Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Dynamism and Durability of Alaska's Native Leadership

William L. Iggiagruk Hensley has long been regarded as one of Alaska's leaders. His influence over state and national policies extends to over 40 years of efforts. Some have had remarkable success. Others have not.

His early inspiration partially came from the Northwest Alaska Native activism sparked by the threat of a thermonuclear experiment to be performed upon his homeland by the bizarrely named U.S. Department of Nuclear Excavation. His earliest well-known activist moment may have been his 1969 testimony on behalf of Alaska Native land claims, a speech since titled by some, "This is Our Land":

We are testing the American political system. We have found it responsive up to this time, and have hope. We know the history of our country in dealing with the American Indian, and want to see a final chapter not written in blood, or in deception, or in injustice. We are not numerous, and recognize the pitfalls in securing this unprecedented kind of legislation.

We are seeking an alternative to wardship. We seek to offer alternatives to Eskimo and Indian people, rather than a one-way ticket into the confused mainstream. We feel our people cannot convert to a cash economy overnight and will continue to fish and hunt for many years. On the other hand, we see that the young Natives seek education and new places. These should be available. We want to be able to live longer and more decently, without having to stoop in indignity because of a degrading welfare system. We feel this is possible, if we can secure the kind of land settlement we are proposing.

That was 40 years ago. Hensley has since been a member of both houses of our legislature, and has held numerous positions in industry, finance, Native governance and government. He was on the ticket, along with Tony Knowles at the top,
in the strange 1990 gubernatorial race won by the Alaska Independent Party's candidate, Wally Hickel.

Hensley has recently published a biographical book, titled Fifty Miles from Tomorrow. I'm looking forward to reading it. I've met him a few times over the years, but we've traveled separate circles so far.

Hensley penned an op-ed in Tuesday's New York Times that is the most profound of post-mortems on the Palin administration so far, written from within our Native community. Here's an excerpt:

TEN thousand summers have come and gone here in Alaska and the village people are already preparing for another cold winter by drying and smoking salmon, rendering seal oil and drying the meat and hoping for a bountiful berry season. In the meantime, our governor has called it quits 18 months before the end of her four-year term. She leaves tomorrow, to be replaced by her lieutenant governor, Sean Parnell.

The Inuit have a word, “qivit,” that you do not want to have applied to you. It means to quit or give up when the going gets rough. In traditional times, and that was very recent, if you gave up as a leader you were jeopardizing yourself and everyone around you. It takes a lot of effort to maintain life in the bitter cold of the Arctic.

Things weren’t much different when Alaska became a state 50 years ago. It was you and your family out there, hewing a living from the land and what little cash economy that existed.


We have high suicide and school dropout rates, and problems of poverty and alcohol and drug abuse. The Anchorage area faces an energy shortage due to declining gas fields and the villages face almost insurmountable energy costs; key resource development projects are languishing, and there is no revenue sharing for Alaska for offshore oil development even though we have 33,000 miles of coastline.

In short, Alaska had a governor who had the stature within the state, nationally and internationally, to deal with our problems. She could have used her position to find solutions to the high costs and financial insecurities of our far-northern state. Instead, she abandoned her role as the state’s leader in midstream, making her the only governor in our state’s history to "qivit" in the true sense of the word, at a time when we need strong leadership. Good luck, Governor Parnell — may the great Arctic spirits be with you.

Hensley is one of our state's most articulate and powerful - mostly behind the scenes - leaders. His perspective on Palin's short tenure, compared to "ten thousand summers" is almost unnerving.

This past Sunday, I was at an event where both Diane Benson and Terzah Poe were present. I've worked a lot with Diane since 2006, but only met Terzah this past spring. Diane is Tlingit. Terzah, like Willie, is Inupiat. Both women have worked with Hensley on one project or another over the decades.

I was struck by the power of Terzah's engagement with me when I showed my frustration at the high number of highly educated, pragmatic and visionary Alaska Natives whose solutions to rural problems seem to go unnoticed here. She was animated that I regarded this as quite obvious. I can't wait to talk with her more about this, because she's an important figure in Shell Oil's plans to drill offshore in the Chukchi Sea, a project I don't endorse.

But she knows full well how many scores of brilliant minds from all our Native heritages there are out there with pragmatic solutions to a time that takes into account not just "ten thousand summers" past, but that many in our shared future.

Both Hensley and Poe have sometimes been criticized from within the Native communities and the progressive community for being too cozy with mineral extraction companies. Diane Benson has not, to my knowledge.

