Fifty Miles from Tomorrow: A Memoir of Alaska and the Real People by William L. Iggiagruk Hensley

(Hardcover - First Edition)

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  • Pub. Date: December 2008
  • 272pp
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    Product Details

    • Pub. Date: December 2008
    • Publisher:Farrar, Straus and Giroux
    • Format: Hardcover, 272pp

    The Barnes & Noble Review

    When someone says "Alaska," can you picture Sarah Palin's smile more readily than the faces of Eskimos? If so, you may have helped former Alaska state legislator William Hensley make a recurring point in his memoir Fifty Miles from Tomorrow: Alaska's Native Americans have faded from the national consciousness -- and receded from their own cultural roots
    -- after generations of government and missionary control. Hensley, the son of an Inupiat mother and a Lithuanian father, grew up during the 1940s in northwestern Alaska, where temperatures could hit -40° F and survival was the chief goal. At 15, he left his hometown of Kotzebue -- and the embrace of his great-uncle's family -- to be educated in the Lower 48. A sojourn at a Baptist academy in Tennessee led him both to graduate school and the civil rights movement, laying the foundation for what would become a lifelong mission to champion native Alaskan territorial rights. As a state legislator Hensley lobbied tirelessly to keep his people from being "homeless in our homeland" and helped fuel a landmark act that, in 1971, allocated nearly $1 billion and 44 million acres to indigenous peoples. What makes Hensley's tale compelling, however, is that it isn't just about regaining lands but about regaining voice. Despite a tendency toward repetition, the closing chapters are among the most enlightening of the lot, as Hensley moves past blame and calls for a deeper kind of homecoming -- the reinstatement of once-dismissed Inupiat values and culture. Does this frank memoir paint a sobering but hopeful portrait of Alaska's original identity? You betcha. --Pearl Chen

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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 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.

    The New York Times - 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.

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    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.

    Customer Reviews

    Pieces of the Alaska I m_e

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    February 01, 2009: 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.

    Fifty Miles from Tomorrowby cnp

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    March 26, 2009: 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.

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