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

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

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by William L. Iggiagruk Hensley

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Nunavut tigummiun!

Hold on to the land!

It was just fifty years ago that the territory of Alaska officially became the state of Alaska. But no matter who has staked their claim to the land, it has always had a way of enveloping souls in its vast, icy embrace.

For William L. Iggiagruk Hensley, Alaska has been his home, his identity, and his cause. Born on the


Nunavut tigummiun!

Hold on to the land!

It was just fifty years ago that the territory of Alaska officially became the state of Alaska. But no matter who has staked their claim to the land, it has always had a way of enveloping souls in its vast, icy embrace.

For William L. Iggiagruk Hensley, Alaska has been his home, his identity, and his cause. Born on the shores of Kotzebue Sound, twenty-nine miles north of the Arctic Circle, he was raised to live the traditional, seminomadic life that his Iñupiaq ancestors had lived for thousands of years. It was a life of cold and of constant effort, but Hensley’s people also reaped the bounty that nature provided.

In Fifty Miles from Tomorrow, Hensley offers us the rare chance to immerse ourselves in a firsthand account of growing up Native Alaskan. There have been books written about Alaska, but they’ve been written by Outsiders, settlers. Hensley’s memoir of life on the tundra offers an entirely new perspective, and his stories are captivating, as is his account of his devotion to the Alaska Native land claims movement.

As a young man, Hensley was sent by missionaries to the Lower Forty-eight so he could pursue an education. While studying there, he discovered that the land Native Alaskans had occupied and, to all intents and purposes, owned for millennia was being snatched away from them. Hensley decided to fight back.

In 1971, after years of Hensley’s tireless lobbying, the United States government set aside 44 million acres and nearly $1 billion for use by Alaska’s native peoples. Unlike their relatives to the south, the Alaskan peoples would be able to take charge of their economic and political destiny.

The landmark decision did not come overnight and was certainly not the making of any one person. 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 also a fascinating testament to the resilience of the Alaskan ilitqusiat, the Alaskan spirit.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“With his memoir of Alaska, the Iñupiat elder William L. Iggiagruk Hensley offers a coming-of-age story for a state and a people, both still young and in the making. And while there are familiar notes in the Dickensian telling of this tale, Hensley manages to make fresh an old narrative of people who arise just as their culture is being erased . . . His book is also bright and detailed, moving along at a clip most sled dogs would have trouble keeping up with. . . . On a personal level, the book is riveting autobiography. Anyone who thinks times are hard now need only consider a winter spent on an ice floor under a sod roof, and the prospect of a life-or-death journey to the outhouse. . . . But the rush to modern life took a big psychic toll. Alcohol, suicide, domestic violence—the familiar litany of native social ills—prompted a long journey of the soul for Hensley. As with every other episode of his life, it is told here with a Far Northern twist and an intimacy with the land and the heart.” —Timothy Egan, The New York Times Book Review

“Illuminating . . . ‘Fifty Miles from Tomorrow’ is an entertaining and affecting portrait of a man and his extraordinary milieu.” —The Washington Post

“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.” Dwight Garner, The New York Times

On one level, this strongly written and evocative book is the story of a man, his people—the Iñupiat, or ‘the real people’—and their world and culture. On another, it’s the story of the politics of land use and energy development.” —The Washington Times

“Lean but vivid prose. . . . 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.” —The Oregonian

“A compelling tale of doing what had to be done and recognizing the spiritual depth and profound love it takes to become a real person in Alaska, or anywhere else.” —Bookforum

“An enlightening, affirmative look at Inuit culture and history by a devoted champion.” —Kirkus Reviews

“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 Inupiat Ilitqusiat—the Inupiat spirit. . . . 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 Inupiat people are what make this work truly sing.” —Publishers Weekly, Pick of the week

Timothy Egan
With his memoir of Alaska, the Inupiat elder William L. Iggiagruk Hensley offers a coming-of-age story for a state and a people, both still young and in the making. And while there are familiar notes in the Dickensian telling of this tale, Hensley manages to make fresh an old narrative of people who arise just as their culture is being erased—be they "Braveheart" Scotsmen or outback Aborigines. His book is also bright and detailed, moving along at a clip most sled dogs would have trouble keeping up with.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

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 Inupiat Ilitqusiat-the Inupiat 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 Inupiat 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 Inupiat people are what make this work truly sing. (Jan.)

