Why Alaska Native Villages Were Quick To Self-Isolate

Scarred by a legacy of colonial diseases, Alaska tribes quickly cut off the outside world.

Yereth Rosen April 8, 2020

A Yupik Eskimo elder outside his home in the town of Napakiak on the Yukon Delta, Alaska. (Photo by Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images)

ANCHOR­AGE, ALAS­KA — For Patri­cia Cochran, fam­i­ly his­to­ry can­not be sep­a­rat­ed from past pan­demics. An Inu­pi­at who grew up in the city of Nome on the Bering Sea, Cochran remem­bers her mother’s har­row­ing child­hood sto­ries of the Span­ish flu. It was a time shad­owed by death, when bod­ies wrapped in sheets were cart­ed away to a mass grave. The pan­dem­ic dev­as­tat­ed the region’s Native pop­u­la­tion in 1918 and 1919, rav­aging vil­lages and killing almost all of Cochran’s mother’s family. 

Cochran, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Alas­ka Native Sci­ence Com­mis­sion, says she shares her mother’s expe­ri­ence to teach a les­son for the COVID-19 era. Our tenac­i­ty, inge­nu­ity and spir­it has sus­tained us over cen­turies. We will get through this.” 

Valerie Nur­r’araaluk David­son, a Yup’ik from south­west­ern Alas­ka, has a sim­i­lar fam­i­ly his­to­ry with dis­eases. Her grand­moth­er had nine chil­dren; five died. The four who lived are all real­ly good hand-wash­ers,” says David­son, a for­mer com­mis­sion­er of the Alas­ka Depart­ment of Health and Social Ser­vices who will become pres­i­dent of Alas­ka Pacif­ic Uni­ver­si­ty in late April.

Now, past suf­fer­ing of Alaska’s native peo­ple is shap­ing emer­gency actions that aim to pre­vent the spread of the coro­n­avirus. In tiny vil­lages and across the sprawl­ing North Slope Bor­ough, author­i­ties act­ed ear­ly to enact some of the nation’s tough­est trav­el lim­its. The bor­ough, for exam­ple, barred entry to its eight com­mu­ni­ties for every­one but indi­vid­u­als with spe­cial waivers. There is a prac­ti­cal rea­son for the restric­tion — the lim­its of local health facil­i­ties — but his­to­ry also plays a role.

In the past, our peo­ple and cul­ture expe­ri­enced sim­i­lar threats to our health and lives,” North Slope Bor­ough May­or Har­ry K. Brow­er Jr. not­ed in his emer­gency order, issued March 18. Our elders remem­ber the loss of near­ly an entire gen­er­a­tion, and we must act now, out of an abun­dance of cau­tion, to avoid a region­al pan­dem­ic and loss of life.”

Kasigluk, a Yup’ik vil­lage of about 550 in south­west­ern Alas­ka, sus­pend­ed all trav­el into and out of the com­mu­ni­ty March 20. Grayling, an Athabas­can vil­lage on the Yukon Riv­er, announced the same pol­i­cy a few days ear­li­er. Any­one who leaves is not allowed to return for 30 days and must be screened for COVID-19 before entry. In Unalak­leet, an Inu­pi­at vil­lage on the Bering Sea coast that has imposed its own sweep­ing trav­el ban, trib­al offi­cials are urg­ing hunters to stay away from oth­er vil­lages. On March 27, Gov. Mike Dun­leavy ordered a halt to all nonessen­tial intrastate trav­el, but stopped short of vil­lages’ more aggres­sive restrictions.

As of March 29, Alas­ka had 114 con­firmed COVID-19 cas­es, but none were in the state’s rur­al west­ern region or North Slope Borough.

Vil­lages first began restric­tions dur­ing this year’s Idi­tar­od Trail Sled Dog Race, which began March 7. Vil­lages along the trail iso­lat­ed race check­points as mush­ers passed. These com­mu­ni­ties absolute­ly love the Idi­tar­od,” Cochran says. But we’re not real­ly will­ing to have out­siders come into the villages.”

Nome is now under an emer­gency order requir­ing any­one who enters the city to self-quar­an­tine for 14 days. The order makes explic­it ref­er­ence to the Span­ish flu pan­dem­ic that took the lives of Cochran’s rel­a­tives. Some of the young Native Alaskans look at it as almost a geno­cide,” says Nome City Man­ag­er Glenn Steckman.

From the ear­li­est days of Euro­pean con­tact, new­ly intro­duced dis­eases wiped out large seg­ments of the indige­nous pop­u­la­tion. In the 1830s, small­pox killed a quar­ter to two-thirds of vil­lage res­i­dents around the state. A com­bi­na­tion of dis­ease and famine wiped out all but two vil­lages on St. Lawrence Island between 1878 and 1880. Measles, mumps and impre­cise­ly record­ed ill­ness­es like con­ta­gious rot­ting fever” each took their toll as well.

Vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­ca­ble dis­eases stems in part from inad­e­quate water and waste­water ser­vices and over­crowd­ed liv­ing spaces. In Alas­ka, rur­al Native chil­dren are hos­pi­tal­ized for res­pi­ra­to­ry syn­cy­tial virus at rates five times the nation­al rate. The state has one of the nation’s high­est per capi­ta tuber­cu­lo­sis caseloads.

With about a quar­ter of rur­al Alas­ka house­holds lack­ing ade­quate san­i­ta­tion, David­son says, it can be chal­leng­ing to do the kind of hand­wash­ing that her fam­i­ly mem­bers prac­ticed. It requires melt­ing snow and melt­ing ice and heat­ing it on the stove,” she says.

David­son hopes the COVID-19 cri­sis will ulti­mate­ly spur across-the-board pub­lic health improve­ments — includ­ing the mod­ern­iza­tion of water and waste­water sys­tems in remote regions of Alas­ka. Once in a while,” she says, the world changes in a way that makes us take stock of where we’ve been, where we are and where we’re going.”

Yereth Rosen is a long­time reporter based in Alaska.
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