The number of Alaska tribes that have enacted travel restrictions has shot up from a handful a few weeks ago to about 70 now as remote villages work to keep out the coronavirus.
Villages scattered in the state's farthest reaches are limiting incoming traffic by air, land and water and adapting to lives with even more isolation than usual.
The restrictions vary but are easier to enforce in places like the Northwest Alaska Inupiat village of Kivalina, population 379, which is not connected by road to any other community.
Tribal members who want to leave Kivalina first must notify the village’s top official, the tribal administrator, and let her know their departure and return dates and the purpose of their trip. Once they come back, they must self-quarantine for 14 days.
Besides flights, the rules also apply to travel by snow-machine from neighboring communities.
Essential workers are allowed in.
Tribal administrator Millie Hawley, Inupiaq, said elders are especially cautious because as children they experienced the aftermath of the 1918 Influenza epidemic in Alaska, when whole villages were wiped out or lost more than half their population. Some communities, either because of their remote location or due to roadblocks set up to keep outsiders away, had few to no deaths.
In some villages, starvation haunted the survivors. Kivalina wants to have full freezers in case air service is disrupted, so the tribe is providing fuel and ammunition to hunters to fish and hunt for food to share.
It helps that everything is shut down so people aren't drawn to the village. Normally light traffic of fewer than five people per week has dropped even lower, Hawley said.
“Everyone’s doing their part … just staying home, hunkering down, they call it.”
As of Thursday, Alaska had 235 cases of COVID-19 and seven deaths. Most are in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and other communities linked by road. There's one case is in a regional hub community, and several are in Southeast Alaska. But no confirmed cases have shown up in any small off-road villages.
In Interior Alaska, Natasha Singh, Athabaskan, is general counsel for the regional nonprofit tribal entity Tanana Chiefs Conference.
Singh said the pandemic heightens the “extreme needs and disparities” between urban and rural Alaska, with gaps in the high cost of living and of transportation, access to medical care, and, especially, public safety.
“While we don't expect state troopers to be monitoring individuals’ activity, when we're having bootleggers and drug dealers continuing their normal route during a pandemic, and when the outcome of the drinking and drug use that come out from that could potentially lead to the spread of COVID, it's just extremely concerning for our communities that they don't have the adequate resources in place at a time like this,” Singh said.
Singh said the Tanana Chiefs Conference is in talks with the U.S. departments of Interior and Treasury to ensure tribes are not overlooked as funding under the Cares Act is distributed.
She said the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized tribes’ inherent authority to protect the health of their members, including actions outside Indian Country and actions regarding non-tribal members. Singh said tribes have taken appropriate steps within their legal authority and tailored to their specific needs.
However, some Alaskans don’t take kindly to direction.
“You have certain people that are attracted to living out in remote Alaska” because “they can live their life without being told by outsiders how to do that.” Singh said sharing information from outsiders and medical experts “can be a difficult education process.”
“I think the highest risk right now are people that have that high traffic who haven't been able to close it off cause they're on the road system.” Singh said she heard reports about state transportation officials objecting to a road checkpoint set up by an eastern Alaska tribe to monitor incoming traffic. However, the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities did not respond to a request for comments from Indian Country Today. Tanana Chiefs Conference is seeking a meeting with that agency’s commissioner.
Asked about the legal grounds for travel restrictions imposed by tribes, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said at a Tuesday news conference that businesses providing essential goods and services need to be able to carry on and enter communities.
“The question is, I think, more along the lines of travel that's not necessarily essential,” said Dunleavy.
“Communities have the leeway through their councils or city councils and other governmental entities to have that discussion with the people in town and the people in the surrounding areas,” he said. “But the less mixing we have going on at this point, the more we slow the virus down."
Restrictions vary widely across the United States, with tickets and fines getting handed to people violating various mandates. Dunleavy said hard and fast rules may make Alaskans less willing to cooperate.
“Right now they are [helping out], but if there are issues or incidences where folks, let's say go overboard, then we can have that discussion with them."
Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.
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