Willie Iggiagruk Hensley


Willie Hensley didn't earn a degree at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, but he has often described the awakening he experienced in 1966 while taking a class at the institution.

Hensley, a young Inupiaq man from Northwest Alaska, already had earned an undergraduate degree from George Washington University. But, after returning to Alaska and enrolling in a constitutional law class taught by state Supreme Court Justice Jay Rabinowitz, Hensley wrote a paper on Alaska Native land claims. 

"It really was an eye-opening experience to conduct historical, political and legal research," he said in an interview many years later. "It enabled me to understand that we had a big problem on our hands." 

Hensley during the next few years became a pivotal leader in the effort to secure the congressional settlement of Alaska Native land claims in 1971. He went on to a long career in business and government in Alaska. 

Hensley was born in Kotzebue 1941. He was raised by his mother's cousin and spent his early childhood in a traditional lifestyle — hunting, fishing and living in a sod hut in the Noatak River delta region. In his 2009 autobiography, "Fifty Miles from Tomorrow," he described the scope of the change he experienced across his lifetime. "I was there, after all, before Gore-Tex replaced muskrat and wolf skin in parkas, before moon boots replaced mukluks, before the gas drill replaced the age-old tuuq we used to dig through five feet of ice to fish."

After serving as a Native corporation chief executive, Alaska legislator, state commerce commissioner and Washington, D.C., lobbyist, Hensley most recently joined UA Anchorage as a visiting professor in the College of Business and Public Policy.

More online about Willie Hensley:

  • A keynote address Hensley delivered at UAF in March 2013 commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Alaska Legislature
  • The text of the paper Hensley wrote in 1966 at UAF, along with an introduction he wrote in 2001
  • An interview with Sharon McConnell from 2001
  • A radio broadcast in January 2017, one of the Alaska Public Radio Network's interviews with people portrayed 40 years earlier in John McPhee's book "Coming into The Country"
  • A book review in The New York Times of Hensley's 2009 autobiography, "Fifty Miles from Tomorrow"
  • A keynote speech given at the 2014 Arctic Symposium at the University of Alaska Anchorage