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Native Land Rights: A Q&A with William Hensley

William L. Iggiagruk Hensley, Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Department of Business and Public Policy at University of Alaska, Anchorage was an instrumental figure in the formation of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971, which restored 44 million acres of land to Alaska Natives, the largest such conveyance in the history of the United States. On October 30, Hensley joined Woods Director Chris Field for a conversation about his role in the passage of ANCSA and how land is an integral part of Alaska Native culture and history.

Edited excerpts and a video from the conversation follow below. 

When you were in college, you became an activist for native land rights, what was it that made you decide that was your calling?

Hensley: The big “Aha” for me was the realization that our underlying aboriginal title had not been extinguished by the statehood act but the moment the secretary of interior signed an interim conveyance to the state, we were on our way to losing over 103 million acres of our land. And I realized at that moment that we had to stop that process in order to preserve our rights, because once that interim conveyance was signed, it was going to be gone forever. And the historic solution to Indian claims of land takings was ponderous, expensive and lengthy. And when I realized that the Tlingit Haida had spent 35 years trying to get compensation for 16 million acres of the Tongass National Forest and they only got 7.5 million dollars and not one square inch of land, I thought: this is not right; it’s not even remotely equitable; and that we had to come up with something totally new. 


What were the motivations for the U.S. government to get the Alaska Native claims issue settled?

Hensley: This pressure cooker of time that we were in was 1966 to 1971. What brought the pressures was first of all the state’s efforts to select the land, but then there was the discovery of Prudhoe Bay Oil in 1968. Ten billion barrels they said (it’s nominally about 17 billion). They needed a pipeline right through the center of Alaska so that brought everything to a head. And of course, it was also the beginning of the environmental movement and we had to rally the entire country to allow passage of this legislation. 

We had worked the state hard because if the state wasn’t on board, there was no deal. If the Alaska Natives were divided, there was no deal. We weren’t thinking about at the time, but Alaska was not excited by the idea of 200 sovereign nations out there. (We had 200 villages.) And so the idea of setting up there IRA governments in the state was a non-starter. In a sense, the corporation became a kind of neutral vehicle. And of course, Republicans love money and Nixon was President. And the Democrats wanted to do something good for these minority people and so we had the votes to get it passed. 


Was there also a challenge in bringing the native communities together on this?

Hensley: Oh hell yes there was. 

We had thousands of years of history there and there was a lot of warfare. Because in that environment, you need space and the further north you went, the more space you needed because the food sources were more scattered. And so even within our different cultured groups we warred because your life is dependent on it, having control over that space. We also didn’t share one language. So holding our groups together was not easy. We had some groups that had small populations but vast land uses like the Arctic Slope. And then we had some groups that were real large and quite urbanized. We had to figure out ways to everyone focused and together because if that didn’t happen, we couldn’t have got it done. And we did. It was hard but we had to make accommodations in the legislation to make sure that we were united.


When ANCSA was passed and the 44 million acres was conveyed, did you celebrate that success?

Hensley: We should have been celebrating but we really weren’t celebrating. Because you know, 44 million acres seems like a lot, I mean it’s the biggest settlement ever in Native American history as far as I know. But we’re still giving up 80 to 85 percent of our land holdings for a measly billion dollars. When you consider that just from a small amount of former native lands, in Prudhoe Bay there’s been hundreds of billions of dollars taken off by the leaseholders, state of Alaska, federal government and contractors. And so we accepted the legislation with mixed feelings because we pretty much knew that we probably could never get the forces together again that would allow us to get what we got. 


Why is it important for Alaska Natives to have a cultural stake and understanding in the land and the corporations created through ANCSA?

Hensley: The point I wanted to leave is that in the long run a sense of identity and, I call it spirit, you know, connection to your group is absolutely essential. Usually that spirit is reflected in language and art and music and knowledge and food but if there's nothing else there's at least that spirit. Down the road if there's no connection between you as a shareholder and the land you're going vote to sell because if there's no connection between you in the culture in the land of your forefathers, you might decide to vote with the dissidents who say hey ‘I want my money now’ and there goes your two million acres in your homeland. So I really believe that there's absolutely a direct connection between the culture and the future survival of our corporations and our ability on the land.

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