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Library Journal

Hensley's memoir is a joyous celebration of his life among the Inuit people and of fighting for their rights. As a child, Hensley (chair, First Alaskans Inst.) 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. Highly recommended for public libraries.
—Margaret Atwater-Singer

School Library Journal

Adult/High School

Hensley grew up in a remote Alaskan village in the early 1940s and eventually became a politician and lobbyist for Native affairs. He tells of living in a sod house with no electricity, running water, bed of his own, or medical or dental care, but of being lovingly cared for by his adoptive parents-and the whole village. His early education, conveyed through oral tradition and imbued with a deep reverence for nature, taught him the hunting and fishing skills needed for survival. In contrast, his education at the Bureau of Indian Affairs school endeavored to Americanize the students and to denigrate their heritage. Hensley later attended a Baptist boarding school in Tennessee where he was encouraged to assimilate into the Southern teen lifestyle of the time, further removing him from his beloved Inupiat heritage. With humor and pathos, the author describes his youthful experiences straddling two cultures. At George Washington University, he became interested in civil rights and advocated for Native causes. 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 (Little, Brown, 2007).-Jackie Gropman, formerly at Fairfax County Public Library System, Fairfax, VA

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
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5.84(w) x 8.48(h) x 0.97(d)

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 were excruciatingly short. The sun did not rise until just after nine o’clock in the morning, and it set well before three in the afternoon, hours before the start of the big event. As the sky darkened, people began streaming toward the center of Alaska Methodist University, now known as Alaska Pacific University. There were Iñupiat and Yupiat, Aleut and Athapascan, Tlingit and Haida, students and elders, tribal and village leaders, politicians, businessmen, and ordinary citizens.

They had come to watch history in the making. At last the long, tempestuous process of turning Alaska into a real state was about to be completed. The grand poohbahs of Big Oil were poised to start tapping the 10 billion barrels of petroleum discovered three years earlier at Prudhoe Bay. Big Labor could hardly wait for the construction jobs that would be required to build the $8 billion, 800-mile-long pipeline needed to funnel the black gold to market. And the environmentalists had their sights on the 150 million acres that were promised as protected wilderness areas, parks, and fish and wildlife sanctuaries.

But I think it is fair to say that no group was more anxious that day than Alaska’s Native peoples. There were tensions in that room. After all, a centuries-long saga of warfare, treachery, apartheid, betrayal, and hopelessness was coming to an official end. For more than a hundred years, Native Alaskans had waited for clarification of their rights to ancient homelands. And finally, after considerable disagreement, a settlement was about to be announced. The United States Congress had agreed to set aside 44 million acres and earmark nearly $1 billion for Alaska’s Natives.

The hundreds assembled stood motionless as the evening’s business began. A familiar voice echoed through the room, piped in from Washington, D.C. "I want you to be among the first to know that I have just signed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act," said President Richard Milhous Nixon. The new law, he declared, was "a milestone in Alaska’s history and in the way our government deals with Native and Indian peoples."

I was there. For five years I had battled to secure our traditional lands. As an unknown graduate student, I had helped to organize Alaska Natives, explaining to all who would listen that we were in urgent danger of losing the lands that had sustained our forefathers for thousands of years. I had run for state office and won, then painstakingly learned the ways of politics. More than a hundred times I had traveled across the continent between my home state and Washington, D.C., where Congress would decide the fate of Native claims. And I had faced the wrath of officials and business interests who wanted to crush those claims.

"Take Our Land, Take Our Life." That was our motto, a phrase I repeated over and over as I made speech after speech on the floor of the state legislature, or lobbied at conventions and church meetings. Our demands were reasonable and just, I argued; people of goodwill must recognize that we deserved a fair settlement.Alaska has a way of enveloping souls in its vast, icy embrace. For some, the inescapable attraction lies in its pristine rivers, lakes, forests, and glaciers, and in its unbelievable expanses —365 million acres, more than twice the size of Texas. Others are drawn by its enormous resources, the unthinkably rich stores of zinc, gold, timber, wildlife, fish, and oil. For me, Alaska is my identity, my home, and my cause. I was there, after all, before Gore-Tex replaced muskrat and wolf skin in parkas, before moon boots replaced mukluks, before the gas drill replaced the age-old tuuq we used to dig through five feet of ice to fish. I was there before the snow machine, back when the huskies howled their eagerness to pull the sled. I was there before the outboard motor showed up, when the qayaq and umiaq glided silently across the water, and I was there when the candle and the Coleman lamp provided all the light we needed. I was there when two feet of sod and a dirt floor protected us from the winter elements and the thin walls of a tent permitted the lapping waves, loons, and seagulls to lull us to sleep in the summer. There, before the telephone, when we could speak only face-to-face, person-toperson about our lives and dreams; before television intruded upon the telling and retelling of family chronicles and legends.

