Editor’s note: This is the final story of a three-part series chronicling the life and suicide of Mike Weyapuk and the unsettling past of his Inupiat Eskimo village of Wales, Alaska. You can find the complete series here.
WALES, Alaska -- In 1918, far-flung Alaska villages like Wales would seem to have had the best chance of avoiding the influenza pandemic. Airplanes were still evolving, construction of the Alaska Highway was years away, and there was no railroad linking western Alaska to the Lower 48. A fleet of belching steamships was the only umbilical cord to the last frontier, hauling passengers, food, clothing, mail, mining equipment, and other goods.
In October, when the Bering Sea started turning frosty and rough, the steamers made their last voyages of the year to the northern reaches of Alaska. Nome and its surrounding villages were cut off for months. The only link between Nome and Wales was a 125-mile-long dogsled trail. News travelled by word of mouth. Wales had no telegraph.
The 1918 flu was cunning, patient and tenacious. It fooled doctors into lifting quarantines, lying low in its host until it had the best opportunity to inflict mass casualties. When it reached remote parts of the world, it found an ally in isolation.
More than half a million Americans died. In Alaska, between 2,000 and 3,000 people perished. Historian Alfred W. Crosby detailed the 1918 flu in Alaska in his book, America's Forgotten Pandemic. He estimated that 8 percent of the Alaska Native population was wiped away. Isolation had "protected the Indians, Aleuts and Eskimos," Crosby wrote, "and then, when the isolation failed in 1918, they died in greater percentages than any other people in the American empire." The flu epidemic was the greatest human tragedy in Alaska's recorded history.
In late August 1918, a naval ship left Boston and spread the flu to Philadelphia, where another ship was departing for Washington state by way of the Panama Canal. On Sept. 17, it docked at the Puget Sound Naval Station near Seattle and delivered the epidemic to the Pacific Northwest. As the flu spread to Seattle, longshoremen loaded steamships bound for Alaska. Doctors examined boarding passengers and crew members. Those with flu symptoms were turned away and the steamers headed north.
When the ships docked in Juneau and other towns in Southeast Alaska, only slight coughing was heard, the kind that could be mistaken for a common cold. In mid-October, as Juneau doctors confirmed Alaska's first influenza cases, other steamers continued their rounds. Travelers left Cordova, Anchorage and other coastal settlements feeling fine, only to later infect Fairbanks and other inland towns.
Local leaders and doctors across Alaska ordered the closure of churches, schools and theatres. Traveling was prohibited between villages. Native potlatches were banned. Armed guards took up positions outside some communities. Some were ordered to shoot anybody who defied the ban.
‘These Indians have got to be buried’
In October 1918, the steamship Victoria was lumbering toward Nome as Alaska Territorial Gov. Jack Riggs told the town’s leaders and the chief doctor to quarantine the crew and passengers as soon as they arrived.
When the ship arrived on Oct. 20, Nome’s doctor examined about three dozen passengers and crewmen, then placed them under quarantine at Holy Cross Hospital. After five days, one person had fallen sick, but the doctor dismissed it as no more than an attack of tonsillitis. He lifted the quarantine. Four days later, a hospital worker died. Two days passed before town leaders quarantined all of Nome. People were ordered not to leave the city limits, but by then it made little difference.
The same day the Victoria had arrived, crewmen had unloaded mail bundles. The mail was fumigated, but the crew had been in contact with the mail carriers as they packed their dogsleds. The carriers rode out of Nome that same day, unwittingly delivering the flu to villages across western Alaska. Nobody in Nome knew people were dying in the villages until it was too late.
A week into the epidemic, Nome's chief doctor and Walter Shields, superintendent of the region's Eskimo population for the U.S. Bureau of Education, were both sick. When Shields died a week later, Ebenezer Evans, a 37-year-old teacher in Nome, was charged with containing the epidemic. He wrote in a report:
As one walked the streets of Nome, it seemed a city of the dead. A panic had struck the Natives, and their feverish conditions suggested the need of colder air. . . . They would leave their beds of sickness and go into the cold air, which, inducing pneumonia, carried them away rapidly. . . . From ten to twenty Natives were dying each day on average in Nome, and the dead wagon was in use constantly. . . . Many were frozen to death during the night, their fires having gone out.
Funds were scarce. Evans doled out IOUs to the shops in Nome to pay for food, clothing and medicine. Other vouchers paid for relief parties to check outlying villages. Before the epidemic was over, Evans stood accused of spending money the Bureau of Education and territory didn’t have.
Gov. Riggs, sympathetic to what Evans was up against, made an emergency trip to Washington, D.C., at the epidemic’s height. The territorial government was charged with looking after the white population only, not Alaska Natives. That was the Bureau of Education’s job. But Riggs authorized thousands of dollars in Native aid. Now he wanted Congress to reimburse the territory and provide more money to help all Alaskans.
Riggs told lawmakers the epidemic had hit Alaska harder than any place in the world: "You cannot conceive of what a terrible thing it is in that country in wintertime… with no means of getting around, no doctors, no nurses, not even medical supplies."
