A lethal epidemic that 'decimated' and 'annihilated' Indigenous people

Joaqlin Estus

‘Indigenous people all over the world were especially vulnerable; some were not just decimated but sometimes annihilated'

In the past few hundred years more than half of the Alaska Native population was decimated by wave after wave of diseases such as the measles, smallpox, diphtheria, whooping cough, and tuberculosis. Then a devastating worldwide influenza epidemic forever changed Alaska’s demographics, making Natives a minority in their homeland.

The spectre of a new epidemic triggers painful memories for Native Americans and others who heard first hand about the 1918 influenza pandemic. After all, according to the CDC, an estimated 500 million people or more than a quarter of the world’s population, became infected with the virus. An estimated 50 million worldwide died, with about 675,000 deaths in the United States. The 1918 influenza was highly contagious with a 2.5 percent mortality rate. (Estimates indicate the COVID-19 virus has a 2.3 percent mortality rate, although that figure may change as researchers learn more about how many people were infected.)

The 1918 influenza spread worldwide in less than a year, and struck and killed people quickly. It attacked people in their 20s and 30s, when immune systems are usually at their strongest. People would come down with a headache, nausea and a fever then die as soon as three days later. They would turn blue and suffocate as lungs filled with fluid. Some experienced hemorrhaging from the nose, stomach, ears and even the eyes.

“Indigenous people all over the world were especially vulnerable; some were not just decimated but sometimes annihilated,” stated Benjamin R. Brady of University of Arizona and Howard M. Bahr of Brigham Young University in a 2014 American Indian Quarterly article. “Native Americans ‘suffered hideously,’ with mortality rates four times higher than in the wider population.”

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(Photo courtesy of the National Archives)

The first cases in the United States were in Haskell County, Kansas. The deployment of soldiers from a Kansas military base to fight in World War I contributed to the spread of influenza.

As the disease swept the country, 400 people died on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and 200 on the Rosebud reservation. James Giago Davies, writing for the Native Sun News Today, reported in May 2018 that "you were almost three times as likely to die from the flu if you were Oglala Lakota.”

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(Photo courtesy of the National Archives)

A visiting doctor reported on his first day visiting a pueblo in New Mexico, “The deplorable condition at Isleta presented itself in the death of ten Indians.”

A former student at Haskell Institute, a boarding school for Native Americans, was serving as a volunteer nurse in Washington, D.C., and wrote to a friend still enrolled at Haskell. On Oct. 17, 1918, in the early days of the pandemic, Lutiant Van Wert wrote, “As many as 90 people die every day here with the ‘Flu.’ Soldiers too, are dying by the dozens,” Van Wert wrote. “So far, Felicity, C. Zane, and I are the only ones of the Indian girls who have not had it. We certainly consider ourselves lucky too, believe me.”

In Brevig Mission, in northwest Alaska, 72 of the 80 Inupiaq residents died within five days. Dozens of other villages were wiped out or abandoned as so few people outlived the disease.

The village of Wales managed to survive the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic, but not unscathed. Wales is on the westernmost tip of mainland Alaska. You can see Russia from Wales. In 1919, villagers buried 172 dead, along with the limbs of bodies that had been ravaged by dogs. Forty of the 120 survivors were orphaned children.

“My mother, who was found in her parent's sod house, was just a toddler,” said Joe Senungetuk, Inupiaq. “And when they found her there, there were people within the village that volunteered to search people's homes to see if they were all right. And my mother was not OK in that she was found suckling on a dead mother.”

A deep hole was blasted into a sandy beach near Wales, and bodies were buried without ceremony. The living had to get to work to gather food to survive. Influenza devastated people in their 20s and 30s, productive hunters and food gatherers. Some survivors in isolated villages ended up starving to death in the aftermath of epidemics.

A visiting official, according to one account, arrived in Wales a short time after the deaths. He lined up the single men on one side of a classroom and the single women on the other. He told the men to pick a wife or he’d pick one for them.

As for the children, Senungetuk said no effort was made to keep siblings together or to find out if a child had relatives who would take him or her in. “The people receiving [the children] were not given choices as to whom they would like to see themselves caring for. The Presbyterian ministers gave out the kids.”.

“I don't know how it is with each case specifically in Wales except that I do know my parents' stories of how they were raised up,” Senugetuk said. “In the case of my father, he was used more as a slave than as a member of the family that he was raised by.”

Joe Senungetuk’s uncles lived with other families and took their surnames, which made it harder for people trying to find familial connections. “My father's brothers ... did remember a lot of their close relatives,” Senungetuk said.

But his mother never stopped looking for family. “She had no way of remembering who her close relatives were,” Senungetuk said. “So once we got to Nome, she would take me along to people's homes that were originally from up and down the coast of Nome, and she would seek out people as best as she could to figure out who she was related to.”

Harold Napoleon, Yup’ik, is the author of a book entitled “Yuuyaraq.” In it he said that Alaska Natives were told they died in such great numbers because of their way of life. Clergy told them their cultural traditions were evil. Parents came to believe teaching their Native language to their children would hamper their success in the new world now dominated by non-Natives. They abandoned the old ways.

Napoleon said generations of Natives lost the sense of self and connectedness their traditional culture had fostered. Napoleon said the trauma of those losses lives on in dysfunction such as domestic violence, alcoholism, suicide, and sexual assault.

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Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent based in Anchorage, Alaska. She is a long-time Alaska journalist. Follow her on Twitter: @estus_m. Email her at: jestus@indiancountrytoday.com.

Correction Feb. 28 to show the number of people infected, not killed, was more than a quarter of the world population.

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Comments (3)
No. 1-2
V.Drake
V.Drake

My heart breaks. And now we face another onslaught under a lying leadership, prejudiced toward Indigenous peoples.

Mighty Thor
Mighty Thor

How could a disease with a 2.5% mortality rate have killed a quarter of the world's population? Factual inconsistencies undermine your credibility.


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