Let it be clearly understood that I am an insatiable reader. My best friends are books, or in books. I will read almost anything. These days, I multi-task, performing mindless chores like ironing or weeding or housekeeping while listening to an audio-book.
I have a friend who is not satisfied with simply telling me about books he's read. Every so often an unexpected box arrives from Amazon. It's a book from G, one he decided it is important for me to read.
The most recent arrival is entitled "Fifty Miles from Tomorrow" by William L. Iggiagruk Hensley. It's cover photo shows 3 men, 3 boats, 3 American flags. The scene is stereotypically Alaskan, the men are stereotypically Eskimo. It looks cold, desolate.
"You should appreciate this." my friend said via e-mail.
Hensley and I are about the same age. He grew up in Alaska, I grew up in Hawaii. He grew up on the fringes of civilization, I grew up in a city. He was raised in a very traditional native family, one that in Hawaii we would call hanai. I was raised in a bi-cultural home where one parent had no respect for my traditional roots, the other 2 generations removed from her native heritage. Nevertheless, you'd think Hensley's and my life experiences would be roughly similar.
Hensley grew up with dirt floors, one-room houses, kerosene lamps, few educational opportunities. My mother grew up in the country with kerosene lamps and outhouses as a way of life. I grew up in an affluent neighborhood, in a comfortable but not necessarily affluent home, had lots of educational opportunities. That's not as unusual in Hawaii as it might be elsewhere. By the 1880's, Hawaii was the most literate nation in the world. An independent nation where every citizen was encouraged to read, write, and vote.
Hensley was sent away to school, removed from all influence of his own culture, forced to speak English, punished when he lapsed back into his own tongue even occasionally and with his native schoolmates. I am reminded of the Indian Schools of the Lower 48 one, two, even three generations ahead of Hensley and me. In my mother's era, at a school now known for preserving Hawaiian culture, students were not allowed to speak Hawaiian or dance hula. They were not taught Hawaiian history. But my mother is of the generation of Hensley's parents.
Hensley became an activist for the rights of the Native Alaskans. His first focus was on retaining native rights to their traditional land). He did not fight the battle alone, never claims to, but is credited with giving it a voice and a heart.
I am reminded of my grandmother's response when, literally on her deathbed, she was told that statehood papers had been signed and Hawaii was officially the 50th of the United States. "First they took my flag, then they took my queen. Now they have taken my land."
Hensley realized that while land ownership and control was important, there was a larger battle to be won.
“It wasn’t enough to claim our lands,” he writes. “We had to claim our ways of thinking, acting, and living.”
It is a lesson native peoples across North America, across the planet, are learning. It is a truth we are struggling to retain. It is what makes us who we are.
Give thanks for all of those who step into the political arena to defend the beliefs, lifestyle and values of native peoples.
Don't forget to pray.