Skip to Content

2013 Leo Reano Memorial Award


Never in the long and often bitter relationship between the indigenous and non-indigenous peoples in America has there ever been anything quite like the Alaska Native Settlement Act of 1971. Instead of an indigenous people having their land and resources taken away from them without compensation, this act awarded 44 million acres of land and almost $1 billion to Alaska Natives, offsetting their losses in land and resources from the time of Alaska Statehood. And under the law, the resources and almost $1 billion are administered by Alaska Natives, through Native-owned corporations, without the oversight of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

One man’s seminal research into the historical and legal history of Alaska Natives and how the Alaska Statehood Act was about to take 100 million acres of land from them without compensation laid the groundwork for this revolutionary law. His name is William (Willie) Hensley. His research was done when he was fresh out of George Washington University with a B.A. in political science and a newly-elected member of the Alaska House Representatives. His paper galvanized a movement that led to the formation of the Alaska Federation of Natives and the eventual passage by Congress of the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement Act.

Willie Hensley grew up north of the Arctic Circle, in a traditional Inupiat hunter-gather community with no electricity, lights or telephones. In his memoir, Coming of Age in Alaska, Hensley writes: "It was a hard life but a good one. I was there before Gore-Tex replaced muskrat and wolf skin in parkas, before moon boots replaced mukluks, and before the gas drill replaced the tuuq we used to dig through five feet of ice to fish."

Today he is an Alaska icon. As one colleague said of him: "Willie Hensley is first an educator. He teaches, inspires, and exemplifies thoughtful inquiry and the desire to learn." Hensley is a Visiting Professor at the University of Alaska, and his Policy Frontiers course is one of the most popular on campus.

Education has always been near to Willie Hensley’s heart. One of his first big accomplishments in the Alaska House of Representatives was to secure funding for three village high schools in Kiana, Selawik and Noorvik. This was a huge step forward in keeping Native children with their families while attending high school instead of sending them to some faraway Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school (as Willie Hensley was). Willie Hensley also co-sponsored legislation that created the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska. This center had been instrumental in the preservation and study of Alaska Native languages.

Perhaps Willie Hensley's greatest challenge has been his crusade to save the Inupiat culture. He called together key leaders of the region and said: If we do not want to survive as Inupiat people, the thing to do is nothing, as we are well on our way to disintegration as a people.” Then he asked a simple question: “If we want to survive, what was good about our people?” That simple question generated an avalanche of positive values that had guided the Inupiat people for nearly ten thousand years; as a result, Inupiat Illitquesiat (the Inupiat Spirit and Way of Learning) programs were established in the villages to carry on the work of cultural survival and revitalization.