We feel like we’re trying to organize a serum run to rural Alaska, but it’s not the winter of 1925, and we don’t have a dogsled and a husky named Togo. It’s 2020 and there’s a pandemic.
We put disposable gloves into a box and cross off a checklist: cloth masks, devil’s club tincture, devil’s club tea, Labrador tea. We’re sending a care box out to family. With COVID-19 on the rise in Alaska, most of us now know someone who’s had the virus or is struggling right now. Sadly, we even know people who’ve died. We’ve had sick cousins, nieces, friends, acquaintances and neighbors. Recently, we received a Facebook message that our niece has COVID-19 and she’s afraid because she’s at risk in many ways, including having a serious heart condition. She’s only 40 years old. We took action. Haa Kusteeyí: Our way of life is all about taking care of one another. Now, it’s especially important to practice “generosity and sharing.” It took a coordinated effort to get our niece medical supplies and food because we’re in Southeast Alaska and she lives in Anchorage.
Sharing is part of our Alaskan culture. We make masks and send them to family, friends, and strangers. We supply people with teas and tinctures and we send them vitamins to boost their immune systems, and also electrolytes and cold medicine. We bring people food when they’re sick because they can’t work and we network with friends to run essential errands like going to the post office or picking up medicine.
Wooch eenx haa isteeyí, wooch dusxáni, wooch éet wutudasheeyí. When we’re together, we love each other, we help each other
Sometimes we pay for food or other items ourselves and donate them, sometimes people purchase items from us, and sometimes people pay-it-forward knowing we’re helping others. Many who need help are right here in Juneau and others are in small towns and villages, including larger communities across Alaska. Sometimes, though, there are people sick with COVID-19 who aren’t on social media. They’re isolated socially, so we hear about their needs through other friends, family, or neighbors. Before mainstream media picked up stories about how the virus is affecting our smaller villages, family and friends shared stories among themselves. People talked about past epidemics and how they dealt with those. Many who are sheltering or preparing to quarantine are perplexed. How are they going to get enough supplies? Groceries in the villages are expensive and supplies are limited. They need help.
We know it isn’t just my family who are helping others, though. We know you are too, dear reader. In Wrangell, locals started a Facebook page to help get supplies and run errands for people in quarantine. Also, there are people across Alaska and the Lower 48 who want to help but don’t know how. We discovered a Facebook group called Rural Alaska COVID-19 Alliance started by Christina McDonogh, Supiaq, a Cornell Law School student from Perryville, Alaska. When it came to fighting the coronavirus, she realized rural Alaska’s experiences were different from urban Alaska. Alaska Natives are 16% of the population yet they account for about 33% of the COVID-19 deaths in Alaska. In some villages up to 30% of the population has tested positive for the virus. There are communities that don’t have access to healthcare and people have to be medevaced out for advanced care. Plus, those hospitals are nearing or at capacity and lack the staff to handle anymore patients. Chevak, Alaska is one of the villages we’re hearing stories from, so we called the tribal administrator and received a list of needs, including hand sanitizer, masks, disposable gloves and cleaning supplies. Chevak has running water, but many other villages do not.
Women from the original group met in a separate chatgroup: CeeJay Johnson, Tlingit/Dakota, a business woman and artist who lives in California; Jana Olenka, Aleut, a health practitioner for over 20 years; Alicia Busick, a lifelong Alaskan, owner of Night Sands Marketing in Anchorage; and Reem Sheikh, a doctor from Anchorage who now lives in New York. We met via Zoom and eventually started a Facebook page. We didn’t want to just talk about helping, we wanted to find solutions. Alaska Native peoples are used to working together — we’ve fought for our land, advocated for health care, revitalized our languages, fought to keep our children from being taken from us. What we know is it’s okay to ask for help. With the steady increase in cases, more and more Alaskans are reaching out and asking for help fighting this virus.
Dikéex’ wooch gayilsháat. Hold one another other up.
Acquiring enough supplies and the logistics of shipping them to Alaska’s rural villages are the main obstacles. Many of the villages use small airplanes or ice roads and the roads aren’t safe to drive yet. Calista Corporation agreed to store our supplies but we also need people or Alaska Airlines, and the airlines flying into the villages, to donate shipping costs. In addition, to get the best deal on supplies we need to buy in bulk, but unfortunately, many stores limit one item each per customer. In this case, we’ve been creative as the eight Alaska Fellows in Anchorage, of which a relative is among them, have been acquiring supplies for us: All eight purchased one item.
