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Home  >  History and Culture  >  Ancsa at 30  >  Interviews
Willie Hensley

William (Willie) Hensley, originally from Kotzebue, wrote the paper, "What Rights to Land Have the Alaska Natives: The Primary Issue," which provided the background that many Native Alaskans needed to begin the land claims process. Hensley was a founder of NANA Regional Corporation, served as a director for 20 years and concluded his career there as president. He was a founder of Maniilaq, the regional non-profit organization representing tribes in the Kotzebue region, and was involved in the formation of the Alaska Federation of Natives and served as executive director, president and co-chairman. Hensley served as commissioner of commerce and economic development for Governor Tony Knowles, and is currently manager of federal government relations for Alyeska Pipeline Service Company.

Sharon McConnell: Let's start by talking a little bit about before the Claims Act was passed. What were you doing then?

Willie Hensley
Willie Hensley: I was born in Kotzebue and raised in that area and went to Noorvik Grade School, but then I ended up in boarding school in Tennessee for four years. I came back to Alaska, went to the University of Alaska for two years, and then went back to Kotzebue to work to earn money to finish college. Then I ended up in Washington D.C., where I spent three years. I promptly came back to Alaska, and immediately became engrossed in Native claims as the result of a paper that I wrote for Judge Rabinowitz at the university in Fairbanks.

Sharon McConnell: What was the paper?

Willie Hensley: The paper was in a constitutional law course, and I wrote it about the Alaska Native claims, basically what rights to land the Alaska Natives have. That was the paper that really got me to see where we were at that point in time from a legal perspective with the passage of the Statehood Act, and the state moving ahead to make the claims on the 104 million acres. It really was an eye-opening experience to conduct historical, political, and legal research. It enabled me to understand that we had a big problem on our hands.

Sharon McConnell: Who were some of the other Native leaders that you became involved with?

Willie Hensley: When I was in school at George Washington University, I met Brenda Itta from Barrow, and through her I met Charlie Edwardsen. Charlie wrote me a handwritten letter on lined paper and more or less introduced himself to me. On my way back, after graduating from the university, I stopped in Juneau to meet with Charlie -- he was a page for the legislature under the patronage of Mike Gravel, who was the speaker. Charlie and I got together, and the Arctic Slope made their claim at that time. When I got back to Kotzebue after school that spring, we made our claim in the NANA region. During those few-months, I met Emil Notti, Flore Lekanof, Lloyd, and Byron Mallott. Things were moving at a pretty rapid clip by then. We had the AFN Convention in the fall of '66, and we thought it was going to be a small group of us initially. We were only trying to work in our particular areas, and there were some people up there on the Slope trying to do their thing. There was John Borbridge and others in Southeast Alaska with the Tlingit/Haida doing their thing, and there were people in the Tanana Chiefs doing their thing. None of us really knew one another, but there we were all, in one way or another, trying to do something to protect our lands. When we got together in October of 1966, it was really the first time we got together on a statewide basis. There had been some other efforts in the past that Al Ketzler and others were involved in, but some of us were a little bit younger and weren't involved in that initial wave.

Sharon McConnell: What was the promise of ANSCA 30 years ago, and has it fulfilled that promise?

Willie Hensley: Native people are not alike. Every region has its different history; and I think, depending on what their situation was, everybody had their own expectations, because the land status was different in different places. I think most of us hoped we would have something to say about the world in which we lived. Up until that point, we didn't have anything to say about it. We were being managed, so to speak, by the government, by forces too big for us to individually handle, and so we didn't have anything to say about the key things in our lives that made a difference. Your healthcare was handled by somebody else. You never had anything to say about how it was handled. We didn't have any control over even our little land base under the Townsite Acts. So, of course, we had huge problems with healthcare, education, community development, jobs, training—you name it. We didn't have any electricity. We were still living in shacks.

The land claims effort could mean a lot of different things to a lot of people, but for me -- and I think for our region -- what we wanted was to make sure we had as much control over our land as possible. The problem was that Congress wasn't going to deal with just us. It wasn't going to deal with just the NANA region. They saw Alaska as one big problem, not a series of regional problems, and consequently, we didn't have as much say about the ultimate settlement in terms of how it affected our particular area, but we wanted to be able to help shape the world that we lived in.

