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Some tribes are postponing powwows, closing casinos, and commanding their employees to work from home.

Three Alaska tribes have another plan to fight COVID-19 and serve citizens.

The Native Village of Deering is offering fuel and ammunition to hunters willing to share their catch with others. It has also restricted travel into the village. The predominantly Inupiaq village, with a population of 167, is located in Northwest Alaska on the shores of Kotzebue Sound.

The village is not connected to any other community by road so this time of year people use snow machines for travel. By snow machine it takes at least two or three hours to reach any nearby communities. Groceries are shipped in by airplane, and flights periodically are grounded by bad weather.

Deering has restricted air travel. Local airlines are cooperating with the village’s requirement that non-residents ask the tribe for permission before traveling to Deering. The tribe is also asking anyone who leaves town to self quarantine for 14 days upon their return.

Tribal president Alvin Iyatunguk, Sr., said council members have discussed news about the coronavirus showing up in Anchorage, Fairbanks and other Alaska communities. As of March 23, 32 people in Alaska have tested positive for COVID-19. He said life may change due to the pandemic, and problems could lead to long stretches with no plane service. So council members have been concerned about food insecurity.

Recently, “it was brought up to provide the subsistence food out in the country for everybody,” said Iyatunguk. “They [people] sometimes still go out and hunt but some don't have rides or vehicles or snow machines to provide for themselves.”

He said the council decided, “We will provide gasoline and ammunition and oil for any hunter that is willing to go out and gather subsistence foods, animals, caribou and ptarmigans or whatever that's out there to help our community and let them [other villagers] have something so they can get by on some level in case anything major happens to the grocery shipments or if there's a short supply.”

(Related story: Indian Country's COVID-19 syllabus)

Iyatunguk said the tribe has not set a dollar limit on how much they will spend to supply hunters because they don’t know how many hunters will be willing to hunt for the community, and “right now money is no object when it comes to other people having food.” The council is telling residents who need food to call the council office.

He said, “We're just going to get in front of the things that may come up so that's the reason why we're trying to get this started up.”

In Interior Alaska, two other villages have enacted restrictions to keep COVID-19 away. Fort Yukon is a predominantly Athabascan village with a population of 547 located on the Yukon River in Interior Alaska. It has banned incoming travelers, and warns people that if they leave they probably will not be allowed back in. Grayling, another predominantly Athabascan village on the Yukon River, has a population of 178. The tribe has suspended travel except for severe medical conditions. Anyone traveling out of Grayling will not be able to return for 30 days and only after being screened for COVID-19. Grayling also allocated $250 for each family to buy essentials at the village store, which has set up hours specifically for elders. The tribe also closed gaming, senior lunches, and instituted a ban on alcohol.

In 1918 and 1919 the Spanish Influenza killed millions of people world wide, and whole villages in Alaska were wiped out. However, a few villages had no deaths from Influenza during the pandemic. Iyatunguk mentioned that Shishmaref, which is 94 miles west of Deering, posted armed guards outside of town with orders not to let anyone pass, as did a few other Arctic villages, according to a BBC news story.

Medical historians at the University of Michigan Medical School did a study of seven communities where no or few people died due to the Influenza. The report states that some villages were so remote and hard to reach that no one with the infection arrived until 1920. One theory is that by then the germ had mutated and was less deadly than in 1918. Then the report said other communities where no one died of Influenza, by chance or coincidence just lucked out.

Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

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