The 1918 Spanish Flu in Alaska



Recent estimates suggests that as many as 50 million to 100 million people perished from the Spanish Flu pandemic, which began near the end of World War I and then spread worldwide, ostensibly transmitted by soldiers as they returned home after the war. Although the global death toll was high, it accounted for the loss of only about 3% or less of the world’s population, which was estimated to be around two billion people before the outbreak. Then, as now, schools, churches, and businesses were closed, stay-at-home orders were issued, and face-coverings were ubiquitous to prevent contracting the virus.


Makeshift hospitals during Spanish Flu pandemic; women wearing face-coverings in public

It took a little longer for the pandemic to reach the remote villages of Alaska, but once it did, the death toll was more like 60%, with some communities experiencing losses as high as 70% or more of their population. In some cases, almost every Native person died. No village was spared. My grandmother and her older sister were the only two survivors of their tiny village. They were just little girls. My grandmother’s cousin, Walter Charley, lost everyone in his family. I know of similar stories across Alaska. Aside from the loss of lives, the pandemic also devastated Native languages and culture. Natives still refer to that dreadful period as "The Great Death." You would be forgiven if you have never heard about the terrible fatality rate of the Spanish Flu among Alaska Natives. Few Alaskans have ever heard about it.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I met frequently with my grandmother and her sister and other elders across Alaska who told me their stories and asked me to share them with the world. They thought it was important for others to learn about how a pandemic can ravage communities, large and small. They wanted people to take warnings and precautions seriously, and not to think that they are invincible because of our modern technology. My grandmother used to tell me, “It’s easy for most people to think that plagues only happened a long time ago in ancient history or somewhere else, somewhere far, far away. But I lived through it. It was real, and it was terrible to witness. It was so horrible that few of us ever talk about it.”

J Smelcer Flu

Left to right: Morrie Secondchief and Mary Joe Smelcer in Mendeltna Village, Morrie Secondchief in Tazlina Village, Mary Joe Smelcer in Anchorage. Photos by John Smelcer.

JSCAfter years of research and oral interviews, I published my novel aptly entitled The Great Death. It’s the story of two sisters, Millie and Maura, whose village becomes infected when outsiders visit one fall day. Within weeks, every person in the village, including their mother and father, perish from the disease. Realizing they cannot remain in the infected village, the sisters strike out into the wilderness at the onset of Alaska’s long, dark, and cold winter in search of a White settlement far downriver that they had only heard about from their father and uncles. Along the way they befriend two dogs, stumble upon another small village ravaged by the plague, are separated and lost in a snowstorm, and are attacked by a pack of wolves. But through it all, the sisters have each other. The book went on to win international acclaim and awards. More than just a story of hardship, courage, and resilience, the novel was hailed as an epic journey and as one of the greatest adventure stories. After I was interviewed on National Public Radio, an epidemiologist from Alaska's WWAMI Medical School was interviewed about the plague that had killed so many Alaska Natives. If you want to learn more about the courage, compassion, and love it took for the two sisters to survive the pandemic in Alaska and what they learned about themselves and each other, click here to order The Great Death on Click here if you would like to watch a brief video of the author talking about The Great Death on YouTube.



John Smelcer, a member of the Ahtna tribe of Alaska and one of the last speakers of the severely endangered Ahtna language, is the inaugural writer-in-residence for The Charter for Compassion. Founded by Karen Armstrong (A History of God, et al), the Charter is the world’s most comprehensive compassion movement. Dr. Smelcer is the author of over 60 books, including his recent inspirational pocketbook, A New Day (2020).

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