To Live and Die in Wales, Alaska
A young man tries to make his way in a village still reeling from the flu of 1918
For years Mike Weyapuk sat on his bunk, cradling his sunburst Gibson guitar. He stared out at the frozen Bering Strait and dreamed of the day he would leave his village to start a metal band. He thought about moving to Seattle or Chicago, but nowhere too far south; he’d heard about an Eskimo who went to Arizona and almost melted. When he arrived in the big city and stepped onstage, he would play fast and hard and angry and sad, the history of his people aching in every power chord.
Mike was tall, with the build of a long-distance runner, his arms thick from seasonal construction work. He had a faint moustache and shiny black hair that fell to his shoulders. He wore the same clothes for days at a time; sometimes it was a Kentucky Wildcats T-shirt and blue sweats, or black jeans and a black T-shirt that read “Life is full of important choices.” He lived in Wales, Alaska, about as far away from DC as you can get and still call yourself an American. Zip code 99783. Population 139. Frigid and forbidding like an ice cavern, where the wind blows endlessly and everybody’s related. The westernmost tip of the North American continent, the swath of western Alaska stretching out to Siberia. The western front of the Cold War, the enemy bearing down eighty-five kilometres away. The place where humans are believed to have crossed the Bering Sea land bridge into North America 12,000 years ago. The Pacific and Arctic oceans converge at the Bering Strait, the Diomede Islands rising in the centre, and the International Date Line slices between them—so close to the line that you can watch today’s and tomorrow’s sunset sink over the purple mountains of Siberia.
One day in late May of 2005, Mike put down his guitar and slipped out of his crumbling house. He walked north on the sandy road, the wind clawing at his back. He passed the water tank he’d once worked at and the community centre he helped build. The airstrip was on his left, the launching pad to a land of choices. Mike carried a 9mm-pistol in his black Carhartt jacket. He had a place in mind, up on Paavik Mountain, just outside the village, so he hiked over the spongy tundra and started up the mountainside. In the distance, it was all laid out before him: the gabled roofs and the oddly shaped buildings; the tiny crosses sprouting like weeds in sand; dust trailing four-wheelers on the beach; the Bering Strait’s rough waters roaring ashore; the Diomede Islands, their smooth plateaus like floating docks; Siberia looming on the horizon; the village as peaceful as a dead man at his wake.
Mike clutched the trigger. Twenty-six years he’d lived in the village, just long enough to watch his life flash before his eyes.
Imet Mike five years before he went up the mountain. He was standing on the steps of his father’s windswept house, smoking a cigarette and gazing at the strait, trying to guess which way the wind was going to blow next. It was one of those rare evenings in Wales when the midnight sun shines in all its glory, the sea aglow in blues and greens and purples, the sky flaming yellow and orange. The wind was like a pendulum just beginning to swing east, barely a breeze. I asked Mike what the wind was doing. If the wind kicked up in earnest tonight, he told me, it meant a storm was brewing over Siberia and it would be raining sideways in Wales in a day.
Mike invited me into his house for coffee. We walked up the front steps and through an Arctic entryway, a shed attached to most village homes where families store hunting gear and freezers filled with game. You can tell how much somebody hunts by the pungent, marine mammal scent of their shed. It wasn’t very strong in Mike’s, but inside the house it felt like a hunting cabin. Dishrags and towels dangled from clotheslines criss-crossing the kitchen. The counters were cluttered with flashlights, dirty dishes, a maple syrup bottle, Styrofoam plates, pickle jars, and a box of oatmeal. A metal trash can held drinking water collected from creeks. Mike’s younger brother Brian was watching the X Games on espn while his father, Walter, and three men played cribbage at the table. On the door was a Brandon Lee poster, on the wall a tribute to Mike’s grandfather: “The Twentieth Alaska Legislature honors the lifetime achievements of Winton Weyapuk Sr., Alaska Native leader, artist and cultural bearer, who died March 7, 1997. Winton was born November 16, 1907, in Wales… He grew up dependent on the traditional subsistence lifestyle. When Winton’s parents died in an influenza epidemic, he became the main provider for his family by hunting and trapping.”
