by Ainka Granderson (Trinidad & Tobago, GESA 2011 alumna)
To the haunting notes of the didgeridoo, a procession of Aboriginal elders and leading Indigenous scholars enter, marking the start of the 2011 Narrm Oration. The Narrm Oration is an annual event organised by the Murrup Barak Melbourne Institute for Indigenous Development to profile leading Indigenous thinkers globally in order to enrich the understanding of possible futures for Indigenous Australians.
I had the great fortune to attend this year’s oration on November 2, featuring Mr. William Iggiagruk Hensley, an Inuit Leader known for his extraordinary contribution to the Alaskan Native Land Claims Movement. Mr. Hensley, better known as Willie, has provided leadership in both the public and private sectors, including within the Alaska Legislature, Alaska Federation of Natives and First Alaskans Institute. He has recently been named as Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Alaska – Anchorage.
Willie’s talk was entitled “Resilient Spirit: Alaska Native People and Our Struggle for Land, Identity and Self Determination”. He began with the origin and history of the Inuit – which translates as “humans” – who once spanned across Canada from the Bering Strait to Greenland. He then went on to chronicle the threats to Nunavut – or “our lands” – faced by Alaskan Natives.
He highlighted the fact that Alaska was under Russian rule from the 18th century, and was eventually purchased by the United States (US) for $7.2 million or approximately two cents per acre in 1867. No formal government was instituted until 1884, and US citizenship was not granted to Inuit (along with other First Nation peoples) until 1924. Furthermore, segregation and the marginalization of Inuit continued until the 1940s.
With official statehood for Alaska in 1959, a significant land struggle began as US government attempted to remove over 100 million acres. However, Willie and other Alaskan Natives mobilized and were able to negotiate the enactment of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971 that formally grant 44 million acres and $1 billion to Indigenous-owned corporations. These corporations are managed as businesses, including zinc mines, oil and gas development, and other activities. Willie proudly noted that these corporations employed about 4,000 people and earned $1.3 billion in profit for 2010, with $50 million in earnings for Alaskan Native shareholders.
Willie lamented though that, “it was not enough to improve economically.” He talked of the great sacrifice by many Alaskan Native families to educate their children and ensure future prosperity. Willie, himself, spent his formative years in the Southern US thousands of miles from his ancestral lands. Since the 1980s, he along with the elders have strived to preserve the Inuit identity, languages, and spirituality and promote cultural cohesion. Despite the future challenges of declining employment, increasing living costs and social problems such as alcoholism, Willie is full of hope and confident that the resilient spirit of the Alaskan Natives will prevail.