Native American Villages Are At Risk, As Is Rural Alaska

Health Corporation and Village Council of 400-Person Napaskiak Village Started Virus Testing There June 26th Residents of a village near B...

Health Corporation and Village Council of 400-Person Napaskiak Village Started Virus Testing There June 26th

Residents of a village near Bethel are being tested for coronavirus on June 26th, as very real concerns emerge that the village has been infected. The local health corporation, the city, and the village council all have banded together to mandate caution. People in the Yukon-Kuskokwim village of Napaskiak have received mandates that masks to be worn in public, and residents advised to "shelter in place" until July 5th.

All over America, and particularly in the West, the most cautious and proactive groups of people who are trying to make a difference anticipating the coronavirus epidemic are Native Americans. Coming from a strong heritage of oral history, Native Americans everywhere – the Navajo Nation, the Sioux, the people in areas of historic pueblos – are all concerned.

The Navajo Nation covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, and has 250,000 residents. This spring there was more Covid-19 on the reservation than any part of the U.S., after New Jersey and New York. The Ogala Sioux ordered a reservation-wide shutdown in mid-May, as coronavirus entered their community, too. In Alaska, deeply troubled by the horrors of the 1918 flu epidemic, which hit the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta over a century ago, villages in that area were already anticipating the problem in early May, and worked to shut down cross-village traffic. But the virus has now caught up with the Y-K Delta, no matter how diligent they have tried to be.


Native Americans have a long history of succumbing to epidemics. And Alaska is no exception. The 1918 flu epidemic, when it finally hit Alaska, was devastating. According to the Alaska Division of Public Health, the flu came later to Alaska than other parts of the United States...

Alaska Facts & Figures, 1918 Pandemic Influenza Mortality in Alaska writes:

 Alaska appears to have been spared from the first wave that occurred in other areas in the summer of 1918. The first cases in Alaska were identified in the late fall of 1918, concurrent with the second wave in the Lower 48 and Canada, followed by an additional wave in the spring of 1919. Estimates of the numbers of deaths during the epidemic vary; the vast majority of deaths were among Alaska Native people. 


Notice At Entrance To Gulkana Village: "Help Protect Our Elders!" (Photo, May 10th, 2020, Country Journal)

Anyone who lives in the Copper Valley and knew Native elders 20 years ago in the region is well aware that the 1918 flu pandemic was a killer – and that it had a serious effect on local life, killing many people when it finally arrived in this part of Alaska.

For example, Walter Charley was orphaned by it. His story was written below in this publication.

The Copper Center Museum has newspaper pages showing the impact of the flu and how many people quickly died in this part of Alaska once it arrived in 1918.

Bill Buck, of Glennallen, grew up in Nome. He became a famed war hero in World War II. But first he had to survive the diphtheria epidemic that was later celebrated by the Iditarod Sled Dog Race.

In the Copper River Valley, the only actual governmental agencies that exist are the region's Native American villages. The rest of the region is in what is called the "Unorganized Borough."

At least two of the region's villages, Mentasta and Gulkana quickly responded to the threat of coronavirus months ago, by trying to institute barriers to infection. The Copper River Country Journal wrote about those efforts and why they were implemented – to protect the elderly, who are the most valued people in a Native community.


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