Still, by the time I was born our culture was already seeing the devastating effects of Alaska’s undeniable attractions for people from what we called "Outside"—anywhere beyond the lands our ancestors had fished and hunted for ten thousand years. From the first, the Outsiders brought epidemics of disease that decimated our people. Their massive whale hunts had caused terrible deprivation among those who depended on whales for survival. In the early spring of 1899, the business tycoon and railroad executive Edward Harriman led an expedition along Alaska’s coast. He reported:

White men, uncontrolled and uncontrollable, already swarm

over the Alaska coast, and are overwhelming the Eskimo.

They have taken away their women, and debauched their

men with liquor; they have brought them strange new diseases

that they never knew before and in a very short time

they will ruin and disperse the wholesome, hearty, merry

people we saw. . . . But there is an inevitable conflict between

civilization and savagery, and wherever the two touch each

other, the weaker people must be destroyed.

And as the Outsiders moved in and took control of our lands and resources, they’d brought another crushing burden: the heavy hand of government over our lives. With Outsider control came Outsider demands. My family and I were supposed to learn a new language, adopt profoundly different notions of private property; we were supposed to adjust our communal society to one based on capitalism, selfinterest, and individual choice. Even before statehood, the effort to change Native Alaskans into proper "Americans" was starting up, a joint project of the Christian missionaries and the U.S. government. When I was fifteen, I was cleaned up and sent off to boarding school in Tennessee, where I studied everything but my own people and our history. I swallowed hard, teary-eyed, and left my family for an odyssey that, half a century later, led me to a brick home on Arlington Ridge in Virginia, just a few miles from both the home of George Washington and the White House.

In the intervening years, I learned a great deal about a nation in the midst of a profound transition. I lived in America’s South before the explosion of the civil rights movement, and saw .rsthand the old, tradition-bound system that was soon to change. I lived through the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. I marched from the U.S. Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial to hear Martin Luther King, Jr.—and later learned of his murder in Tennessee, a state I had come to love. I experienced the Flower Power years and the antiwar movement. I saw Alaska become the forty-ninth state.

I immersed myself in the Alaska Native land claims movement, and helped found the Northwest Alaska Native Association and the Alaska Federation of Natives. I ran for the Alaska legislature and won, and twice became the head of the state’s Democratic Party. President Lyndon Johnson appointed me to the National Council on Indian Opportunity, where I served with, among others, George Shultz, Donald Rumsfeld, and Hubert Humphrey. I even became a corporate executive with an Iñuit-owned company in my home area of northwest Alaska, where we worked mightily to uplift our people economically by melding our ancient cultural ways with the modern tools of capitalism.

The world I was born into and the life I lived in my early years will never exist again. Yet, contrary to Edward Harriman’s predictions, we’re still here. And our spirit lives on. It is our history that is fading, because it’s never actually been written down and fully told. I am an avid collector of anything involving the Iñuit or Alaska, and I have scoured countless old book collections. It amazes me: most of the books written about Alaska have been by people aiming to glorify their personal brush with Alaska’s magnetism. Most knew almost nothing about Alaska Natives, even after spending a lifetime among us as teachers, missionaries, or bureaucrats. Many saw only the surface of our lives and never understood our inner world. Some focused on the bizarre or contradictory—on our tattoos, our eating habits, our nose-kissing, our smells, our a natkut (shamans). In most cases, they did not comprehend our language. The fact that wrenching changes had befallen us and we were working hard to adjust our lifestyles and values to those of the immigrants was lost in the stories they told.

And I began to realize that someday, somewhere, somebody was going to try to tell my story—and through it, our story. So ultimately I decided I might as well try to do it myself.

The Iñupiat sense of propriety includes a strong taboo against blowing your own horn. I didn’t want my own people to think that I was trying to elevate myself; we all know that in life, it takes many people to create success. So when I made up my mind to do my best to shine some light on the Arctic and on the story of a people most Americans barely know exist, I didn’t hesitate. I immediately called my relatives to let them know what I had in mind so they wouldn’t be surprised. They unanimously encouraged me.

The writing itself has been an odyssey. Along the way, I have learned much about myself, my family, and our people. In the midst of the project, I heard that there was to be an auction in Indianapolis, that among the items for sale was a batch of letters "from Eskimos in Kotzebue, Alaska, 1915–1918"—and that six of them had been written by Igÿgÿiagÿruk, William Hensley, my grandfather! He had corresponded with Isabel Reed, from Elkhart, Indiana, telling about life at that time. He wrote of the local deaths from influenza, about his six years working with the reindeer herd, about hunting foxes and lynx. He asked her about the world war that was raging. It was as if the spirit of my ataata, my grandfather, had suddenly come to life and was speaking to me. I had never known him and knew little about him, and to me, it was like a small miracle.