Back in April 2008 Benson did propose opening a dialogue between Conoco-Phillips and their Denali natural gas pipeline proposal, with the Alaska Native community. I wrote about it then, at DailyKos. To me, the most important parts of Benson's proposal were those regarding a possible restructuring of how we educate rural Alaskans to do the resource extraction jobs in Alaska:

In your May 10, 2006 Project Summary for a Proposed Gas Pipeline Project, you outline plans to invest five million dollars in workforce training and related programs in Alaska. While I commend your commitment to investing in our education and vocational programs, I urge you to substantially increase the amount of your expected contribution for these programs. In today’s proposal, you outline $30 million to fund job training programs, in-state feasibility studies, and infrastructure upgrade studies. However, there is no indication of how the amount will be split among these three programs. Five million dollars is woefully inadequate to achieve the goals you set out in your 2006 proposal or in today’s presentation. As you know, Alaska’s workforce is exceedingly skilled, particularly in the fields of mineral exploration and extraction. However, in order to compete in the global economy, we need to boost our commitment to:

• Increasing Alaska’s role in downstream processing (both oil and gas);
• Investing in Alaskan programs in materials research, civil and chemical engineering, and related disciplines;
• Investing in Alaskan alternative energy programs, including reducing greenhouse emissions during all phases of construction.

In essence, I urge you to invest in Alaska’s educational programs immediately to ensure that the project has a highly skilled workforce for the start of construction. As an Alumni and one committed to the University of Alaska, I urge you to work with the University of Alaska’s excellent physical and social science departments to help form and fund a UA Center for Natural Resource Studies, which can serve as an interdisciplinary center for materials studies (extraction and conservation) and engineering, preparing Alaska’s bright students for promising future careers in the industry and beyond. I write this mindful of both BP and ConocoPhillips previous generous donations to the University of Alaska system and the strategic partnership which the industry has with the UA system. Nevertheless, in light of the massive scope of the Alaska Gas Pipeline project, I believe a greater investment in Alaska’s education system at this point is both necessary and wise.

As our experience with the TAPS made clear, despite Alaska’s adequate skilled workforce, the gas pipeline will bring thousands of new workers from out of the state. Consequently, besides ensuring that Alaska’s workforce training programs turn out highly skilled employees who will work on the pipeline, I would like to suggest a workable framework for involving Alaska’s trade unions in the discussion at this early planning stage, both to ensure compliance with federal and state labor regulations as well as to streamline labor relations – crucial on a project of this magnitude. Both of these proposals are plainly in the interests of both the Consortium and the people of Alaska.

When Benson wrote her query to Conoco-Phillips, and announced it to the press, there was no response. Yet it was the most reasoned and detailed of any look into the new proposal at that time.

Since then, I've observed too many instances of practical solutions to seemingly intractable problems in Alaska proposed by Native leaders going unnoticed.

This is not right.

This is not sensible.

This is just plain wrong.

images - Willie Hensley from his web site; Terzah & Diane - PA


alaskapi said...

This is beautifully written.
This is so true.
And you are correct...
It is just not right.

Martha Unalaska Yard Sign said...

Hey AlaskaPi, that was my comment exactly! Well since you are my sis I guess it's OK. Phil, ditto what she said. Thanks for all that you do, and I just love this guy!

Anonymous said...

You just couldn't resist taking one last swipe at her could you ?

You might want to consider treatment for you SPOCD, it makes you look.....small.

alaskapi said...

Oh for crying out loud, Anony @6;47!
Please take your own advice IF all you got out of this post is "one last swipe"...your remark makes you look...dense.
The policies of the Palin administration regarding Native issues were half- hearted both in development and follow through which is especially vexing in that a large number of rural voters helped make up the 48% which put them in office.
Folks who voted because they thought there would be new dialogue and action on rural issues- Native or not- have been pretty let down...
If it's time to move on and it is- we need to remind ourselves of Alaskan leaders and citizens, Native and not, who have good ideas and are ready to go to work on solving issues that have drug on far too long.

Anonymous said...

What I find odd about Alaska, is the huge amount of college educated Alaska Natives not working or working "below" their education.

I work in a office with 12 anchorage staff and 9 field staff. When we hired a person to do our IT work, they came educated and experienced. The network system set up, was everything we had asked for, for at least 9 years. He was Alaska Native. It was clear before he was hired, that one person was racist towards Natives. Coffee pot talk, more than once, revealed her hatred of Natives. Once he was hired, she was unrelentless in her complaining about our IT guy. Her complaining got more crafty & manipulative as the year went on. Then one day, she walked in the door with a empty bottle of vodka and loudly announced she found it under our IT guys truck.

Upper management didn't know how to deal with her. The way she dropped inuendo here and there was so demeaning, yet you could directly say she was directly aiming such towards our lone Ak Native or just Ak Natives in general. He left our company citing quality of life reasons and my boss knew exactly what he kent, so did many of us . The racist chic was fired within a month for insubordination. Basically she decided to disconnect everyones computors from the network one day after work, because "our IT guy was going to plant a virus in the company's network".

I believe this kind of behavior, as demonstrated by my former racist co worker happens more than we like to think. More than once, co workers complained to management of how uncomfortable she made our environment, but it was difficult to pin point her behavior as wrong.

I see our former IT guy around once in a while. He is happy to be away from our company. He says it wasn't a pleasent place to work. And I have to agree with him. The crazy racist chic caused weirdness in a very manipulative and suttle way.

Anonymous said...

Here's hoping that the new administration (probably 2010, not holding out much hope for SP v 2.0) will make meaningful & honest efforts toward reconciling rural Alaskan needs & issues with State issues.

Thanks for continuing to highlight the real challenges that Alaska faces.

