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Fifty Miles from Tomorrow

A Memoir of Alaska and the Real People

William L. Iggiagruk Hensley


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ISBN10: 0312429363
ISBN13: 9780312429362

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288 Pages



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As a young man growing up on the shores of Kotzebue Sound, twenty-nine miles north of the Arctic Circle, William L. Iggiagruk Hensley learned to live the way his ancestors had for thousands of years. He absorbed the old stories and sayings, the threads of wisdom passed down through the generations. Though Hensley eventually left Alaska behind to pursue his education in the continental United States, he carried with him the hardiness, the good humor, and the tenacity that had helped his people flourish on the wild tundra.

In 1971, after years of Hensley's tireless lobbying, the United States conveyed forty-four million acres and earmarked nearly $1 billion for use by Alaska's native peoples. The law insured that all the American Indians of Alaska would be compensated for the incursion of the U.S. government upon their way of life. Unlike their relatives to the south, the Alaskan peoples would be able to take charge of their economic and political destiny in the twentieth century and beyond.

The landmark decision did not come overnight. Neither was it the work of any one man. But it was Hensley who gave voice to the cause and made it real. Fifty Miles from Tomorrow is not only the memoir of one man; it is a testament to the resilience of the Alaskan Ilitqusiat—Native Spirit.


Praise for Fifty Miles from Tomorrow

"In William L. Iggiagruk Hensley's often harrowing new memoir, Fifty Miles From Tomorrow, set in the far northern Kotzebue Sound region of Alaska, he recounts an evening in the late-1940s—the author was 6 at the time—when he and his adopted family sat down to a meal of utniq that had, unbeknownst to them, gone very bad. Before long, his adoptive father and pregnant stepsister had died. One stepbrother, in a hallucinatory daze, survived by paddling a small boat 10 miles to the nearest town. For many memoirists, this kind of catastrophic event would be enough to hang an entire book upon. Mr. Hensley—many Inupiaq received their surname from visiting missionaries; Mr. Hensley was partly named after his maternal grandfather—and his adoptive family, Alaska Natives, lived along the Bering Sea, 29 miles within the Arctic Circle. They lived in tarpaper or sod houses and survived on what they could fish, hunt or grow in the region's abbreviated summertime. It would be decades before the family or its neighbors had electricity, telephones, indoor toilets or medical care. Every pair of hands was vital. Yet in Fifty Miles From Tomorrow these deaths take up only a few short paragraphs. Mr. Hensley has written a book that is so full of incident, yet so stoic, that life—and narrative—simply marches on . . . Mr. Hensley's account of what it's like to grow up in the far north, 50 miles from the International Date Line, is rarely less than gripping . . . Fifty Miles From Tomorrow can read like a sturdy primer on cold-weather survival. Mr. Hensley writes observantly about the killing and cleaning of seals, about constructing sod houses, about making toys from the talons of an owl and brooms from its wings, and about the intricacies of making coffee each morning by first chopping chunks of ice to make water . . . Gripping."—Dwight Garner, The New York Times

"Late in this illuminating memoir, the author recounts a transcendent moment. The time is 1977, the place is Barrow, Alaska, and the occasion is a whaling convention that has evolved into a momentous gathering of Inuit (the 'real people' as they call themselves) from the United States, Canada and Greenland. As William L. Iggiagruk Hensley explains, it's the first meeting of these far-flung Inuit groups since they migrated eastward from Asia 5,000 years ago. Amazingly, given the millennia of separation, they find the several versions of Inupiaq, their common language, to be mutually intelligible. Powered by linguistic euphoria, they talk and dance and, above all, sing. 'We celebrated as long as our bodies didn't fail us,' Hensley writes, 'and slept only long enough to resume the orgy of Inupiaq communication that had so long eluded us' . . . Fifty Miles From Tomorrow is an entertaining and affecting portrait of a man and his extraordinary milieu."—Dennis Drabelle, The Washington Post