Mike handed me a mug and motioned me to his bedroom. It was not much bigger than a walk-in closet, with a hanging bedsheet as a door. It overflowed with Mountain Dew bottles, twisted guitar strings, music magazines, and crumpled paper. The walls were plastered with posters of Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, and Pantera. Mike’s stereo played Hendrix’s Axis: Bold As Love. A pile of electric guitars were stacked behind his bunk bed, and an amplifier sat below a narrow window facing the strait. We studied his window as if it was an aquarium: the sun shooting over the sea, kids darting in and out of view, hues of blue and green and gold shining everywhere.
I’d come to Wales because of a story I chanced upon in an anthropology course during my last semester of college. The tale was of a strange virus travelling aboard dogsleds across Alaska’s hinterlands, leaving thousands of bodies in its wake. When it reached Wales, the virus killed almost 200 people, more than half the population, and orphaned several dozen children. The disease was the 1918 influenza, a virus that killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide. It killed at a higher rate in western Alaska than anywhere else in the United States.
What most interested me about Wales was what happened in the months after the epidemic. A government superintendent came to the village to resolve the orphan crisis that had ensued. He brought along a sheaf of marriage licences, called the adult survivors to the schoolhouse, and told them that the government was planning to take the orphans away. He did not want to see this happen, so he offered the people an alternative: the survivors could remarry and raise the children. The official then instructed the men to line up on one side of the room, the women on the other. The men were told to select wives. Those who didn’t were paired up. The superintendent conducted a mass wedding, and the orphans were doled out to the new couples.
The 1918 flu explains much about the village today. The population never recovered, sitting between 120 and 170 people. The flu killed so many elders—the walking encyclopedias of the Old World—that it shattered the village’s sense of its history. And it killed so many hunters that the ancient art of whaling all but ceased for the next half-century. White teachers and missionaries returned to Wales after the epidemic, encouraging the people to abandon their language and shamanistic beliefs. In the 1940s, a pastor told villagers to stop dancing like devils, and they did for the next half-century. Modern technology flooded the village—radios, airplanes, snowmobiles, and televisions. Much of the culture died off. Then a new epidemic hit western Alaska. People started to kill themselves at a rate seven times the US average. One suicide led to another, spreading from village to village. To this day, the epidemic rages on.
In 1778, while on his third Pacific voyage, English explorer Captain James Cook sailed into the Bering Strait in search of the fabled Northwest Passage. When he saw the land jutting westerly into the channel, he named it Cape Prince of Wales, in honour of King George iii’s eldest son, the Prince of Wales. Eskimos called it Kingigin, or “high bluff,” and called themselves Kingikmiut, “people of the high place.” The names refer to a ridge that wraps around Wales like an amphitheatre. It starts as a rocky outcropping known as Razorback Mountain and gently bends to 700-metre-high Cape Mountain, which dives into the Bering Strait—the terminus of the Continental Divide. At the base of the mountain, the sea laps at a giant slab of granite shaped like an axe blade. Some villagers say this is where Paul Bunyan left his axe after chopping down all the trees in the Arctic.
When gazing up the mountainside and along the ridge, it feels as if people are perched up there looking back at you. In ancient times, the Kingikmiut stacked rocks to look like sentries to scare off enemies coming across the strait. Granite boulders dot the hillside, the biggest of which is painted white. The Kingikmiut called it The Door. They believed a spirit lived behind it; when he was hungry, he would cast a beam of light into the sea and snag a seal. There once was a pit near The Door, an underground altar to appease the spirit. When a Kingikmiut boy was old enough to hunt, he carried a stone up the hillside and dropped it in the pit, telling the spirit, “Here is seal meat. Eat it.”
The Kingikmiut occupied two villages huddled tightly together below the mountain. They were allied in trade and hunting, reigning over a territory stretching dozens of kilometres. Seven hundred people lived in Kingigin, one of the largest native settlements in Alaska; some anthropologists believe it was the biggest.
Other tribes in northern Alaska were small and nomadic, living at fishing or winter camps in a constant quest to find food. In Kingigin, animals regularly passed by the Kingikmiut’s doorstep. The people lived off the sea, hunting bowhead whales, seals, and walruses as they swarmed the ice-clogged Bering Strait. A whale could feed hundreds of people for months. Seal blubber heated and lit their houses—dark, subterranean mounds moulded from the tundra. The skins were used to make clothes, boats, and tents.
