When someone says “Alaska,” can you picture Sarah Palin’s smile more readily than the faces of Eskimos? If so, you may have helped former Alaska state legislator William Hensley make a recurring point in his memoir Fifty Miles from Tomorrow: Alaska’s Native Americans have faded from the national consciousness — and receded from their own cultural roots — after generations of government and missionary control. Hensley, the son of an Inupiat mother and a Lithuanian father, grew up during the 1940s in northwestern Alaska, where temperatures could hit -40° F and survival was the chief goal. At 15, he left his hometown of Kotzebue — and the embrace of his great-uncle’s family — to be educated in the Lower 48. A sojourn at a Baptist academy in Tennessee led him both to graduate school and the civil rights movement, laying the foundation for what would become a lifelong mission to champion native Alaskan territorial rights. As a state legislator Hensley lobbied tirelessly to keep his people from being “homeless in our homeland” and helped fuel a landmark act that, in 1971, allocated nearly $1 billion and 44 million acres to indigenous peoples. What makes Hensley’s tale compelling, however, is that it isn’t just about regaining lands but about regaining voice. Despite a tendency toward repetition, the closing chapters are among the most enlightening of the lot, as Hensley moves past blame and calls for a deeper kind of homecoming — the reinstatement of once-dismissed Inupiat values and culture. Does this frank memoir paint a sobering but hopeful portrait of Alaska’s original identity? You betcha.
About the Author
Pearl Chen is the production editor for the Barnes & Noble Review. She lives in New York City.