We had landed in Dillingham, Alaska in the spring of 2020. Located 331 miles from Anchorage, the flight had been smooth, but the tension was high. Countries had closed their borders; cities were shut down and the world grappled with understanding and responding to a worldwide pandemic for the first time in most peoples’ memories. The salmon, on their own schedule, prepared to make their mass migration to Bristol Bay, spawning to begin the next generation. This annual migration has sustained the land, the people, and the fish for thousands of years. Not only was the salmon migration going to happen regardless of policies, politics, or pandemics, it was the economic life force and cultural fabric of Alaska Native communities, who have lived, played and worked for as long as the stories have been told. It was also a critical source of food for the world.
But throughout history, with the migration of fish had also come disease. During the 1918 pandemic, the great influenza outbreak, or “Great Death” as it has been commonly referred to, the flow of infected people following fish had been the primary means that disease was introduced into communities. The results were devastating.
The experience of Arctic communities during the COVID-19 pandemic was one where lived experience along with an understanding of the land and unique geography were intertwined into the response; where the crucible of necessity and austere conditions forged creative and resilient solutions; and where lessons learned from history, and carefully handed down from generation to generation, echoed their way through every layer of preparation, response, and recovery.
Stories of previous trauma experienced by many Alaska Native communities during the response to the 1918 pandemic have endured. The history of these communities was not housed in books as much as it lived in the stories, made the foundation and was built into the walls of the communities. The hospital was initially constructed as an orphanage as parents, grandparents, aunties, and uncles were taken by that deadly disease. The ceiling kept out the rain and snow, but its walls echoed a great sadness of the past. And during COVID-19, the caregivers worked to not only heal ailments of the present, and prevent another pandemic, but also to heal the past.
One of the local leaders, Chief Tom Tilden of Curyung Tribe shared some of the stories his grandmother told of leaving her community for a year during the Great Death, only to return to a village devastated by disease where only dogs and small children had survived. He had been told these stories and he planned to learn from them and keep his community safe. Charged with the care of his people, he was not about to allow this new unknown virus that had shut down New York, was already devastating the Navajo Nation, and had been slowly creeping across the country, make its way to his community.
Communities lost a generation, language, and culture. The 1918 pandemic was not a single event. It was a seismic shift, and its destruction, amplified by systemic inequities, are echoed in the disparate health outcomes of Alaska Native people.
However, the lessons of the past created the strength and resilience of today. Alaska Native People, like so many Indigenous Peoples of the Artic, overcame tremendous odds, and the lessons learned forge a path for all for the challenges that lay ahead.
This special issue of the Arctic Yearbook contains a time capsule of these truths and stories. It highlights the innovations, partnerships, and knowledge gained. Together, this research reflects the knowledge of this great illness and the amazing resilience of individuals, families and communities that have lived to tell about it. They highlight the importance of sovereignty, the strength that comes from Indigenous ways, as well as paint a path of health and wellness that can be a guiding light towards future readiness or better yet, prevention of disease.
These papers chronicle our experiences, our discoveries and the lessons we collectively learned. My sincere hope is that what will be remembered is great strength, rather than great death. Across the Arctic, communities came together, used traditional ways of knowing and braided them with modern science and technology, ultimately creating uniquely resilient, sovereign, strength-based responses in some of the most remote and challenging conditions.
As Johanna Coghill, a community health practitioner in Nenana, said, “we are making new stories.” As she remembered epidemics of past generations and incorporated the ways communities cared for each other, using existing infrastructure for immunizations to distribute vaccinations and test kits, she continued, “It’s one of those things we’ll talk about 100 years from now.”
The learning curve for humankind across the globe was steep. But there is great beauty in the understanding that continues to emerge. When the value of community and Indigenous ways of being that have existed for thousands of years were recognized, honored, and brought to the forefront of governmental responses, people thrived. The ancient truths, carefully handed from one elder to the next, from one generation to the next, contain wisdom and power that transcend the relative blip in time of modern medical advances.
How we remember and recover from this pandemic will be as important as how we initially responded. This special issue of the Arctic Yearbook is like a packaged gift for current and future health practitioners, policy makers, elders, and leaders to come.
A dear friend and mentor once shared with me knowledge that an elder had imparted to her. She asked, “What are you doing with the lessons you've learned? This is not your knowledge to keep.” So, to the authors, researchers and publishers, thank you for sharing these lessons. The gift you give to those who will come after us, as we all understand, is not your knowledge to keep.
And to the readers, please accept and enjoy this precious gift.
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