When I began writing, I knew nothing about the craft, and essentially summoned up the gift all Iñupiat have within them—the art of storytelling. I imagined myself in a small sod iglu telling about various episodes in my life as I remembered them.

Honesty is a paramount virtue among our people, and I knew that in telling my story I would have to confront painful issues—something that is not easy for an Iñupiaq man. We are expected to be strong and reserved, and to suffer in silence. Well, I am of mixed blood, and perhaps I can be forgiven for discussing issues that our people usually take with them to their graves.

In the process of writing, I began to see that my story was the story of a hundred thousand Alaska Natives of every tribe, spanning several generations—a story of families and cultures in danger of being obliterated by change, disease, and cultural upheaval. The more I wrote, the more I realized that it was even broader than that. Our story was the story of an entire people across the polar world—and of others as well. I saw the American Indians, who were pushed from shore to shore and yet to this day carry on their identity and culture in parcels scattered across this great land. I saw the generations of immigrants to America who suffered the indignities all minorities face as they tried to fit in. I began to understand how millions of people throughout the world have fought to maintain their identities and unlock the hold of colonial powers on their leaders and resources. We have all tried to find our way amid torrents of change in a world in which others controlled our physical space, as well as our minds, spirits, and identities.

Excerpted from Fifty Miles from Tomorrow by William L.Iggiagruk Hensley.

Copyright © 2009 by William L.Iggiagruk Hensley.

Published in 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

Meet the Author

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.

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Fifty Miles from Tomorrow: A Memoir of Alaska and the Real People 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
m_e More than 1 year ago
Alaska born and raised, FIFTY MILES FROM TOMORROW brings back images of the Alaska I remember as a child growing up in Fairbanks in the sixties. My mother was raised in Kotzbue, the daughter of a Russian Trader (her mother, my grand mother) was the married to Boris Magid's (Willie Hensley's biological father's) older brother, before she was married to my grandfather.

Reading Willie Hensley's book FIFTY MILES FROM TOMORROW, I could smell the open pot coffee brewing on the stove, and conjure up pictures of the foamy grounds as I dumped in the cup of cold water and stirred. I could hear the conversations of oldtimers discussing their hunting stories and sightings of wolves, bears, and moose around the neighborhood. Then there were the short bright cold winter days and luxuriously long summer days. I have never tasted blueberries as good as those growing wild in the boggy moss in the woods around my childhood home. I will always treasure my memories of enjoying the quiet and clever humor of Inupiut aquaintences by the light of a coleman lantern.

FIFT MILES FROM TOMORROW not only conjures up images that are pure and delightful Alaska, it also gives an insider story of the struggles of an emerging nation, that of the Inupiut people. Being able to adapt to life when bombarded with change, and still maintain a purity of culture is a significant challenge. Willie Hensley is kind enough to open a window to his soul and let us take a peak at what it cost to take on that challenge.

Congratulations Willie, well done.
cnp More than 1 year ago
Mr. Hensley has accomplished such wonderful tasks for the Inupiaq people and is a great example for all of us. Most of all it is amazing to me that after all what he has endured and accomplished, he still felt that something more had to be done for his people; to lift their spirits up and remind us of who we are. In the last three chapters of the book, is exactly what we all need to remember as Native Americans especially. We still can continue on in this world even though sometimes we feel like we live in two worlds. Reading the last three chapters will definitely inspire all of us. Even though you have come from a humble beginnings, as many of us, you have set a great example. You truely have "Inupiat Ilitqusiat." Can't began to say enough of your book.
cmac1 More than 1 year ago
A man born on the cusp of a far reaching change. He was in the right time and the right place to bring about something that had far reaching consequences far beyond what even he thought.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Chris-An More than 1 year ago
I am so glad our book club chose to read this book. I had great difficulty getting into it as the personal narrative of his upbringing among the Iñupiak people was not that engaging, But by the end of the book, Mr. Hensley uses this simple beginning for a powerful theme to close the book. When I finally reached the section where the political action began, I totally became engrossed with the challenge of the people in keeping their land and the realization Mr. Hensley had that what had happened to the indigenous people in the lower 48 and their loss of land and culture would happen in Alaska unless they united for action. It is to Mr. Hensley's considerable honor that he worked so hard to do so. The book is compelling and something I had heard nothing of in any discussion of Alaskan statehood. Very thought provoking indeed.
Edie40 More than 1 year ago
I felt the book was well written. It kept my attention from the time I opened it until I finished it. I found the book so interesting I didn't want to put it down. Anyone with a love of Alaska and a desire to explore and understand what it was like growing up Native in the bush, will find this book a compelling read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago