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