For Yukon-Kuskokwim elders, pandemic brings back memories of TB

Bethel Elder Esther Green reflects on past pandemics, and lessons learned through stories passed down in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Green stands outside her home during the coronavirus pandemic on April 30, 2020 in Bethel, Alaska.(Katie Basile/KYUK)
Bethel Elder Esther Green reflects on past pandemics, and lessons learned through stories passed down in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Green stands outside her home during the coronavirus pandemic on April 30, 2020 in Bethel, Alaska.(Katie Basile/KYUK)

As Alaska continues to reopen, health officials urge people to follow the guidelines aimed at slowing down the spread of the coronavirus. But many of the practices to control infectious disease already have a long history in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

Bethel Elder Esther Green remembers being forced to stay home during an outbreak of tuberculosis, or TB, as a young girl.

“I didn’t even know what TB was at that time. I didn’t know it was a killer disease,” Green said.

Tuberculosis hit rural Alaska hard during the first half of the 20th century, and generations of Alaska Natives were separated from their culture while they were in hospitals recovering; some never returned.

“I remember some people were leaving to go to the hospital to rest, and I remember some people didn’t return. All I hear is that some people had died and their bodies were never brought back to Alaska. I have to stay home. I can’t go into somebody’s house,” Green remembered.

Back then they talked about how visiting could open the door to sickness. Now, health officials call it social distancing. Julia Jimmie, KYUK’s Radio Director and translator, said that she’s not surprised that villages shut down travel early in this latest pandemic. It’s because people in the region had grown up hearing the tales of the big flu, TB, and other contagious diseases.

Eula David outside her home in Bethel, Alaska during the coronavirus pandemic on May 7, 2020. (Katie Basile/KYUK)
Eula David outside her home in Bethel, Alaska during the coronavirus pandemic on May 7, 2020. (Katie Basile/KYUK)

“Yup. Absolutely. Yah, in Yup’ik it says ‘cenirtaalriit wall’ ayagavakalriit naullutengtuut.’ People who visit too much or travel too much catch a sickness or get sick. I guess that’s one of the things they learned,” Jimmie said.

There is also a story of what happened when social distancing was ignored. Eula David tells the tale of a white man, or kass’aq, dog musher named Frank Waskey.

Waskey mushed from village to village during the winter of the 1918 flu epidemic, spreading the disease wherever he went. In the story that was passed down by her mother and grandmother, David said that he visited a camp where a couple were staying. He left some raw oatmeal behind to feed his dogs when he came through again.

“After he was there they got sick, very sick. Maybe they were in coma because the wife didn’t know nothing. And finally, she woke up and she couldn’t move. Too weak to move. So when she’s finally strong enough to get up, she found out that her husband was dead. She was lying with a dead body. When she was strong enough, she got into those oatmeal. She ate mouthful at a time. Pretty soon she got stronger, but the one thing that she feared was touching her husband, his body. So when she was strong enough to walk and could see the mountains where the village was, she started talking to her husband. Because she couldn’t stay with dead body, she’s going to walk over to the village. And she survived because of those oatmeal she was eating; she got strong,” David said.

David remembers hearing that Frank Waskey was punished for his role in spreading the flu. Instead of going to jail, he was forced to run his dog team during summer, with no snow to help his sled glide across the tundra. Underlying all the memories of past epidemics is respect for others, and Green says that includes respecting the virus.

“In any situation our Elders, they say to respect it. Don’t downgrade it. Because whatever it is, the virus has it’s own way of thinking. We were told, at least I was told, whatever sickness comes up, don’t treat it as if it’s nothing. You’ve got to respect it just as much as you respect yourself and others. It has sharp ears; it can hear you. It can see you. That’s why they tell us not to downgrade anything dangerous that pops up around us because you never know. You might be the next person to get it,” Esther said.

And the lessons learned and passed down through stories continue to inform how rural Alaskan communities and state health officials respond to the COVID-19 pandemic today. A recent tweet from Dr. Anne Zink.

For instance, Alaska’s chief medical director, Dr. Anne Zink, echoed a similar sentiment in a recent social media post, saying that the reasons she wears a mask in public are humility, kindness, and community. Those are the same values that David and Green want people to reflect upon when reminded of stories from past pandemics and epidemics.

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