Former senator Willie Hensley delivers keynote address

Jason Hersey/Sun Star Reporter
March 26, 2013

Willie Hensley speaks to a young and old crowd in the Wood Center multi-level lounge on March 22, 2013. Hensley served in the Alaska Senate in the 60's and founded much of the Native rights movements in Alaska. Jason Hersey/Sun Star

Willie Hensley speaks to a young and old crowd in the Wood Center multi-level lounge on March 22, 2013. Hensley served in the Alaska Senate in the 60’s and founded much of the Native rights movements in Alaska. Jason Hersey/Sun Star

Former Alaska Senator and long-time Native rights activist Willie Hensley delivered the keynote address of the weekend’s events on Mar. 22. The address focused on the oppression of Alaska Natives since the mid 1700s, while giving a historical perspective of early Alaska statehood, its Legislature and of Alaska Natives’ beginnings in state politics.

Hensley, an Inupiaq from Kotzebue, opened the speech with welcoming words spoken in Inupiaq in the Wood Center to attendees.

Hensley graduated from George Washington University in Washington D.C. with what he joked to be “the most useless degree in America, political science.” But it was a paper on Alaska Native land claims that he wrote for a constitutional law course at UAF in 1966 that changed his life. “It awakened my own sense of justice and also helped affirm my own identity, actually.”

Early in Hensley’s career, he met with Ernest Gruening to discuss Native rights to land claims, a point which he told they never saw eye to eye. This prompted Hensley to pursue politics.

During the address, Hensley compared the Alaska Native culture to that of any other minority culture of the world “whose homelands have been taken, cultures essentially dismembered, languages institutions destroyed and riches secured for governments over which the indigenous people had little or no control, which is a sad fact of life,” Hensley said.

Hensley was elected for the Alaska senate at 25 years-old and in a time when Native rights were very limited. Hensley proposed a bill that said the state should not support organizations that discriminate on the basis of race. The bill stirred uproar around the state, according to Hensley, and was dubbed the “no booze for bigots bill.”

“The beauty of our system is it worked,” Hensley said. Hensley helped initiate a land freeze, which gave time for Alaska natives to lay claim to land in the late 60s. They raised money and expanded the infrastructure for social needs like a Pioneer’s Home in Kotzebue. Pioneer’s Homes were originally established in Alaska as retirement homes from early pioneers.

It was the pipeline days in the 70’s that gave the boost to Alaska which allowed not only Native villages to build village infrastructures, but which the state as a whole based its growth and development.

Hensley helped found NANA Regional Corporation, Alaska Federation of Natives and has served as manager of federal government relations for Alyeska Pipeline Service Company.

“I think it has been that resilient spirit of our people who persevere in this arctic environment. And who have always placed our hopes on the goodwill and understanding of the pioneers who came and those who came after them. And as I see it, it’s now our common homeland, and that we have to work together to make a safe and prosperous home for all of us and our descendants,” Hensley said.

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