"This year Alaska celebrates its 50th anniversary, so it's no coincidence that Alaska native William Iggiagruk Hensley has penned a story of his life, from growing up as an orphan in Kotzebue to living though the era of the pipeline that brought wealth to the state and economic support to the native tribes that inhabit it . . . The book offers an interesting glimpse of the first half-century of Alaska statehood."—Susan Gilmore, The Seattle Times

"On one level, this strongly written and evocative book is the story of a man, his people—the Inupiat, or 'the real people'—and their world and culture. On another, it's the story of the politics of land use and energy development. William L. Iggiagruk Hensley was born in Kotzebue, Alaska, 'twenty-nine miles north of the Arctic Circle, ninety miles east of Russia, and fifty miles from the International Date Line, a place shaped by the winds and waves of the Bering Sea.' For many of us, Alaska is a country in the mind, exerting a nearly inexplicable, magnetic pull. For Mr. Hensley, however, the relationship is organic. 'Alaska is my identity, my home, and my cause. I was there . . . before Gore-Tek replaced muskrat and wolf skin in parkas . . . before the snow machine, back when the huskies howled their eagerness to pull the sled . . . before the outboard motor showed up . . . before the telephone, when we could only speak face-to-face, person-to-person about our lives and dreams; before television intruded upon the telling and retelling of family chronicles and legends.' Mr. Hensley also came to understand the world into which he was born represented 'the twilight of the stone age,' where there were few illusions about the ability of his people to succeed, or even survive, in the culture that had swallowed them, their way of life, even the land—especially the land—on which they'd lived for centuries."—John R. Coyne, The Washington Times

"A Native Alaskan who now lives in Anchorage crafts a powerful memoir of his unlikely life, rising from being an orphan to serving in Alaska's House of Representatives and Senate, as well as being a longtime activist involved in native land claims."—The Seattle Post-Intelligencer

"It is more than fitting that Native rights activist William L. Iggiagruk Hensley's memoir is being released on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Alaskan statehood. Fifty Miles From Tomorrow: A Memoir of Alaska and the Real People may well be the first book about the Alaskan Inuit way of life written from deep inside the Inuit experience. Hensley's life has followed a remarkable and inspiring arc. From a childhood spent in 'the twilight of the Stone Age,' and the imperatives of raw survival, he traveled on to a Baptist boarding school in pre-civil rights Tennessee and earned a degree from George Washington University. At age 25, energized by a pivotal moment in land-rights issues, he won a seat in the Alaska House of Representatives and later moved on to the Senate. He founded the Northwest Alaska Native Association and has been active in founding and leadership positions in a number of other regional, state and worldwide organizations. 'The beauty of the American system is that you get to speak,' Hensley writes. 'And I had a lot to say.' The shape of Native Alaskan lives might have been drastically different during these years of statehood without the dedication of activists such as Hensley. The heart of the author's personal story, and the foundation of his passion and determination for his cause, lie in his early years. Up to the age of 15, he lived with his extended family, following their semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer traditions that stretched back for thousands of years but which will probably now never fully exist again. It is a time and place and experience effectively evoked by the author's lean but vivid prose. Well north of the Arctic Circle, his childhood partook of an era when Natives still depended on their huskies, their wolf-skin parkas and temporary homes of thick blocks cut from the frozen sod—when they depended intimately and intensely upon one another. A life of hard work and harsh conditions, deeply immersed in communal values and oral traditions, all strongly flavored by 'inuuniaq, the serious business of staying alive.' Hensley also allows us an intimate view of how and why this ancient, rugged and seemingly isolated culture was already being torn apart by forces from the outside world. Books have the capacity to make readers understand the lives of others. They also have the power to help define experience and identity for the author and his cultural group. This second function is clearly a large part of Hensley's mission. In the last few chapters of this all-too-brief memoir, he moves on from chronicling a long career championing the political and material rights of his people to a focus on 'Inupiat Ilitqusiat: the Inupiat spirit.' Here he describes the beginning of a movement to renew the identity, language and values that come from their many-thousand-year tradition. Ultimately this book must be seen as part of that movement—as a chance for an Alaskan Inuit to leave a record of his own experience rather than to be defined by books written by outsiders. This book is his chance to celebrate and strengthen the spirit of his own people."—Damian Kilby, The Oregonian (Portland)

