Willie Hensley: After graduating, I went to Fairbanks. In the mean time, Brenda Itta from Barrow had finished at Haskell and was working in D.C. We became friends, and she eventually went to work for Senator Gruening. She went home for one Christmas, and of course I couldn’t afford to go anywhere. She told Charlie Edwardsen about me, who at that time was trying to get things going; he had some notions about land claims. So Charlie wrote me a handwritten letter in pencil, misspelled words and everything, and asked me to stop by Juneau on the way home, because I had graduated in January of 1966 and I was heading back to Alaska to do some graduate work. I stopped in Juneau and he was a page for Mike Gravel. We chitchatted. He had just filed their claim in January for the North Slope, and I think they were trying to decide how far down south to make their claim, but I think it was maybe their assumption, I never asked them. Of course my level of knowledge was pretty minimal. Just by serendipity, I took a course in constitutional law. I was doing some graduate work in finance. Judge Rabinowitz just happened to be a Supreme Court Chief Justice and there were about eight or 10 of us in this class. Mike Bradner was one of them, I recall. Judge Rabinowitz told us to write a paper on any legal subject, and I thought well, by gosh, I’m going to look at this land claims issue. You’ve got to remember this is seven years after statehood and the state was trying to select its 100 million acres.
I didn’t know where to start, but what I did was I started to go back as far as I could to try to get some idea of what the European view of Natives was in American as they started coming into American and Central America in the 1500s. Then I looked at the Organic Act of 1884. I looked at the Allotment Act of 1887 and I looked at the Missions Act of 1900. I looked at the Indian Citizens Act of 1924 and the Indian Reorganization after 1934 and its application to Alaska in 1936. I looked at the Indian Claims Commission Act of 1945, and I looked at the Statehood Act of 1959. I said, “We still own it!” To me, this was a great revelation, because when you look back, the Tlingits had spent 30 some odd years in court, trying to get compensation for the taking of the Tongass Forests. I understood that. In fact, I had gone to a hearing as a student after they had gotten their judgment of $7.5 million. They didn’t get a square inch of land out of that, and generally speaking, that was the end of the road. That’s all they got; then they were fighting over how to spend it.
That paper helped me get a perspective about what was happening at that particular point in time. I knew that most of Alaska had not been extinguished. They had taken bits and pieces by millions here and millions there for this park or that withdrawal or whatnot, but most of the land had never been extinguished. I knew that if we allowed the state to take tentative approval to any of that 104 million acres, we were going to lose it. That’s all there was to it. We would have had maybe a slim hope of getting a few cents an acre. That, to me, was a great revelation. I knew that there was no other choice but to stop the state from making those selections.
Generally speaking, I’m sort of a mild character, but I became like a bat out of hell on that. You know, trying to talk to anybody and everybody to get them to understand where we were at that point in time. The first thing I did was try to take care of home base. I’m from Kotzebue, so I figured I better go home and see if I can get people there to understand this and take some action. But I couldn’t afford the $54 to go to Kotzebue. I was a student. In fact, I didn’t have $10. I borrowed $10 to send the first letters to our villages, and I brought a file -- I forgot to bring it with me. I managed to keep carbon copies of my letters to these villages. It was about a four page letter and I tried to describe my understanding of this situation as simply as I could. We had to take some action, because the state was moving ahead with its selections, particularly in the railbelt. I didn’t know exactly what they were up to. I didn’t know where they had plans to make selections. I borrowed $10 to get stamps. I became a little bit of a guru by then, because I talked to anybody who would listen to me about this. So Ruby Tanzy, Ruby John, and Reva Wulf helped me type out these letters; in you can see the different types in the carbons. In any case, that lead me to go to Kotzebue. I sent, I think, Ruby and Reva to the AFN, by the way, to see if they would lend me the money to go to Kotzebue, but the response was who is Willie Hensley and what does he want with our money?
As it turned out, I borrowed money from Helinka Brice, a non-Native who was a good friend of Mike Gravel, a really nice lady. She lent me the money to get to Kotzebue to have the first of several meetings for us to get our land claim. It wasn’t a question of corporations of this, that or another. All we needed and wanted was some spokesperson from each of the villages to make it down. Some came by boat, you know. I’ve got some responses from those villages that were happy somebody was trying to do something, and we had about a half dozen villages represented at the most. We had a group maybe this size that met with us at the time we made our filing. We needed to get our filing on record, get it into the hands of the BLM, so they would know that when the state or anybody else came along to claim the land, there would be a general claim by the people of that region. And so that’s how we precipitated our claim in our region.
Every region has its own story, and it couldn’t have been done without people who were willing to step out and do something. In those days it was not easy to take on the system; that had not been our way. We had been taking orders from the system, so to speak, even if it was to the detriment of our language and our culture and our families. Standing up wasn’t that easy. In some cases we were a little controversial, because we were stepping into situations where there already was some kind of established leadership and they didn’t like these young interlopers coming along and trying to take control of things.
In this instance, I did run for the legislature. My thought was that I had an issue and people needed to know about it and if I got elected, great, if not, okay. I wanted to get this message out. As it turned out, I was elected to the legislature so it gave me a bit of legitimacy, I think, to help, and also a way to travel, which, of course, we needed. We were able to proceed ahead with the formation of what turned out to the Northwest Alaskan Native Association, which eventually became NANA Regional Corporation. Maniilaq came out of our old association and eventually the Northwest Arctic Borough.
At the Cook Inlet Native Association meeting here that fall, somebody mentioned Chairman Aspinall. He created the Public Land Law Review Commission that summer of 1966 and they were coming to Alaska. He had prestigious people from all over the world that were going to look at public lands and advise on how to deal with them. I read about their coming to town and I came to the conclusion that there was no public land. It was all Native land. Of course I couldn’t afford to come down here, but the Tyoneks bought me a ticket.
So there I was with a crude little map I had drawn. By that time, several claims had been made across Alaska and I had them all marked out in red. I showed up at the Public Land Law and went in and railed on about how this was Native land and there was no such thing as public land. It had not been extinguished. That was the first time Beverly -- what’s her name from the Anchorage Daily News? Rick? -- wrote something about my appearance there. We thought Emil sent the invitation out, I still have the mimeographed form he sent us; we thought it was going to be just a group of Alaska Natives from scattered parts of Alaska getting together to compare notes and form some kind of a united front, because we were all sort of doing our own thing. And as it turned out, with the help of the Tyoneks, all of a sudden it turned into this pretty humongous meeting. I don’t know, were there 200 people there? That was a massive amount of people in those days, and it was an election year. Egan was running for his so called third term and Hickel was running for governor. It became a humongous happening, and it precipitated the formation of AFN.
Of course our foremost notion was to protect the land. Even though each of our own regions had unique cultures and histories, it became clear in the course of time that Congress was not going to deal with each one of us separately. Whether we liked it or not, we were seen as one big problem. The big challenge was to get the land freeze, because we knew that we had to -- we just had to stop the state from making those selections. Even though we were part of the state, the fact of the matter was we virtually had no representation. At the constitutional convention that Victor Fischer was at, we never had a chance to convey our point of view as Native people with relation to the land. I think Alaska generally has had a paranoia about Natives that goes back a long, long time, from the time when we were in the majority until the Second World War. There had been strenuous efforts to keep the Native people out of the political process during the territorial days. It was almost impossible to qualify to be a voter, so we were unprotected during the gold rush period, etc.