days and the statehood. So, the Alaska Natives had to figure something out as far as the land goes, as far as who owns the land, and ANCSA was a big part of that, do you want to talk about that a little bit. 

Hensley: Actually we start up this Friday, at 4 p.m. and the way I teach the course, it's on weekends, so it's great for working people and it also meets the Alaska History requirement for teachers. so the very first session, this is not a land claims course per se, but we cover the subject matter because it is important. But we also cover the legal-political perspective from the Tsarist times and then all of a sudden of course in 1867 things changed, and so we get into sort of the legal evolution of citizenship and the treaty-making, and the consequence of our uncertainty over who owned Alaska that we had to get resolved by legislation. 

Crouse: Can you talk a little bit about being a part of that process?

Henlsey: Oh my gosh, I was just a youngster really. Like most of us we never really had a chance to learn anything about history, Alaska Native history, Alaska history, our legal status, and so I went all the way through the university, I graduated from George Washington, and then I took a graduate course that literally changed my life because I was required to do a research paper. And I did it on essentially the question of who owned Alaska, so it gave me a chance to go back and look at the treaty-making era, the constitution, that recognized those treaties as contracts. I had a chance to look at the Treaty of Cession and what did it say in terms of the arrangement between the united states and the Russians and the status of indigenous people, then I looked at other laws like the (First) Organic Act of 1884, the Allotment Act of 1887 and on down to the Statehood Act, and in the end I came to the conclusion that we still had rights that had not been extinguished, that only Congress could do that. And so that's what got me motivated and active as a young 20-something and helped form the AFN (Alaska Federation of Natives) and of course helped lobby the legislation. It was an effort that took lots of people from many parts of Alaska, but it was really transformational legislation, as far as Alaska's concerned. 

Crouse: And now 50 years later, or a little over 50 years, you're teaching a course in which you're basically taken the things you've learned during that course and sort of applying to help other people learn that some of process. 

Henlsey: Yes, yes, of course, we all live and learn. And those early days, of course, many of us were too young to have experienced very much and we didn't have much depth of understanding of human nature or politics or of corporate life, but in the meantime many of us have evolved and gotten involved and have experiences, and I think those kind of experiences I think could be useful for other people. 

Crouse: I'm going to go off a little bit off topic if you don't mind, one of the things, I read your graduate paper and I read the intro that you wrote in 2001. Like a lot of Alaska Natives you were sort of conscripted into boarding school in Tennessee (Wilie laughs) And I say conscripted because you may or may not have had a choice in the matter. 

Hensley: Well, I'll tell you what it, of course, needless to say, it's hard to believe now we didn't have any, almost any say in about what happened to us in those days because Uncle Sam was kind of firmly in charge. Somebody in the Bureau of Indian Affairs decided whether or not you'd go to high school and where. Back in those days, the choices were not there. You either went to Chemawa (Indian School) in Oregon or Chilocco in Oklahoma or you went Mount Edgecumbe in Sitka. In all those cases you had to leave and go hundreds or thousands of miles from home. In retrospect, of course, this was sort of a part of the colonization process and an effort to detach you from your language and your roots. Of course, many of us didn't understand that. But as long as --- I wanted to go to high school, and thankfully my mother allowed me to and I ended up being curious about the Lower 48 because none of us had ever been there. It was like the other side of the moon. So  I ended up in a boarding school between Knoxville and Sevierville, Tennessee. And it was quite inexpensive, that was one of the main attractions, but for me, it was in retrospect not a bad place to be, because it wasn't a big city operation, it was a rural area. There were country students from all over Tennessee and the South. It was my introduction to America in a sense. And they sort of became my family because I couldn't afford to come back and forth -- I came home once in four years. But it gave me the tools to get started, it gave me the tools to get into the university, and eventually to graduate. All in all, I think it was a useful experience for me. 

Crouse: But you're experience is not necessarily like everybody else's, is there any sort of personal insight that you've gathered from other people who maybe did not have that same experience. 

Hensley: Oh, absolutely, in fact, it's a key part of my class, I have a special segment on the history of the American Indian boarding school system with a film -- very powerful film -- and a live panel discussion. I've been doing this for seven years. And the reason I started it was because I was concerned that village schools might not have the funding to continue for high schools and I wanted my students to know that there's sort of black history to the boarding school system where it was very, very repressive. In fact, my own brothers were sent to Wrangell, and I have presenters who are my age who almost never talked those experiences to even those close to them. They had repressed it. Many didn't have a very good experience.  In fact, it was a very unfortunate experience. Others, for them it might have been OK because they might have had family situations that were not that good. They learned how to think on their own; they learned how to write; read; and calculate. And for them maybe it was a lifesaving experience in some instance, but in large part it was a part of a colonization process and it wasn't pretty.

Crouse: Can you remind everybody about your class, what it's called?

Hensley: It's called Alaska Policy Frontiers. You can register until Thursday and if you're an elder, you can, I think, get a break on the fees. I require a 20-page research paper for those taking it for credit, but you can also audit it, and we have some fantastic presenters that helped me with the course.