FAIRBANKS — Alaska Federation of Natives delegates reacted enthusiastically on Friday to news that one of their own has been selected to be a policy adviser for the U.S. assistant secretary of Indian Affairs.
Elizabeth “Saagulik” Hensley got a long standing ovation from the crowd at AFN after it was announced that she would be an adviser to Larry Echo Hawk. She will move to Washington, D.C. specifically to offer guidance on Alaska Native issues.
Echo Hawk oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Bureau of Indian Health. The agencies have 10,000 employees and an annual budget of $2.6 billion.
Echo Hawk told the AFN crowd that it’s become clear that an aide with a background in Lower 48 Indian issues isn’t necessarily qualified to be an expert on Alaska Natives. He said one of his priorities since accepting the job 17 months ago has been to hire an aide from Alaska.
“I’ve felt that the conditions we have in Alaska are not the same that we have in the Lower 48 states,” Echo Hawk said.
Hensley has a law degree and has worked as an aide to Rep. Reggie Joule, D-Kotzebue. Echo Hawk said that despite her relative youth, the 27-year-old Kotzebue resident has earned his complete faith.
“I recognize talent when I see it,” he said.
Hensley said the job is a bittersweet opportunity. She quickly accepted the position after it was offered but said she cried after hanging up the phone because she knew it meant moving away from Alaska.
She said the opportunity to speak on behalf of Alaska Natives was too important to pass up.
“They’re in dire need of someone to advocate for them,” she said.
Hensley is the daughter of Willie Hensley, a founding member and former president of AFN who also served in the Alaska Legislature for 10 years and served as commerce commissioner under Gov. Tony Knowles.
Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518.