Sharon McConnell: What about the unintended consequences of ANSCA, developments that no one foresaw?

Willie Hensley: The major one is that I don't think any of us believed we were giving up anything in terms of governmental powers. Also, we couldn't get the subsistence issue resolved, initially. We came back later to try to deal with it, but once you get involved with the political system like that, the outcome is not altogether sure, because, what power do we have? You know once they close the door the system sort of works its will. The reality was that we changed United States policy 180 degrees. They had been taking land for 200 years, and all of a sudden they were finally conveying. Even if it was 40 million acres, that's still 40 million acres. It was done in a way that gave the people the right to make decisions about what happened to it, and that was a major, major change.

Sharon McConnell: Have Alaska Natives changed because of the act? What kind of values changed for Alaska Natives?

Willie Hensley: Native people had been changing a long time before the act. Just think about our own region in northwest Alaska. We were impacted at the turn of the century. Changes had been occurring for decades before some of us youngsters came along. There had been huge value changes taking place prior to our arrival. Recently, we tried to get some control over the future of our people and their lives. Up until that time, the missionaries and the government were all-powerful. They were in control of key institutions that had effects on peoples' lives. We didn't have any say about the most elementary things that affected our families. From that standpoint, I think the Settlement Act gave Native people throughout the state a different way to look at things -- that we could affect not only the lives of our communities, but also the entire direction of the state. Alaska itself will never be the same again as a consequence of the Native peoples' efforts to control the lands they had lived upon.

Sharon McConnell: What about the next 30 years? What do you think the future holds? Is ANSCA a model of societal engineering in need of revision, or is it perfect?

Willie Hensley: No, there's nothing perfect. When we started out, I don't think any of us ever envisioned what was going to really emerge at the other end, because as a minority, we don't really control the levers of power in an overall sense. But I think that our expectations have been far exceeded by the Native peoples' innate ability to grasp these new institutions, understand them, and make them work. In my opinion, it's a remarkable achievement. We took something none of us had any experience with and were able to make it work. That's a great credit to the Native people in Alaska.

Sharon McConnell: Where do you think Alaskan Natives stand today?

Willie Hensley: I think the biggest challenge is that each of our cultural groups are unique. We have unique histories, unique languages, unique art and culture; and to me, as important as the land claims itself and the corporations are, they're not an end in themselves. They can be used to ensure the survival of our peoples' identity and of the things that made them unique. To me, that's going to be the biggest challenge of the future.

Sharon McConnell: What is one of your most vivid memories of these past 30 years in dealing with ANSCA?

Willie Hensley: There are a lot, but I remember one in particular. We were just trying to get things going in the Kotzebue region, and I had been very concerned about the handling of the townsite survey in Kotzebue. People really didn't understand the process, and I thought our people had been taken advantage of by the system. I remember writing a letter to the head of the Bureau of Land Management; and all of a sudden before I knew it here was a planeload of bureaucrats, including the state director, in Kotzebue to talk to me. I knew they knew that they had screwed up.

But that was just one incident. We have another incident with Chairman Aspinall, who was the chairman of the House Interior Committee. He was from Colorado—he was a crusty old Westerner, who looked like he just came out of an Indian war, and he was one who didn't have, I think initially, any belief that Native people had any rights to Alaska land. Before it was over, he was on the House floor saying, "40 million acres is not enough for these people." That shows you how far things had gone from when we started to where we ended up. Even though most of us would love to have seen most of Alaska come into the hands of the Native people who used and occupied the land, 40 million acres was a major accomplishment that, I think, will never be repeated in this country.

Sharon McConnell: Are there any final comments that you would like to make?

Willie Hensley: I think the challenge is for the young people to understand the roots of the Settlement Act, and to figure out how to enhance and retain, if not expand, that land base in the future, because the world is expanding in terms of population. While we might think there are vast open spaces, this is phenomenally beautiful land, and it should be retained for generations.

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