Also, liquids are expensive to ship and many items cannot be shipped through Amazon or other stores. Some of the items we’re looking for are: vitamins C and D, zinc, powdered electrolytes, cough medicine, hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies, disposable gloves and masks. Another idea we’re considering is that people who want to help could adopt a rural Alaskan family and send them supplies and nonperishable foods.
Our group asked for help on social media and the village of Metlakatla responded immediately with a fundraiser campaign to send PPE to Chevak. This gave us hope. We started a GoFundMe and our friends and family, mostly Alaska Natives, contributed to the cause. An anonymous donor, originally from Juneau, who now lives outside Alaska, donated $5,000 for supplies. Another group donated 400 masks and a rural COVID-19 group from Oklahoma donated supplies. A U.S. Marine Corp family, living outside Alaska, also donated a large number of homemade masks. Alaska Mask Makers made hundreds of masks and Lynden Air Cargo donated shipping. Operation Sewing Squad made masks for eight villages. More donations have come in since then. Every tribe has unique needs and issues. Even though many tribes received Cares Act funds, much of that’s been spent responding to the initial economic crisis at the beginning of the pandemic. How long will this giving go on? We’ll help as long as the villages need us.
Be strong in mind, body and spirit. Yee toowú klatseen.
A unique Alaskan sport was invented to commemorate saving lives in rural Alaska during a pandemic. Like those dogsleds that raced to Nome to get the serum to the children, we’re trying to get supplies to our communities. This is a call for help. It’s taking a lot of effort — phone calls, emails, texts, messaging, ordering, shipping coordination, research and networking. Fortunately at Planet Alaska we have a large network of friends and artists, but we can’t do everything. We need the Coast Guard and the Alaska National Guard’s resources too. We need the Native corporations, churches, organizations, the airlines and more. We need you. We can’t give up hope. We can’t stop helping. We can’t stop giving. This is our way. It’s a pandemic and Alaskans are hurting. It takes a planet to help a planet in need. Let’s do our part.
Wooch.éen Yéi Jintuné. We Are Working Together.
How to help
Villages in need include: Chevak, Napaskiak, Kwethluk, Quinhagak, Emmonak, St. Mary’s, Alakanuk, Kotlik and others. Sending supplies to villages that haven’t had COVID-19 cases yet can help with prevention because it can take weeks for supplies to reach outlying areas.
Contact tribal offices
Adopt a family to send care packages: hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies, vitamins, electrolytes, cough medicine, dry foods and more.
If you know anyone who can help: USCG, Alaska National Guard, Alaska Airlines, Grant Aviation, or other agency or company, please send them to us.
GoFundMe: Rural Alaska COVID Relief, https://www.gofundme.com/f/rural-alaska-covid-relief.
Facebook pages to join include: Rural Alaska Covid-19 Alliance; Community Sourced PPE: Operations Sewing Squad
Addresses to ship PPE and other supplies to
This is not a complete list.
Supplies for Rural Villages, Calista Corp/Thom Leonard, 5015 Business Park Blvd., Suite 3000, Anchorage, AK 99503
John Peter, P.O. Box 68, Quinhagak, AK 99655 (population estimated to be 700)
Kwethluk Clinic, P.O. Box 69, Kwethluk, AK 99621 (population estimated to be 760)
St. Jacob Parish, Attn: Brenda Carmichael, P. O. Box 6115, Napaskiak, AK 99559 (population estimated to be 415)
Karen Paul, P.O. Box 241, Alakanuk, AK 99554 (population estimated to be 775)
Kendra Okitkun P.O. Box 20033 Kotlik, AK 66620 (population estimated to be 640)
Cheryl Joe (Women’s Shelter), PO Box 82, Emmonak, AK 99581 (population estimated to be 830)
Tracey Joe, St. Mary’s City Schools District, PO Box 102, St. Marys, AK 99658 (population estimated to be 570)
Skagway Traditional Council Covid testing office, PO Box 1157 Skagway, AK 99840 (population estimated to be 1,000)
Akiak Native Community, P.O. Box 52127, Akiak, AK 99552 (population estimated to be 400)
Tuntutuliak Traditional Council, PO Box 8086, Tuntutuliak, AK 99680 (population estimated to be 575)
• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Vivian Mork Yéilk’. It appears twice per month in the Capital City Weekly.