As was pointed out by the INTELLIGENT poster above (that does not mean you, anonymous), Palin had Alaska natives to thank for her slim win over Knowles. Her empty promises of change. Sound familiar, Obama-haters? What the Alaskan natives, and other former supporters, hadn't counted on was the fact that the change would be for the worse.

Alaska has always, and I do mean always, faced these challenges, and it is time for them to be addressed. Perhaps I am being overly optimistic when I say that the problems that we've endured under the former govs Murkowski & Palin have created the perfect environment for real change to be effected. I think that this is the perfect time & environment for strong, dynamic Native leaders to stand up & be recognized, for their contributions to dialogue to be given the weight that they deserve.

Anyone who thinks that Alaska is some utopia, and that Palin somehow made this a BETTER state to live in is totally delusional and needs to be checked out by a mental professional ASAP.

I was born & raised in Alaska, and lived there for over 30 years. I've seen plenty of governors come & go, and Palin was by far the worst in terms of policy and public-trust. Frank the Bank had nothing on her.

Now that I'm living in Canada (oil industry transfer) I've been reading about a lot about local native issues here -- there are many parallels between Canada and Alaska native issues. There was recently a highly contentious tribal leader election, with the winner promising solidarity. Alaskan natives need to work on achieving some solidarity. It seems unfair & unjust that some are reaping benefits of oil exploration directly while others are suffering due to the high price of oil. Major disconnect.

Thanks Phil. This was a great piece and I look forward to a more positive follow-up, at least I am hoping for one!


Philip Munger said...


There is always more to learn. I wish I'd been able to encapsulate more of what I HAVE learned in this short piece, but I've been mulling it over since having a great talk with Terzah this Sunday.

anon @ 9:09 am,

I've many stories like yours, about the racism some whites simply cannot bridge. And many good stories about building bridges along with Alaska's first people, especially while working with Diane form 2006 to August 2008.

Anonymous said...


I envy you the opportunities that you have to talk to people willing to discuss the weight of ALaska's challenges, Native and other.

If you have the chance to talk to John Shively, I highly suggest doing so. He's a very thoughtful, intelligent guy with lots to add to any discussion & a thorough understanding of Native issues as well as political/state issues. His wife wrote "Growing Up Native" several years ago. She is fantastic (they both are) and worth seeking out, as well.


honestyinGov said...

Thank you for your insightful stories and views about what is happening in the Native community. When you don't have respect for the past... the future is not nearly as bright. Words are not as important as ' actions '. Villages like Nunam Uqua and Emmonak can attest to that.

What about Parnell's comments on Monday about his support for John Moeller as far as the job he is doing...? We are talking about the same John Moeller that tweeted to $arah is Kosovo that 50% of the substinence needs of that Village had been met... Right? Is he just reciting what people want to hear or is actually on the job and doing anything. Is this the man who should be in place there? Is there a story that needs to be told here before Winter sets in and there is another disaster like last year.

Philip Munger said...

I think we should give John Moller a chance to prove himself under the new administration. We have no way of knowing how Palin and Leighow may or may not have misconstrued info Moller gave them from the lower Yukon that led to the statements about the "50% needs fulfilled." Moller, like all Palin employees appears to have been told to only feed positive info to the Gov's office, but they may have put more positive spin on it than even he gave them.

That being said, there are many many Alaska Natives who could be fulfilling Moller's job at least as well as he appears to be filling it.

Anonymous said...

I know I am woefully behind in commenting on Phil's great comments from this summer on what I consider to be observations on Native/Industry relations in both the conversations he and I had and in his excerpt of Diane Benson's letter to Industry--but they reach deeper than that.

First, Willie Hensley and his wife Abbie Hensley have both taught me and honored me by their time and teachings...I worked for Abbie in the 90's assisting with early education through public television and Willie has always helped me through very interesting times in a number of ways.

The relationship of Native culture to industry in Alaska has not, for the most part, been a positive one. From the early fur traders enslaving local populations (both Russian and American) to the socio-economic upheaval in the Native community due to the building of the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, Alaska Natives have largely been on the short end of the receiving stick where development is concerned. This does not mean impacted regions of developed regions and our people who live in those areas did not benefit, rather that the impact of development at the time to local populations was underestimated and not well planned for...I speak from not only a studied historical standpoint but also as an Alaska Native who lived through the experience of the Trans-Alaska pipeline. Now, I am not blaming any one company, administration (state or federal) or interest group for the lack of foresight during Alaska's early resource development, rather asking that we not repeat the mistakes of the the past.

I grew up in Alaska when being Native was not "cool" and the racism I experienced not unique to me but widespread to most Natives in one way or another...as I work in the oil industry my goal is to deliver solutions for both Alaskans and Industry that make sense and preserve the integrity of our culture and environment...this is not a task for the faint of heart...I have found it hard, conflicting and deeply troubling at times--as many of my mentors in Alaska told me it would be--including Willie Hensley. Only when the people at the table are "honest brokers" from all sides does the magic happen of the win-win envisoned by people like me and so many of us in Alaska who want to see better race relations and a brighter future.

Terzah Tippin Poe