Presented by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium
Part 1 of 2
The announcement took many Alaskans by surprise: The Southcentral Foundation, the tribal health care provider in the Anchorage area, would start offering the COVID-19 vaccine to all Alaskans aged 40 and over – natives of Alaska or not.
It was March 1, 2021, and Alaskan health officials were still working overtime to vaccinate the most-at-risk groups, with most adults not yet eligible to receive the vaccine. As Alaska’s tribal health care system opened its doors to the general public, some Alaskans wondered: why?
To understand the answer, it’s essential to know something about the history of the pandemics in Alaska – and what Alaska’s native rulers have learned from past trauma.
A story of devastation
In the centuries since the arrival of the first colonizing forces on their traditional lands, the disease had a disproportionate impact on the indigenous peoples of Alaska.
“During the 19th and 20th centuries the health of our people had continuously deteriorated – mainly, I think, from infectious diseases,” said Vivian Echavarria, vice president of professional and support services for Alaska. Native Medical Center.
Smallpox, measles, and polio have all been devastating to Native Alaskan communities, and the Indian Health Service built the original Alaska Native Service Hospital in downtown Anchorage in response. to a tuberculosis epidemic. Yet the disease that weighs most heavily on older generations is the influenza pandemic that began in 1918.
âIt killed thousands of our Alaskan natives in the span of a few months to a few years,â Echavarria said.
But you don’t even have to go back to the 20th century to find an example of a pandemic affecting the native peoples of Alaska.
âWe saw it during the H1N1 pandemic of 2008-2009,â said Dr. Robert Onders, administrator of the Alaska Native Medical Center. “Native Alaskans and American Indians had four times the rate of intensive care, hospitalization rate and death rate.”
Lack of adequate sanitation, running water and sewer services, lack of housing, multigenerational housing, and overcrowded housing have all contributed to the disproportionate impact of H1N1 on the indigenous peoples of Alaska, and they also remain risk factors for COVID-19.
âIt’s not necessarily a distant story,â Onders said. âIt is still alive, and it has been passed down through the generations.
Intergenerational trauma persists
One of the descendants of this trauma today is Perseverance Theater playwright and “Molly of Denali” television writer Vera Starbard, whose grandmother still remembers the devastation in her childhood village.
âShe’s lost friends to pandemics,â said Starbard, who is Tlingit and Dena’ina. “She used to travel to villages all over Alaska for her job, and she would see the long-term impacts of (disease), whether it was pandemics or epidemics, on just one.” village, then this impact in the future region, then the state.
In past pandemics, the hardest hit villages lost up to 90% of their population, sometimes almost overnight. The loss of language, culture and tradition as a result of these deaths remains a huge void today.
âThe Spanish Flu has been devastating for the social and political organization of communities, as the Spanish Flu is unique in that it hits young adults hardest until middle age,â Starbard said. âAnd then, of course, the Elders. So you had a lot of community organizing catalysts and the wisdom was lost overnight, and you had a lot of young people who had to sort of invent the culture as they remembered it.
New pandemic, old fears
More than a century later, the 1918 influenza pandemic still casts a shadow over Native Alaskan families – it was felt keenly as the ‘novel coronavirus’ began to grab headlines early in September. 2020.
âFor me, it was fear,â Echavarria said. âWe just heard ‘pandemic.’ I remember hearing what my aunt had to go through, hearing loved ones died, fear of having nothing to help save lives. My first thought was fear I am a grandmother, I have grandchildren, I was afraid.
Echavarria herself grew up hearing the stories of her great aunt who survived the flu and lived to be 103 years old.
â(She) has been sick for a very long time,â Echavarria said. âWhen there are so many sick people, no one collects food. And then there was the disintegration of all the social dynamics of our communities. Entire villages have been wiped out.
This trauma has lifelong impacts, she added.
âIt’s no different than when we send our loved ones to war,â Echavarria said. “We didn’t see what they saw, but yet if they come back, then there’s this long term trauma.”
These traumas are conveyed through oral histories – the stories Elders tell about what happened to their loved ones – and they have long-term consequences for the culture, something Starbard worried about when COVID-19 arrived. .
âI felt a lot of fear,â Starbard said. “Much of that fear was based on knowing what previous pandemics have meant to Native Alaskan culture, our politics, even – but mostly the people themselves.”
But a lot has changed since the last time a pandemic threatened Alaska. And this time around, tribal healthcare leaders were determined to make things different.
Next Thursday: Part 2 – How the Tribal Health System Helped Alaska Become a Vaccine Leader
This story was sponsored by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a state-wide, nonprofit tribal health organization designed to meet the unique health needs of the more than 175,000 Alaskan Natives and American Indians living in Alaska.
This story was produced by the Anchorage Daily News sponsored content department in conjunction with ANTHC. DNA writing was not involved in its production.