The Big Sickness

[An interesting addendum to this story was added by two Native residents of Wales, Alaska on February 5, 1998]

Henry W. Griest

One tragic aspect of Arctic colonization in the early 1900s was the introduction of new diseases such as measles, smallpox, and influenza. For local indigenous populations without immunity, it took devastating toll. Small settlements disappeared and larger ones lost many of their members. In 1900, for example, more than 200 inland Inupiat Eskimo trading at Pt. Barrow Alaska died of influenza following the arrival of a whaling ship. Two years afterwards over 100 Barrow Inupiat perished in a measles epidemic. A decade and a half later, another major influenza epidemic reached the village of Wales at the eastern tip of Seward Peninsula. Known as the "big sickness," more than one-third of the town's 600 Native residents died within a week. The story that follows describes what happened during this tragic time. A poignant portrayal of personal tragedy and drama, it also serves as a dramatic reminder of the influence exerted by non-Native colonizers at the beginning of the 20th century.

On Christmas eve of 1917, a young Inupiat Eskimo from Nome arrived in Wales. Ill with fever, he had lain sick in his sled while his dogs brought him to the door of his home. Two days later he died of "Spanish Influenza," an extremely virulent form of virus influenza that previously had caused millions of deaths in other parts of the world. When it appeared in Nome and the nearby village of Teller, doctors in these areas were unfamiliar with the disease and how to treat it. Within a week, 197 people from Wales had died with hundreds more sick and dying. Of Teller's Inupiat adult population, one hundred and ninety-nine died in the same time period.

Overwhelmed by the disease, the resident government nurse in Wales was largely helpless. Having neither food nor medicine to deal with such an epidemic, she could only comfort as best she could those who flocked to the schoolhouse, many of whom remained, too sick to crawl back to their homes. Young boys were asked to kill reindeer from nearby herds, the meat from which was turned into broth to feed the motherless babies and sick adults. As more and more died, their bodies were first removed to vacant school rooms and eventually to the Presbyterian Church where they were placed side by side awaiting eventual burial. Family sled dogs, uncared for by dying adults, broke their tethers and roamed the streets seeking food where they could find it, including frozen human remains residing in abandoned Inupiat houses.

Similar events repeated over and over again brought an overwhelming pall and demoralization to the village. Through fear, many homes had been abandoned, the residents crowded in the school, church, and other non-residential buildings. Not knowing the cause of the illness, rumors were rampant that a terrible spirit had come from some unknown area, perhaps across the strait in Siberia. It was not until several months later that that a relief party arrived in Wales with flour, tinned milk, sugar and coffee for the survivors, and shovels with which to bury the dead. Digging a common grave, all the remaining bodies were placed in it and a large white cross raised that could be seen for many miles out to sea.

Knowing that most families had been decimated by the disease, a man assigned to replace the deceased local district superintendent brought with him a sheaf of marriage licences, signed by proper Nome authorities, but without the names of the contracting parties. On arriving, he called all the remaining adult survivors to the schoolhouse and made a speech. Informing the widowers, widows, and others of marriagable 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 by 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 marriagable 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 licences were duly filled out, a mass ceremony was held in which the substitute district superintendent formally pronounced each couple "man and wife."

With the bodies of loved ones still lying in the chapel or in the process of being buried by the relief party, the Inupiat men were basically coerced into selecting a mate. Once the ceremony was over, the new couples were told to gather up their respective children and go back to their new homes. Some, of course, were unwilling or unable to participate. In writing about this episode from knowledge gained through interviewing villagers later on, the missionary Henry Greist described one such instance:

"One wealthy Eskimo, a man of some fifty years of age or more, stood silently with downcast eyes in that line, for like all good natives, he regarded "government" as sacred, to be obeyed without question. His late wife was a woman of rare character, capable, educated, refined. Their home, an exceptionally good one, was a happy center. When asked to choose a wife, he remained silent, with bowed head. Then, the Superindendent chose for him a young girl not one-third his age. But it so happened that she, little more than a child, had a sweetheart who could not be present that day. She was greatly distressed and crying as he led her to the table and accepted their marriage licence, only to be later told that she was wedded to this man nearly old enough to be her grandfather.

That afternoon he, being the gentleman that he was, took her to her newly wedded mother and there left her, securing a divorce later; and in the end she was able to marry the man of her choice. Nor did this grief-striken man every marry again, holding the memory of his dear wife as sacred.

The Eskimo are human and many are Christian men and women; and may not be mated as are horses and cattle. Unhappiness hung over Wales village for years, and it was rare that I heard singing in any home when the man was absent. Few divorces were had, for divorce now in Alaska costs a large sum, thanks to the new constitution and a few unscrupulous attorneys. Divorce also demands a trip to Nome, Fairbanks, or other legal center, which often would prove a very great hardship to the native. And, too, wedding vows are very generally considered by the Eskimo as binding, to actually hold "until death doth separate."

Postscript
Commentary by Toby Anzungazuk and Clarence Ongtowasruk of Wales, Alaska, December, 1997
 

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