But Congress had other problems. It was still contending with the 1918 flu in the Lower 48, as well as the end of World War I, having to decide whether to authorize $1.5 billion (in today’s dollars) for war-torn Europe. An aide to a Southern lawmaker wondered why Alaskans needed the government’s help.
"Why are these Eskimos not trapping?" he asked Riggs.
"Most of them are dead," the Alaska governor replied. "We probably have a thousand Natives unburied. You have to thaw the ground in order to make an excavation, and these Indians have got to be buried."
The Senate passed a bill worth $1.4 million in today’s dollars for Alaska, but the House voted it down. Alaska was on its own.
Back in Nome, Ebenezer Evans, now sick himself, had not heard from the villages across the Seward Peninsula. He ordered miners and their dog teams to inspect the hinterland. The temperature had sunk to 50-below, but little snow had fallen, leaving vast stretches of trail rocky and barren. As they travelled, they passed frozen bodies huddled together and packs of dogs fighting over human limbs. Dazed children wandered in search of their families. At a village north of Nome, a man froze with his arms around a stove. He was buried, still crouching, in a square box.
One relief team moved ahead of the flu and reached Shishmaref, 60 miles northeast of Wales, in time to warn villagers. The village posted armed guards eight miles south of town with orders not to let anyone pass. No one in Shishmaref got the flu.
When a team traveled up the coast to the villages of Teller and Brevig Mission, they found that the epidemic had struck at about the same time it had hit Nome. Evans wrote, "The flu killed almost everybody at a small settlement just north of Teller, a few adults and children being saved. They had arrived too late."
In early November, a mailman and a boy rode a dog team up the frozen coast. When they got to a small settlement six miles south of Wales, they were too sick to push on. The boy's father met them to bring his son home. The boy probably suffered as most 1918 flu victims did: feverish, perhaps wrapped in reindeer skins, and coughing up blood.
Arthur Nagozruk, the Inupiat teacher who had led his village to success until fall 1918, had told the father not to come to the village if his son was still sick. Perhaps the father was overcome with grief or did not realize that he himself was infected, but later that evening he rode into Wales with his boy, who was no longer ill, but dead.
‘Unhappiness hung over the village for years’
Rescuers from Nome finally reached Wales three weeks after the flu struck the village. They found orphaned babies suckling their dead mothers and a shivering girl keeping tins of milk warm between her legs to feed her siblings. The rest of the survivors were holed up in the schoolhouse, living on reindeer broth. Evans documented this in 1919:
On entering Native igloos, in some cases, bodies were found in an advanced state of decomposition, where the adults had died and the children or women had attempted to keep the fires going. In many cases were found living children between their dead parents, huddling close to the bodies for warmth; and it was found in Wales that live dogs, taken into the house for comfort, had managed to reach the bodies of the Natives and had eaten them, only a mass of bones and blood evidence of their having been people.
Nagozruk kept records of who died and who survived the flu. The disease carried off most of the Wales village council, two Eskimo teachers, most of the whaling crews, and the owner of the largest reindeer herd. Seventeen people lost spouses. Three families were entirely wiped out. Nagozruk himself lost his wife and two sons. Five babies born around the time of the epidemic died. The flu orphaned more than 40 children.
About 120 people survived. Wales was no longer, and never would be again, one of the largest Eskimo villages.
The flu killed too many people to bury on the mountain. Rescuers dynamited two holes in the sand dunes and stacked 172 bodies one atop another. They dumped limbs and other body parts from an untold number of victims into the pits. There were no funerals. The rescuers rounded up some 45 dogs that had chewed on bodies or were going hungry. They killed them and buried them in the dunes, too.
The Bureau of Education discussed relocating the Wales orphans to other Eskimo villages or to faraway orphanages. Families in the villages of Kotzebue, Noorvik and Kivalina pledged to adopt the children. In the spring of 1919, the government wrote a tally of how many children each village would accept, but the orphans never left Wales. Instead, it appears that families were frantically reorganized.
Henry Greist, a Presbyterian medical missionary from Indiana, came to Wales a year and a half after the epidemic. In an unpublished manuscript (the one I read in my anthropology course), he described what happened to the orphans, based on a story he heard from the acting government superintendent of northwest Alaska. Greist didn't name the official, but it was probably Ebenezer Evans, who visited Wales in the spring of 1919. There are several errors in Greist's account: he has the year, the village population, and the death toll wrong. But he does raise an interesting question about the way the Wales orphans were handled.
According to Greist, the superintendent came to Wales a couple of months after the epidemic and called a meeting in the town's one-room schoolhouse:
Informing the widowers, widows, and others of marriageable age that since the disaster had left so many children without parents, he, representing the government, would have to take the homeless children and place them in an orphanage far away at which point they would be irretrievably lost not only to the village but to the surviving loved ones as well.
There was, however, one alternative which if chosen, had to be implemented immediately. It entailed the complete reorganizing of the decimated households. All widowers ‘here and now' were to choose from among the widows new wives, and marriageable youths were to select spouses as well. The acting superintendent, utilizing the authority of his office, would then marry all at the same time.
