A longtime activist for Native rights in Alaska shares his remarkable journey.
Born in 1941 near Kotzebue Sound to a Lithuanian fur trader who vanished and an Iñupiaq mother who could not care for her children, Hensley was rescued from squalor by a relative and taken to live within a large traditional family in northwest Alaska. His memories of childhood are fond, even though life was extremely hard. The family lived a semi-nomadic existence, mostly “at camp” in the country near Ikkattuq, inhabiting a tiny sod house without electricity, bathroom or proximity to doctors. The summer months were spent hunting, fishing and laboring at odd jobs in order to generate the necessary stores to survive the next winter. Accidents and sudden death regularly claimed family members. At the Bureau of Indian Affairs school organized by missionaries, Hensley became aware that “the goal was to isolate [Native] children from their cultures, to cut them off from the ancient way of life and leave them stranded somewhere between the old world and the new.” He made it his life’s work to rectify this alienation. In the early years of statehood, his family was dispossessed from their home; the Iñupiaq did not think in terms of private property and did not hold written contracts for the places they lived. Hensley plunged into political action, speaking out on the dire need for Natives to claim their land before it was seized by the government. Elected to the state legislature when he was only 25, he engaged in years of tireless lobbying that helped push Congress to pass the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, which awarded Natives 44 million acres, 16 percent of the state’s territory. Modest, brave and gracious in sharing credit, Hensley has been instrumental in this history.
An enlightening, affirmative look at Inuit culture and history by a devoted champion.