Hensley takes compass bearings from Alaska's past

Kathleen McCoy

At 70-something, Willie Iggiagruk Hensley has managed to survive and understand a dramatic upheaval that shook Alaska in his lifetime.

Wits and circumstance carried him from a sod house near Kotzebue to a firm foothold in the cash economy. From BIA classrooms to a boarding school in Tennessee to a political science degree from George Washington University. From state legislator to commerce commissioner to Native corporation CEO to K Street lobbyist in Washington, D.C.

Now, add professor. He's teaching a graduate class at UAA's College of Business and Public Policy that focuses on Alaska's future by studying its plundered past. The class is part of an initiative to incorporate knowledge and understanding of Native corporations -- the fastest growing economic sector in Alaska -- into the business school curriculum.

His doctorate may be honorary but his political experience and passion for history have coalesced into a highly customized class called Alaska Policy Frontiers. Looming puzzles include what to do with Pebble and other rich mineral deposits; the high cost of energy and distance from markets; the decline of oil-fueled state revenue; and how to educate Alaskans for a survivable future.

Hensley takes his compass bearings from the past. He's spent a lifetime collecting history and anthropology books and first-person accounts of Arctic explorers, warmongers, missionaries and government bureaucrats. A one-page flier for the class advises, "You have to understand where you have been before you can see where you are going."

"Most of us don't know anything about Alaska," Hensley says. "On the Native side, the system was busy trying to assimilate us and didn't want us to know anything about our language and culture. That's the process of colonization.

"On the non-Native side, history began when grandpa arrived."

But when Hensley jumps in the way-back machine, he's not talking pre-statehood, or even the Russian occupation. He goes back to what he considers the igniting event of Alaska's history: a 1582 battle in the Ural Mountains between forces supported by the Russian tsar and the grandson of Genghis Khan, facilitated by a merchant named Stroganov and blessed by the Russian Orthodox Church. The city of Sibir fell in the battle and within 60 years the Russians arrived on Alaska's doorstep.

The big driver was sea otter fur, replaced over time by whales, gold, fish and crude oil. But, from Hensley's perspective, key to understanding Alaska today is realizing how commerce, government and religion conspire to colonize and conquer people and place.

Left in that wake: Alaska's indigenous populations -- proud, resilient and resourceful survivors, now damaged by disease, alcohol and conquerors invested in dismissing their values and culture. In spite of this repressive past, Alaska Natives today are using their capital and land to move Alaska's economy forward.

Easily the most painful part of his class is a panel of Native boarding school survivors. They include a Yup'ik military veteran, a woman who ended up writing Alaska land policy in Washington, D.C., and Hensley's brother, Jim LaBelle. LaBelle tells this story of landing, at age 8, at the Wrangell Institute boarding school:

"The first thing we had to do in the boys' dorm is undress, be totally naked. They took our clothing away and everything we'd brought with us. Commercial barbers did quick work with all our hair, a buzz cut. Then they sent us upstairs to another line. We put our feet in some kind of caustic disinfectant. Combating lice and bugs, whatever they thought we had.

"In another line, we got our numbers, indelible ink on all our clothes and laundry, even our mail. Some kids had difficult names, so the matrons just called them by their numbers ..."

Punishments, mandated by BIA staff but often inflicted by students on students, included the "red owl," where the child being punished put on pajamas and crawled through the legs of older boys who swatted him with their belts.

There wasn't a dry eye in the class when the panel finished. Hensley includes this chapter, he says, to illustrate the human effect of public policy. He also thinks that as Alaska's oil-depleted economy stutters, boarding schools could be in the state's future again.

"What if we cannot afford to run a high school in every village?" he asks. "How can we change that old system that was so repressive and brutal into something that could be worthwhile?"

Teaching this class has allowed Hensley to come full circle. Back in 1966, fresh out of George Washington, he was homesick for Alaska and unsure what to do next. At UAF, he happened upon a constitutional law class taught by Alaska's new chief justice, Jay Rabinowitz. It was just seven years after statehood.

He owed a paper and, with encouragement from Rabinowitz, researched Alaska Native land rights.

"Before that, I was completely ignorant of the Alaska Native legal and historical perspective. It was a giant eye-opener: we were in jeopardy of losing 44 million acres. I became an activist."

In his class, Hensley requires a similar-length paper from each of his students. Latent in that assignment is the hope that each student will find a topic that inspires him as land claims ignited Hensley.

"I hope some idea will take root," he says, "and change their lives forever."

And since it's a public policy class, their lives might also change ours.


Kathleen McCoy is an electronic media specialist at UAA, where she highlights campus life through social and online media. Direct class inquiries to 786-4171.

More Hensley on the Web

Read Hensley's 1966 paper "What Rights to Land Have the Alaska Natives? The Primary Question" at www.alaskool.org/projects/ancsa/WLH/WLH66_2.htm


Kathleen McCoy
Hometown UBy xxx