"Hensley has told his story in a new book, Fifty Miles from Tomorrow: A Memoir of Alaska and the Real People being published Jan. 5 by Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux . . . During his high school days at Harrison-Chilhowee, Hensley was one of the most popular students on campus: class president, co-captain of the football team, on the yearbook and student newspaper staffs, selected ‘Best All-Round' and a star in class plays. While he took part in the many religious activities on the campus of the Southern Baptist-affiliated school, his book reveals a disconnect between the prevailing Christian dogma and community mores as opposed to the spiritual, nature-based culture of his people . . . Hensley writes passionately of the journey of his life, describing vividly his early life of close familial relationships, hard Arctic conditions and the life of hunting, fishing and living off the land. His narrative of Native culture, in which private land ownership was an anathema, and what it meant when Alaska achieved statehood is eye-opening. The tale of how a brash young man made his way through the arcane world of politics to successfully win rights for Alaska's Natives is filled with insights into the way government works and of vignettes featuring well-known political figures."—Lois Reagan Thomas, Knoxville News-Sentinel

"With this book, Hensley, an Inuit who has spent much of his life advocating on behalf of the Iñupiaq, offers both a rich and engrossing narrative of his own life and a valuable resource in the effort to understand and protect the culture and history of Alaska Natives. Born 18 years before Alaska became a state, Hensley grew up in Kotzebue, an area north of the Arctic Circle that at the time of his birth, counted its population in the hundreds. Life in 'the twilight of the Stone Age' was difficult and narrowly focused on survival. Remembering his childhood, Hensley writes simply but in vivid detail of the hardships of daily life as well as of his deep love of family and traditional culture. In one passage, he offers a look at the construction and furnishings of the tiny sod dwellings that protected their inhabitants against bitter cold. Another fascinating section describes the critical role of dogs, always reflective of their owners, in all aspects of survival. 'To those from the outside world,' Hensley writes, 'we may have seemed destitute, but . . . it was a good life.' However, as Hensley relates, it was also an isolated life and when foreign microbes and processed foods were introduced by white 'Outsiders,' the toll on the health of the Iñupiaq was extreme. From an early age, Hensley recognized the conscious efforts of educators and missionaries to 'isolate children from their cultures.' He carried this sense of injustice with him when he left Alaska to pursue his education in the Lower 48 and ultimately became an indefatigable champion of native rights. Hensley saw a great measure of victory in 1971 when, due in no small part to his efforts, President Nixon signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which awarded 44 million acres and nearly $1 billion for use by Native Alaskans—the largest settlement of its kind in U.S. history. Hensley continues his efforts to preserve and protect his native culture with this deeply respectful and clear-eyed book. Filled with Iñupiaq history and terminology (including a glossary and pronunciation key to the Iñupiaq language), Fifty Miles from Tomorrow is truly a window into the real Alaska."—Debra Ginsberg, Shelf Awareness

"Hensley's book comes at a pivotal time for the state of Alaska. Our congressional delegation has a new Democratic face as the state celebrates its fiftieth birthday; the state and the concerns of its Native populations have evolved as the state has grown older . . . After reading about Hensley's experiences growing up in 50 Miles from Tomorrow, it's easy to agree with him—thanks to the passion of Hensley and his peers, life in Alaska's Native villages is far less precarious than it was just a few decades ago."—Brendan Joel Kelley, Anchorage Press

"William Hensley rose from poverty to become the father of the Alaska Native land claims movement, plus a successful politician, corporate leader and author, but his early life was so difficult he occasionally wanted to kill himself. Raised by an adopted mother after his birth parents abandoned him, Hensley grew up living in small sod dwellings carved from tundra near Kotzebue in Northwest Alaska. Life meant a daily struggle to keep warm and fed . . . The confession is part of a new book by Hensley, now 67, that traces his remarkable life as he helped move Natives beyond the 'twilight of the Stone Age'—as he calls his early years—into a modern world of cash, corporations and college degrees. Fifty Miles from Tomorrow is especially relevant now because it arrived in bookstores on the eve of the state's 50th anniversary. The memoir is fascinating on many levels—historically, culturally, as simply a good read—in part because Hensley and his work coincide with the recent history of Alaska and the progress of its Native people . . . He calls his memoir a story of the powerful and the powerless, of minorities and majorities. In it, he sheds light on the social problems that have emerged over generations as natives transitioned from a semi-nomadic life in pursuit of fish and game to a more sedentary life where home comes with heat and electricity."—Alex DeMarban, First Alaskans

