IN 1912 the Assistant Surgeon General of Alaska, R.A. Kearney, wrote that “Unless some ways are used to check tuberculosis among the native Indians of Alaska the race will become extinct there in sixty or seventy years.” In 1918 the threat from Tuberculosis was still critical, indicated by a front page article in The Cordova Daily Times warning of the potential extinction of Alaskan natives from the disease. Tuberculosis did not cause the end of Alaskan Natives, but it did take a heavy toll on their communities, and it is not the only outbreak that has done so over the years. Just one year later, in 1919, a recent arrival to Anchorage told of his experiences as part of a prospecting trip, where he witnessed Alaskan Native camps devastated by influenza. He described finding unburied bodies at some camps, and other camps where the dead outnumbered the living and survivors who were barely alive themselves.
Medical missions to Southwestern Alaska and the Aleutian Islands in the summer of 1919 were able to help some communities, but often found themselves arriving too late, when burying the dead, rather than administering medical aid became their objective. Of the 1,113 official deaths from the Spanish Flu recorded by the state of Alaska, 81.7% were Alaska natives, although they accounted for only 48% of the population. Many people suspect the actual number of deaths is far higher, with some estimates from historians as high as 3,000.
Today native communities in Alaska face a new disease but a familiar threat, this time from Coronavirus. Smaller rural and native communities in Alaska endure a lack of running water or sanitation services, making compliance with CDC recommendations virtually impossible. Alaska has so far avoided the high Coronavirus case counts that have plagued other states, but data from the lower 48 states indicates that Native American communities are once again bearing the brunt of an outbreak. New York, the U.S. state with the highest infection rate per capita, still has a lower rate than five different tribal nations (although it must be noted the populations suffering the highest rates are also minorities as well). In Arizona, native Americans make up 18% of the deaths from Coronavirus, despite comprising just over 5% of the state’s population. The struggles that rural communities and tribal nations have had in gaining access to healthcare, running water, or sanitation supplies underlie the risks facing Native Americans and Alaska Natives from the novel Coronavirus.
Written by Christopher Russell, with edits from Anastasia Tarmann
“1918 Pandemic Influenza Mortality in Alaska,” State of Alaska Division of Public Health, http://dhss.alaska.gov/dph/VitalStats/Documents/PDFs/AK_1918Flu_DataBrief_092018.pdf
“QuickFacts: Arizona,” United States Census Bureau, https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/AZ
Arizona Department of Health Services, https://www.azdhs.gov/preparedness/epidemiology-disease-control/infectious-disease-epidemiology/covid-19/dashboards/index.php
Smith, Timothy M., “Why COVID-19 is decimating some Native American Communities,” American Medical Association. https://www.ama-assn.org/delivering-care/population-care/why-covid-19-decimating-some-native-american-communities
“Coronavirus in Indian Country: Latest Case Counts,” UCLA American Indians Study Center, https://www.aisc.ucla.edu/progression_charts.aspx
Phillips, JoJo, “Profile: ‘Unserviced’ Communities Part 1 – Why Five Bering Strait Villages Don’t Have Basic Sanitation,” KNOM Radio Mission, April 29th, 2020.