Without further discussion, widowers and young unmarried men were told to take a position on one side of the large room, and the widows and young unmarried girls on the other. Each man was then asked to select a wife from the facing line. If they did so, the couple would then stand aside and give their names to the secretary who would write them on the marriage certificate. If any hesitated, a spouse was selected for that person. After the licenses were duly filled out, a mass ceremony was held in which the substitute district superintendent formally pronounced each couple ‘man and wife' . . .
Unhappiness hung over the village for years.
Harold Napoleon, a longtime Alaska Native leader, grew up in the village of Hooper Bay, where the 1918 influenza and other epidemics killed dozens of people. He believes Alaska's villages never got over the epidemic. While serving time for killing his son in an alcoholic blackout in 1984, Napoleon wrote an essay, “Yuuyaraq: The Way of the Human Being,” contending that the social ills of Native villages -- alcohol abuse, violence, suicide -- can be linked to past epidemics.
The 1918 flu and other diseases killed the leaders and the best hunters of many villages, and destroyed Alaska Natives' beliefs, paving the way for missionaries and teachers to impress their ways on local populations.
Epidemic survivors "cry in the hearts of their children who have inherited the symptoms of their disease of silent despairing loneliness, heartbreak, confusion and guilt," Napoleon wrote in his essay. "And tragically, because the children do not understand why they feel this way, they blame themselves for this legacy from their grandparents, the survivors of the Great Death."
‘You just grit your teeth and go on’
In the late summer of 2002, I traveled around Northwest Alaska for a month. When I returned to my home in Anchorage, I fell into a depression and ended up in a crisis center for three weeks. When I got out, my friends hid my shotgun. It was like this for more than a year. My girlfriend, now my wife, and my mother helped me climb out from the hole.
I'm not sure what happened to me. I have always struggled with negativity and depression. The first time I thought about killing myself was when I was 7 years old; though I never told my family, nor did they see the faint scars on my wrists. A year or two after that, while on a road trip with my older brother and father, I was suicidal again. In a hotel room in Salt Lake City, I had a knife to my wrist when my father walked in on me.
That’s when he told me that his dad killed himself before I was born. My grandpa served under General Patton in World War II, driving a Sherman tank across Europe. After the war, he had recurring nightmares of a battlefield strewn with bodies. There was no way to drive his tank around the field, so he rode over the corpses, the bones snapping under the treads. He was poor and an alcoholic, like many in my extended family, which didn’t help matters. One day he walked into his garage, shut the door, and turned on his car. His grade-school daughter found him dead.
As I grew up, I wondered sometimes if I inherited my depression and the impulse to end my life from my grandfather, or perhaps from my father’s unresolved grief or my mother’s past -- her family, too, suffered from mental illness and alcoholism.
Mike Weyapuk didn't have a mother or girlfriend to hold his hand. There was no crisis center in Wales. He didn't have the same choices I did. He couldn’t rely on steady work. He didn't have the money to leave Alaska in the dead of winter. He couldn't meet a girl at a bar. He couldn't take a road trip. He didn't have friends to hide his guns.
In short, he never had the opportunities that I had, not even close. And on top of that, he lived in desolation and boredom -- an impoverished village at the end of the earth that had been decimated by colonialism, disease and economic despair. As Mike used to tell me, "You just grit your teeth and go on."
I knew Mike was in trouble as far back as 2001. Every time we talked after that, I’d ask him, “Now, you’re not going to kill yourself, are you? You’re scaring me Mike.”
“No, that would be selfish. I’m fine,” he’d fire back at me.
Still, I reached out confidentially to a couple people in Wales who I thought I could trust to let them know that Mike wasn’t right in his head. For a village where everybody is related, a suicide every 18 months seemed ridiculous. If I, a stranger visiting the village, could see it in Mike’s eyes, then why couldn’t the people of Wales? Why didn’t they help him? Why didn’t we Alaskans help Mike and the hundreds of others who have committed suicide since his death?
And why didn’t I do more myself to help Mike? I could have flown him down to Anchorage, let him crash at my apartment, help him find a job, and play music with him to keep him out of his head. I could have done so much more.
The last time I spoke to Mike was in mid-2004. He sounded as lost as ever.
And then he left us
In early 2005, a bootlegger showed up in Wales. He was a young guy with plans to smuggle booze into villages up and down the Bering Strait, using Wales as the base of his operations. The bootlegger stayed with Mike, who now lived in his grandparents' old house.
People didn't see much of Mike, and when they did, he often just nodded and walked off. The end was near.
I remember Mike telling me that old Eskimo tale about the elder leaving his home and heading out into the cold. Long ago, a village had fallen on hard times. Food was scarce and the people were beginning to starve. The old man realized his mind was no longer sharp and that he didn't have the strength to hunt. He felt like a burden to his family. He wasn't needed in his village. There was no reason for him to exist. One night he crawled from his igloo, walked out on the ice, and drifted away, like a sandcastle slipping into the sea.
Sometime between May 25 and May 27, 2005, Mike drifted away. He was only 26 years old.
Contact Tony Hopfinger at tony(a)alaskadispatch.com