"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 ere 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."—Kirkus Reviews

"Hensley's memoir is a joyous celebration of his life among the Inuit people and of fighting for their rights. As a child, Hensley was raised in a traditional manner in the Alaskan bush near Kotzebue, north of the Arctic Circle. In wonderful detail, he describes the chores, games, and hard work involved in surviving there. Hensley wrestled with an education system, both in Alaska and 'Outside,' that saw nothing of value in Iñupiat culture. As a result, he became active in the Alaska land-claims movement, a consequence of the Statehood Act of 1959, which argued that there were no public lands in Alaska, only Native lands. He also helped organize the Northwest Alaska Native Association and the First Alaskan Institute to advocate for Native rights. President Nixon signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act into law in 1971, awarding 44 million acres and nearly $1 billion to Alaska Natives. Hensley also played a pivotal role in renewing Iñupiat language, culture, and values, which he reinforces here by using words in Iñupiaq throughout the text and providing both an Iñupiaq glossary and an introduction to Iñupiaq writing and pronunciation."—Margaret Atwater-Singer, Library Journal

"With humor and pathos, the author describes his youthful experiences straddling two cultures . . . The frustrations of his people as they tried to maneuver the domestic, political, and corporate complexities of modern life in the then newly formed state are passionately revealed as Hensley details his membership in the National Congress of American Indians and the Alaskan House of Representatives. Students interested in civil rights and Alaskan history and culture will appreciate this work, as will readers of Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian."—Jackie Gropman, formerly at Fairfax County Public Library System, Fairfax, Virginia, School Library Journal

"Although this fascinating memoir is set hundreds of miles from where most Americans have ever dared to travel, Hensley brings to life this little-known part of America through myriad tales of toil, triumph and the Iñupiat Ilitqusiat—the Iñupiat spirit. Growing up in what he calls the twilight of the Stone Age, Hensley grew up without what many would consider basic necessities; in his homeland on the Kotzebue Sound in rural Alaska, survival was the primary concern. But even through the illness and hardships that plagued his and other families, the life lessons learned as a child stayed with him for decades. As such, despite attending high school and college in the Lower 48, he found himself always drawn back to his homeland, like a salmon heading for the waters where he was spawned. Hensley became a crusader for the Iñupiat people, starting as a fresh-out-of-college activist, then his tenure as a state representative, and later his work in the corporate sector. Through his entire adult life, Hensley's mission has been simple: to ensure the Inupiat are allowed to keep their rights and their land. There are rich details of hunting adventures and typical childhood struggles, but the deep-rooted values and strength of the Iñupiat people are what make this work truly sing."—Publishers Weekly

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Read an Excerpt


On Saturday, December 18, 1971, everything changed. It was warmer than usual in Anchorage at that time of year; it was a bit above freezing. But as always during the long winter months in the Far North, the hours of daylight...

About the author

William L. Iggiagruk Hensley

William L. Iggiagruk Hensley was a founder of the Northwest Alaska Native Association and spent twenty years working for its successor, the Iñuit-owned NANA Regional Corporation. He also helped establish the Alaska Federation of Natives in 1966 and has served as its director, executive director, president, and cochair. He spent ten years in the Alaska state legislature as a representative and senator, and recently retired from his position in Washington, D.C., as manager of federal government relations for Alyeska Pipeline Service Company.

Hensley and his wife, Abigale, live in Anchorage, where—now an Iñupiat elder—he is the chair of the First Alaskans Institute.

William L. Iggiagruk Hensley

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