Editor’s note: This story is produced in part through a partnership between First Alaskans Institute and Koahnic Broadcast Corporation. Willie Iġġiaġruk Hensley serves on the First Alaskans Institute board of trustees, and previously served on the board for Koahnic Broadcast Corporation.
With current conversations around the Alaska Federation of Natives, or AFN, Elders and Youth and the upcoming anniversary of ANCSA, I decided to sit down with Willie Iġġiaġruk Hensley to discuss his book, land claims and some of the legacies he’s helped shape.
Hensley played a pivotal role in the formation of AFN and the passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, or ANCSA, but I feel like I really came to know him through his memoir.
“Fifty Miles From Tomorrow” is one of the few memoirs written by an Iñupiaq.
As a young writer hungry for examples of fellow Alaska Native voices, I read Hensley’s memoir with enthusiasm. He has some thoughts about the craft.
“Writing is not my living,” Hensley said. “I've done a lot of different things that I wasn't qualified to do. If I ever get focused, I can write. And I enjoy the process. I never had writer's block or anything like that. And, I mean, there's a world of stuff out there to be written yet, about of our experience.”
Although Hensley is humble about his writing, the truth is, his prose largely defined Alaska Native land claims.
In 1966, Hensley wrote a paper titled “What Rights to Land Have the Alaska Native: The Primary Issue.” The paper was circulated and led to a greater understanding of what was at stake.
It emboldened a generation and helped achieve the largest land settlement in Native American history. In Hensley’s estimation, the paper was about taking a stand.
“You have to have more than the ability to just stand up and claim something, you have to be able to back it up,” Hensley said. “I think that's why that little paper I wrote had an impact, because it gave me the tools to stand up and debate with college graduates, and law school graduates. It was a source of information that others could use as well, when they were trying to make their argument, because there is a lot of opposition and it was a very stressful time.”
For most Americans, Hensley’s life can be hard to imagine. He went from speaking Iñupiaq as his first language while hunting, fishing and trapping, to leading on the national stage.
Hensley and other Indigenous leaders used the very same language and system that was forced upon us to help achieve a landmark victory.
But with that victory came complications. Hensley will be the first to note that ANCSA was not a perfect settlement.
In fact, a lot remains to be done.
He has some words of wisdom for people thinking about going into policy or writing.
“I basically have gone through life not really having a particular vocation,” Hensley said. “I’m not a pilot, or a lawyer, or a this or a that. But I think one of the things that a lot of us in my generation did was to figure that we could do whatever it takes. You pick it up, you do it.”
“Fifty Miles from Tomorrow” connects a divide that is important to understand. It brings the past to present, it connects land claims to context, and perhaps most importantly, it gives an accurate window into Hensley’s life.
The following passage brings everything back to its roots, is inspirational, and sums up the importance that we, as Alaska Native people, tell our own stories.
Hensley reads: “And I began to realize that someday, somewhere, somebody was going to try to tell my story– and through it our story. So ultimately I decided I might as well try to do it myself… I immediately called my relatives to let them know what I had in mind so they wouldn’t be surprised. They unanimously encouraged me. The writing itself has been an odyssey. Along the way, I have learned so much about myself, my family, and our people.”
Hensley reads on and I find myself more and more immersed. The history and power is palpable.
Eventually I turn the recorder off and Hensley hands his book back. He smiles and tells me that he’d like to see the memoir translated into Iñupiaq.
I think about that, reminded of the book’s Iñupiaq glossary and all the words he uses throughout the work. “Fifty Miles From Tomorrow” even has a pronunciation guide.
I recall my first time reading the memoir and how I naturally learned part of our shared Native language.
And then I realize, Hensley is still fighting for us.
About the author: Kashona Notah (Iñupiaq-Native Village of Kotzebue) was raised within a Diné family in the lower 48. He graduated from Stanford, where he studied English and Native American Studies. He currently attends the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan. Notah is a 2020 News Intern with First Alaskans Institute and the Mel Sather Public Media Internship Program at Koahnic Broadcast Corporation.