Fifty Miles from Tomorrow: A Memoir of Alaska and the Real People

By WILLIAM L. IGGIAGRUK HENSLEY

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.

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