We’re in strange and uncertain times.
Like all of you, here at Planet Alaska we’re struggling, too, concerned about the future. For Tlingit people, when we’re thinking of the decisions we need to make for the future, we look to the past: Haa Shagoon. We have lived in Alaska for more than 10,000 years. We’ve survived ice ages. We’ve survived wars. And we’ve survived epidemics. We’ve lost much along the way. Along the way, we gained a lot, too. This is the way and why we have lived here for so long. We do what it takes to survive.
Shortly after the outsiders first came to Alaska to establish a colony, diseases came. Those of us who’d lived here sustainably for thousands of years were set on an unforeseen path. We were inundated by numerous epidemics: smallpox, measles, tuberculosis, black measles, pneumonia and more, including the 1918 Spanish flu that killed millions of people across the world. We had little immunity to fend it off and there was no vaccine. Alaska Native populations were decimated. Hundreds of children were left orphaned and entire villages were gone.
However, the village of Shishmaref learned of the virus and immediately prepared and quarantined themselves on the southwest end of the island with a large barricade manned with guns 24 hours a day. No one could enter. Not a single person died in Shishmaref during the Spanish flu — talk about hunkering down.
The 1918-1919 Spanish flu was the most documented epidemic and colonizers deemed it the most devastating of epidemics, but this is partly due to the lack of documentation available during our earlier epidemics. As Alaska Natives, though, we documented our own stories through oral traditions, the stories our families have told us down through the generations. For us, the Spanish flu isn’t something that happened so long ago that no one remembers. We are a people with a view of more than 10,000 years of history and the epidemics are our recent past. My family survived that epidemic. I am a descendant of one of the seven survivors of the Spanish flu in a village on Kuiu Island that killed almost everybody.
Only five sisters and two men survived. They paddled in their canoe to safety agreeing that if one of them began to show symptoms they would have to take their own lives or be willing to kill the sick ones: They would not infect another community. They showed no symptoms so they paddled on. One sister went to Petersburg, another sister to Prince of Wales, and 3 sisters settled in Wrangell. My grandmother heard this story from her grandmother, who was one of the sisters in the canoe that came to Wrangell. My grandmother is still alive. We are not so removed from this history that we can’t learn from it.
“I cry as I write these words.”
So what do we do in 2020? It’s pretty simple. History repeats itself, and viruses don’t care about how we feel about it. We are biological organisms that need to survive and we have to do what we have to do. We need to buy ourselves time for researchers to advance treatments and a vaccine, time to get more medical supplies and time to get more health care workers. We are facing one of the most critical times in our lives, and it’s absolutely crucial to the survival of our family, friends and neighbors that we hunker down now and physically distance ourselves while practicing excellent hand washing. It’s also going to be devastating to Alaska economically and we need to plan for that.
Despite a dismal outlook, we’re going to give it a good fight to keep our Planet Alaska store downtown. Everything is changing.
This time last year, I wrote a column about our move to Juneau and giving Planet Alaska a physical location.
“Planet Alaska is a business with the purpose of perpetuating culture,” I wrote. “Every last item in our store is made by Alasksans. As you know, sustainable harvesting and traditional ecological knowledge is one of our many passions. We’ll be offering classes all year round. Of course, with the summer season in full swing, during the day, our shop will be open for sales. In the evening, and in winter, our shop will transform into a classroom. Plus, a portion of sales will support community classes in traditional ecological knowledge, sustainable harvesting, Alaska Native language classes, and more: all our Planet Alaska passions.”
I cry as I write these words.
Here we are, a year later, wondering where we will be another year from now. There’s a huge chance our business won’t make it. I can accept it, though, because it means our friends, family, and neighbors, are healthy because we sheltered in place. These mandates that are meant for our survival mean drastic changes. We’re moving all of our inventory onto our website and we haven’t let anyone into our shop in a couple weeks. We’re rearranging the shop for convenient window shopping with a sign on how to order posted on the door. You can now see our devil’s club salves, Chickweed salves, Plantain salves, Chaga tea, Chaga Tinctures, locally made art and jewelry in the window with prices. We have online items we can mail, and have curbside pickup, or delivery. We know that more Juneau businesses are doing things like this. We don’t know if it will be enough. We’re going to try.
Plus, we’re moving our harvesting classes to Patreon so people can harvest with us online. The name of our program is called Hike, Harvest, and Heal. Our first classes were going to be this week, harvesting cottonwood buds together in the woods. Now they will be online via Patreon. We’re always saying, “When things get back to normal…” But what will our new normal look like? We’re preparing a model to harvest while still social distancing, just in case.
“It’s painful to live in the unknown but that’s what we’re all doing”
How are small businesses to survive these times? We have other friends and family with small businesses. Well, we wouldn’t be surviving if it wasn’t for our regular customers, our Planet Alaska followers, our family and our friends. The federal and state government systems offering assistance doesn’t help us. Nothing helps us pay the mortgage because we don’t qualify for federal or state assistance. We’re not the only ones.
Taking out more loans with no tourism industry is not a good choice for us or many other local businesses that depend on tourism, plus local and online sales have drastically dropped as people hunker down and hold onto funds for the unknown.
It’s painful to live in the unknown but that’s what we’re all doing. But there’s comfort in our survival stories. We survived the Spanish flu pandemic by physically distancing ourselves from each other. We helped one another through it. Alaskans helped provide food for other Alaskans. Alaskans helped take care of children. Alaskans helped goods continue to safely come into our communities. Alaskans sacrificed goods and rationed so there would be enough for all. This is our past, our present and our future. We are writing our history today as we help one another.
As we face the unknown together who will you be in this next chapter in Alaska’s history? Will you be the landlord who lowers or waives rent or will you be the landlord who evicts? Are you the family or friends who offer help to someone who can’t pay their rent? Perhaps you’re a stranger who helps a stranger. Will you be the person who goes hunting and fishing and gives to as many people as you can? Will you be the person buying local as much as possible to keep Alaska afloat? Will you be someone who makes masks for healthcare workers? Will you be the person who takes more than they need? Will you be the person who calls your Elders to make sure they have what they need? Will you be one of the helpers in history who we may never know about but because of you we survived? In all of this separation and distancing, we still come together as Alaskans. It’s those small acts of kindness and love, the small everyday deeds of ordinary folks that keep the darkness at bay, allowing us to face the unknown.
We are in this together.
• Vivian Mork Yéilk’ writes the Planet Alaska column with her mother, Vivian Faith Prescott. Planet Alaska publishes every other week in the Capital City Weekly.