the big sickness
the big sickness
During the early years of the 20th century, an influenza strain, referred to as the "Spanish Flu," struck the United States. Because of the widely dispersed territory and communities in the U.S., Alaska was one of the last and hardest hit areas of the flu. Given the nomadic and widely geographically dispersed nature of the indigenous communities in rural Alaska, it proved challenging to forewarn villages and establish quarantines against the virus. From the arrival of the virus in Alaska in late fall of 1918 to its decrease and departure in the late spring of 1919, 1,500 to 2,000 Alaska Natives were killed. Communities were nearly entirely wiped out; local culture was decimated; and trauma was inflicted on survivors which has lasted generations.
The influenza spread occurred on ships. From Boston to Philadelphia to Washington State via the Panama Canal, the disease touched down in Juneau and other Southeast Alaska territories. In victims, there were no initial signs of symptoms beyond those of a common cold, so there was no initial quarantine. This left a small window of time for travelers to carry the virus to surrounding areas. One ship in particular, the S.S. Victoria, delivered mail to Nome while carrying the contagious virus. It spread the virus to dog sled teams and local Alaska Native villages. About a month after the S.S. Victoria delivered its mail and was en route south from Nome, 31 shipmen died en route. But it was too late: the virus had well spread into many homes across the western regions of the Territory. The virus its impacts came to be referred to by indigenous communities as "the big sickness." "(The) Spanish Flu did to Nome and The Seward Peninsula what the Black Death did to fourteenth-century Europe." (Alfred Crosby, The Forgotten Pandemic)
The flu virus had no discrimination, no order, nor any rhyme or reason. It ended the lives of great tribal leaders, hunters, mothers, children, and anyone in its path. It was reported that about 25% of all the victims taken by the virus froze to death before help could even find them. Fathers and mothers became too weak to chop firewood to stay warm, leaving their families literally freezing. Communities were in some cases left starving as their hunters passed away, leaving survivors to resort to looking to their sled dog teams as food as a last effort to fight the hunger.
In the tightly knit, highly collaborative and integrated traditional communities of western Alaska, it was hard to separate individual family members to quarantine, often leading to a quicker spread of the virus. In some cases, including the villages of Wales and Brevig Mission, almost the entire population was wiped out: 1/3 of the Wales tribe was affected by the death of the virus, which used to be one of the largest regional communities, and 90% of the 80-person community of Teller Mission (now Brevig Mission) died. Many children became orphans. Death caused by the virus led to a cultural death as well. Traditional practices in some areas faded or were intentionally set aside. This paved a pathway for outside missionaries and teachers to arrive to impress their ways of life, education, and culture to the surviving population.
"unhappiness hung over the village..."
In Wales, such a huge portion of the population was wiped out that the Alaska Territorial leader was forced to give two alternate solutions for the community to be able to move forward: 1) re-locate all the orphans and survivors to surrounding villages, or 2) seek new marriage partnerships to establish new families. The latter path was chosen, and is described by Henry Greist, the Presbyterian medical missionary from Indiana, who was sent to Wales a year and a half after the epidemic struck:
"Informing the widowers, widows, and others of marriageable age that since the disaster had left so many children without parents, he, representing the government, would have to take the homeless children and place them in an orphanage far away at which point they would be irretrievably lost not only to the village but to the surviving loved ones as well.
There was, however, one alternative which if chosen, had to be implemented immediately. It entailed the complete reorganizing of the decimated households. All widowers ‘here and now' were to choose from among the widows new wives, and marriageable youths were to select spouses as well. The acting superintendent, utilizing the authority of his office, would then marry all at the same time.
Without further discussion, widowers and young unmarried men were told to take a position on one side of the large room, and the widows and young unmarried girls on the other. Each man was then asked to select a wife from the facing line. If they did so, the couple would then stand aside and give their names to the secretary who would write them on the marriage certificate. If any hesitated, a spouse was selected for that person. After the licenses were duly filled out, a mass ceremony was held in which the substitute district superintendent formally pronounced each couple ‘man and wife' . . .
Unhappiness hung over the village for years."
brevig mission and hutlin's hunch to a silver lining
Johan Hutlin, a pathologist, is referred to by the scientific community as the "Indiana Jones of the scientific set." In 1951, he set out to Brevig Mission to acquire samples of lungs where the virus was in permafrost from the frozen mass grave site. Unfortunately, he was unable to reconstruct the virus and make any solid findings until decades later in 1997. At the age of 72, he revisited the mass grave site in Brevig Mission and acquired more samples from frozen lungs from flu victims, inspired by the research of pathologist Jeffrey Taubenberger. Together, in 2005, Taubenberger took Hutlin's samples and was able to reconstruct the virus and find its origins. They concluded that the virus mutated from birds to infect humans. Virologists have called this a significant medical breakthrough; because of the discovery, they are now able to save future lives based on in-depth research of the viral strain and its original spread, preventing further bird like flu influenza strains and epidemics.
Rozzell. "Geophysical Institute." Villager's Remains Lead to 1918 Flue Breakthrough. University of Alaska Fairbanks, 20 Nov. 2014. Web. 03 Apr. 2017.
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