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History and Culture

Home  >  History and Culture  >  Ancsa at 30  >  Lecture Series
Lecture Series, Number Four  -  Page 10
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Tom Richards: Thank you so much, Bill. I think Willie’s resume is behind the Seattle crossword from yesterday. Our next speaker needs no introduction, so I won’t introduce him. No, no. I’ve known Willie most of my life and he’s known me, I think, a little longer. Willie Hensley was born in Kotzebue. He attended Kotzebue Day School, BIA Boarding School and then the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He graduated from George Washington University in 1966 with a degree in political science and a minor in economics. He was one of the key motivators behind getting the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act activities going in the 1960s. He served as chairman of the Land Claims Committee that was appointed by Governor Hickel to investigate and make some recommendations with respect to what the state policy should be toward resolution of the Native Claims Settlement Act. He’s been very active in my regional corporation, NANA. He served as president of the Alaska Federation of Natives, and he currently is in Washington, D.C., where he’s manager of Federal and Government Relations for Alyeska Pipeline. Please welcome Willie Hensley.

I think I would have paid more attention to Willie yesterday evening when he came in after flying all the way across the country to be with us, except he was sitting next to his lovely daughter, Priscilla, so I didn’t pay as much attention to Willie as I would have normally. Willie, I’d like to ask you to give an overview of your experiences in being an advocate for settlement of Native land claims and implementation of the Claims Settlement Act and some of the subsequent issues.

Willie Hensley
Willie Hensley: Thank you very much. It’s good to see so many familiar people. Living in Washington for the last almost four years now, I’ve told people -- you know, down there everybody is a stranger. Thousands of people come and go every day and you don’t really see anybody you know. So when I come up, if I see somebody coming down the street who I barely know, I practically give them a hug.

I’d like to thank the University for hosting this event. I wish I could have listened to all of the other presentations. I would also say that I was born in Kotzebue in 1941 and my parents were Pricilla and John Hensley. They were my adoptive parents. I was adopted from my mother to my mother’s uncle. As a consequence of that, I was raised out in the hinterlands outside Kotzebue. It’s just a little creek near the Little Noatak. In those days Kotzebue was a hard place to live in unless you had a job. There was no timber around, and coal and oil were expensive. Generally speaking, the wind just kind of breezed right through most houses. We had three sod houses that I can recall. In those days sod was a lot warmer than tarpaper shacks that didn’t have any insulation. People didn’t have any money to spend on what it would take to really keep a home warm. We had sod that was this thick, but the rooms were very small. We had one room. I was kind of raised in what really was almost like the end of the traditional life in a sense. We had gasoline lamps and kerosene lamps and prima stoves and guns, but we were still living on the same animal life that people had been living on for thousands of years.

It was a decent life out there, but it was a hard life. There was a lot of alder. I cut a lot of willows and alders. There was timber up river, and a lot of white fish in that creek. There were, of course, a lot of shee fish in Little Noatak and also a lot of ling cod in Silek Pike. And we ate a lot of rabbit and ptarmigans. That’s how we survived.

In looking back, that life, I think it shaped a lot of my perspective. In those days, when it came to issues relating to our healthcare and education, we really didn’t have anything to say about anything. It was the government. The government was all-powerful. We had sort of lost control in the sense that people were no longer able to use their own languages. We were pretty much told where we were going to send the kids to school. There was a kind of sense of powerlessness. We had very little understanding of the western notions of life including property ownership and titles and deeds and that sort of thing.

In any case, I think I would have ended up going to the boarding school where everybody else went, but by serendipity, I ended up in a boarding school in Tennessee for four years. I came home once as a consequence, because we couldn’t afford for me to go back and forth. I was curious about the rest of the world, and in those days Alaska was a bit like a foreign country. The United States itself was, to us anyway, a foreign country. I was interested in life down there and opted to go there for boarding school as opposed to Mount Edgecumbe where most of my friends and relatives went.

I got the chance to visit a Cherokee reservation when I was in high school. I played football with a fellow by the name of John Rossmith, an Indian guy from the reservation, so I got a little bit of a notion of what Indian life was like back there, but without a real understanding of the Trail of Tears and all that.

I came back to Alaska for college and went to the University of Alaska. I don’t think a lot has changed. In those days there was no way Native people could get a sense of what their own history was. We didn’t control the schools and we didn’t teach history. Our own people were not able to adequately convey to us the experiences that our forbearers had had or how we related to the federal government. We had no concept of where the BIA came from, for instance, or why we came under their jurisdiction.

I went to Fairbanks for a couple of years. In those days, trying to decide on a career was almost an impossible task, because I was raised out in the country, trying to learn how to survive like everybody else had before me. Trying to decide on a career was a challenge. It’s not like we had counselors, and all those sorts of things. It was difficult for me. I kept sensing that well I should finish school, but my folks were generous enough to let me go, you know, as a teenager. That was a hard thing to do back then, because they needed me around, you know, to help survive, but I kept plodding away. After two years in Fairbanks, I ended up at George Washington University. That was after it was 65 below for three weeks in December. The ice pond was so frozen that we couldn’t see a damn thing in it. So I ended up at George Washington.

There, I tried to survive on a couple bucks a day as a student and managed to get a degree. I had to maintain a B average in my major, and that took a lot of work. I finished there still not knowing what to do, you know, in terms of a career. I just felt lucky to be able to finish. While I was in D.C., I did hang out at the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). I became friendly with people who used to go to the NCAI conventions. Vine Deloria was the new president, and some of you may have read his book, Custer Died for Your Sins. Anyway, he had a sense of humor. I used to see these files with some Alaskana in them. The people who participated in NCAI were the Alaska Native Brotherhood folks from southeast Alaska and some from up in the Copper River area where they had an ANB camp. There was virtually no Alaskan participation beyond that. I got a sense of who William Paul was. He had voluminous letters, and was always in some battle with somebody over some issue. I got a sense he was a little controversial. I used to go to the library. I was a typist for the BIA one summer as a student. They had a library down there and so naturally I’d kind of go look around and see if there’s anything on my part of the world. I found a hearing record one time where Kobuk Shungnak wanted to have a reservation. I read that and they had some verbatim comments from the people up there who wanted to have an area like 20 by 30 miles to protect themselves. There were one or two miner-types of non-Natives who opposed it, because of course they had an interest in the minerals up there. It never became a reality and I used to wonder why not. Needless to say, my mind was not exactly filled with any wisdom or any real knowledge about Native affairs per se, but I did know that in 1962 when President Kennedy was elected he had created a task force on Indians that came to Alaska.

W.W. Keeler, who happened to be principal chief of the Cherokees and head of Phillips Petroleum, chaired the task force. They came to Alaska and wrote a little piece on Alaska. When I got to GW some of the Indians kept asking me what I thought about that report. I didn’t know what to think about it, because I was an ignoramus. I didn’t really know anything. I kind of thumbed through it.

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