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Faces of Alaska: Willie Hensley

January 19, 2011

For Willie Hensley, family means relatives who’ve thrived for 10,000 years in the Arctic. It means an uncle who rescues you from squalor and neglect in Nome, returning you to the fold of a traditional Inupiaq family. It means an adopted mother who shares the values you carry into your future as a leader. Join host Kathleen McCoy for conversation with Willie Hensley on Faces of Alaska, Thursday at 8:00 pm repeating at Saturday at 9:00 pm on KAKM Channel 7.

Photos provided by Willie Hensley.

Alaska Native Leader, Willie Hensley

  • Born in 1941 in Kotzebue, 40 miles above the Arctic Circle
  • Grew up hunting, fishing and trapping in the Noatak River delta
  • At age 15, flew from Kotzebue to Tennessee for high school
  • Played football and served as several class presidents
  • Started college at UAF, but transferred to George Washington University, graduating in 1966 in political science
  • Started graduate school at UAF, took a constitutional law class from Jay Rabinowitz, wrote his famous argument for aboriginal land claims, launching ANCSA securing Native land claims; signed into law by Nixon in 1971
  • Helped form Alaska Federation of Natives in October 1966
  • Launched the regional Native corporation, NANA, owned by 12,500 Inupiaq shareholders, and Manilaq, the non-profit arm
  • Served a four-year term in the Alaska House of Representatives, appointed by Gov. Steve Cowper to the Alaska Senate; held Democratic Party positions
  • Wrote the 2009 memoir, “Fifty Miles from Tomorrow”
  • His legacy, in his view: Securing land claims for Alaska Natives
  • Understanding and working for the survival of the unique Inupiaq spirit

Q & A with Willie Hensley

What did your family give to you, how did it shape you?

My family, first, was responsible for my being here. We managed to survive in a pretty unforgiving world out in the country outside of Kotzebue. I learned much about making a life out on the land from them before the modernization of Alaska. Many of the key values of our culture were part of our life: hard work, cooperation, sharing, humility, loving your children… and many others. These were imbued in me through the family.

What food traditions or recipes do you carry forward from your family?

We did not have recipes in our family when I was growing up. We did not have a lot of spices, mostly salt and pepper and ketchup, sometimes curry.

I still enjoy and crave Inupiaq food despite my urban life. I love dried caribou and seal oil. Usually, with seal oil, there is dried seal meat and other goodies in it.

I make caribou (tutu) stew a lot. it’s never the same as I don’t have a system per se. I try different’s simple.

  • Caribou..preferably bony.
  • Onions, carrots, turnips, potatoes
  • Some rice and elbow macaroni
  • Maybe a tablespoon of Wocestershire sauce
  • Salt and pepper
  • Some stewed tomatoes.

I’m hungrier than hell now! Naturally, you aren’t Inupiaq if you don’t enjoy bowhead muktuk.

I also enjoy beluga muktuk. We normally cook it and store it in seal oil. I like tiliaqaq (tundra or Hudson’s Bay tea that we gather when we’re berry picking). We just add it to Lipton tea and it gives it a nice earthy flavor.

I also love sourdough hotcakes.


Anchorage has a number of good starting places for those interested in digging into their family histories.

Get started on your own story here:

Watch to Willie Hensley talk about his family roots on Faces of Alaska Thursday, Jan. 20 at 8:00 pm and Sunday, Jan. 22 at 9:00 pm on KSKA, Anchorage.

Find out what’s to come on Faces of Alaska part 4 at

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