Stories of island epidemics put coronavirus concerns in context

The late Clyda Christiensen with daughter Barbara Hochmuth.

The World Health Oganization has declared the coronavirus outbreak an international emergency. On a local level, the threat of the virus has altered our lives. It has made us more aware of hygiene, has limited our visits to crowded events and has changed the way we greet each other.

The other day I ran into a friend at the post office. Immediately he told me that, normally, he would shake my hand, but the coronavirus scare has constrained him from showing those customary greetings. “I grew up shaking hands and hugging people,” he said. But now he refrains from doing so. This man comes from the village of Akhiok, which was hit hard by a flu epidemic in 1918. The late Larry Matfay lost his mother in that epidemic. In his biography, “Time to Dance: Life of an Alaska Native,” Matfay shared a story — handed down by elders — of how the epidemic came to the village.

A schooner from San Francisco — transporting supplies to a nearby cannery — had run aground near the village.  

Crewmen from the vessel walked around the village. They looked sickly. Villagers took them in to feed them. Villagers soon discovered that other crewmen on the vessel had died. The survivors told the villagers to take whatever they wanted from the vessel: guns, gun powder — anything they needed. People in Akhiok found out later that these crewmen had died from a contagious flu.

Like many stories in the village, the tale had most likely changed through the years. But the underlying theme was how outsiders brought sickness to an otherwise healthy community.

“When spring comes and the ships come up from down below, they bring disase,” the elders used to say. Akhiok residents took precautions to keep the germs away. When villagers went to town, they were quarantined for a few days upon their return. In order to be cleansed and purged of suspected contamination, they had to run by a bonfire to be cleansed, and were told to remain in their homes for several days. 

The late Clyda Christiensen, who grew up in Karluk, recalled her elders telling her how sickness came to the village.

In spring, the Alaska Packers Association ships brought beach gangs, fishing boats and cannery equipment to Karluk from San Francisco for the summer. Unfortunately, they also brought sickness, Clyda said.                 

The elders would tell her, “We don’t get sick in wintertime, but spring comes and we all get sick. When they leave, nobody’s sick all winter long.’”

“Everybody would get all kinds of colds. (Some) would die. Babies and children too. One time there was 11 of them that died. Almost everybody was sick. Some were getting better, but they’d have to dig graves,” Clyda said. Like Larry, Clyda and her sister, Annie, lost their mother to an invading epidemic.

The late John Chya was 14 years old at the time the flu epidemic of 1918 struck the village on Woody Island where he lived.

He went to school on one November day, with a slight headache. His teachers — a husband and wife team, told him he should go home and get some rest.

John was not too sick to slip on his ice skates and glide on the lake behind the Chya house. When he went back to the house for lunch, his brother came home from school, telling him that it had been canceled because the teachers had gotten sick with the flu. 

After eating, John put his skates on again and went on with skating. Soon he was interrupted by the sound of whistling. Nick Fadaoff, one of the men in the village, was trying to get his attention..

“How you feelin’, John?” he asked.

“I feel good,” he said. 

“I feel good too,” said Nick, “but everyone else on the island seems to be sick. You and me will have to take care of them, I guess.’”

Nick told John to check on one part of the island, while he kept an eye on the other part.

He told John to keep the buckets and tea kettles full of water and their bins full of wood. Most of the people were too weak to take care of themselves.

Each day the men followed a grim routine, checking house after house. In some  houses entire families died from the epidemic.

“I’d make the rounds and come back and tell Nick how many were dead. Then we’d start digging graves,” John recalled. 

Hearing of the plight of their Woody Island neighbors, people from Kodiak came to help. Frevonia Sargent brought fresh water to the house-bound people.

Brothers Peter and Joe Heitman, Sr., also lent a helping hand.

A month had passed since the first Woody Islanders succumbed to the flu. Nick and John noticed that the death count was smaller and the sick seemed to be getting better.

One day John noticed a rag hanging on a flag pole near his teachers’ house. He remembered an agreement he made with the teachers. He would pass by unless there was a rag or towel on the pole by their house. That meant they had message for him.

John went inside the house to see that the teachers were up and about. 

“When you’re making rounds,” the wife told him, “tell them school will be open Monday.” 

Twenty-seven Woody Islanders died in the 1918 flu epidemic. Although the villagers were sick, many of them unto death, John and Nick were never bedridden. For the mission of mercy they engaged in, they received no pay, but many grateful “thank-yous.” John probably wouldn’t have accepted them anyway. 

“Seeing those folks needed us, I was glad to help,” he said.

From these stories we learn of the resilience, compassion and common sense of the Kodiak Islanders. We long for the day when the “red flag” will be hoisted, carrying the news that the Coronavirus threat is over and that we can resume with our normal lives.

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