After a successful whaling season, there were big dance festivals, called messenger feasts. Young men travelled to neighbouring villages, carrying poles festooned with the skins of wolverines, caribou, and bearded seal, and invited others to come and share in their fortune. Gifts were exchanged, and people danced to the beat of drummers.
The Kingikmiut were great traders, moving goods between continents and villages hundreds of kilometres apart. Eskimos from other villages came to Wales to swap deerskins and sealskins, jade and flint, ivory and beads. Bands of Siberian Eskimos would paddle across the strait and trade with the Kingikmiut. Other times they attacked the Kingikmiut, plundering the village for food and taking women and children as prisoners.
In the spring of 1979, a propeller plane rounded Cape Mountain, banked a hard right over the Bering Strait, and swooshed down upon the village like an Arctic tern diving for a salmon. Walter and Florence Weyapuk had brought home a baby boy. He was Eskimo, even had some Kingikmiut blood flowing through his veins. They’d adopted him in Fairbanks at six months old. The couple named him Michael Deland Weyapuk. Seelkoke was his Eskimo name, passed down from Buster Seelkoke, an elder who died three months before Mike was born.
Mike arrived in Wales at the time of year when people emerge from their houses squinting like moles. The sun hung in the sky longer with each passing day. The ice broke apart. Spouts from bowhead whales puffed like smoke as they swam north into the Arctic Ocean. Men got their crews together and spotted positions a kilometre out on the shore ice to launch their boats. After the whales passed, walruses and seals appeared, like black ants floating on water. Mike’s father, Walter, prepared to go after the walruses. His mother cleaned the storm shed, praying for a freezer full of game. Sister Leah watched over her little brother.
Mike belonged to an extended family of Inupiat Eskimos, the orphaned descendants of the 1918 flu epidemic. They spoke in thick, slow, choppy English, which had largely replaced their native language. Women wore traditional parkas, but more often dressed in blue jeans and snowsuits. The men had long hair and wispy beards and smoked cigarettes. They looked like truck drivers, sporting big sunglasses and ball caps. Villagers had turned in their dogsleds for snowmobiles by the time Mike showed up.
No roads connected Wales to the rest of Alaska, its only link being small propeller planes packed with food, mail, and passengers flying to and from Nome, a hardscrabble town of churches and taverns 160 kilometres southeast of Wales. Wales was poor and relied heavily on government subsidies. People didn’t have running water and still don’t today. They paid with tokens to shower at the washeteria and used five-gallon containers, called honeybuckets, for toilets. A city employee, riding on a four-wheeler in summer or a snowmobile in winter, drove around like a garbageman, picking up the waste and hauling it to a sewage lagoon.
A string of ramshackle homes built of weathered planks and tarpaper lined a sandy path running along the coastline. Mike’s grandparents lived in one, surrounded by dilapidated shacks and old wooden meat racks. Across the road and along the beach was another row of homes, each with three small bedrooms and a kitchen opening up to a small living room. Mike’s family home had been shipped to Wales in the 1970s on a barge. Beyond the houses were the Wales Native Store, the Lutheran church, the school, a few boats lying perpendicular to the sea, and then several more houses and shacks crawling up the hillside.
On the north side of the village, there was an abandoned Navy submarine research station and a gravel airstrip. A shaman was buried at the end of the runway. Pilots sometimes got frightened before they touched down, when they saw the shaman’s ghost standing in the runway. Beyond the airstrip was Lopp Lagoon, a lengthy stretch of water named after one of the white men who introduced Siberian reindeer to Alaska in the 1890s. A cemetery rolled out over dunes along the Bering Strait. The burial ground was the scene of one of Mike’s first memories.
In 1981, when Mike was almost three, an elder died. It was a summer burial. Villagers huddled around a white pastor. As Mike listened to the prayers, he stared at the sea, Razorback, and the casket. It was as though he saw the air, land, and water all together. Timeless and spiritual, he remembered years later.
Mike walked the ridge above Wales, inspecting old bones, tin cans, and rusted gun barrels—the Kingikmiut’s ancient burial ground. At one grave was a pile of polar bear skulls, the mark of a great hunter. Family and close friends had carried the warrior’s body and his possessions up the hill and laid them on a plank, covering them with boards and rocks. When Mike climbed down the south hillside, he passed a white marble headstone with the inscription: A good soldier of Christ Jesus. People used to tilt back the small pedestal and place pennies under it, which boys like Mike would snatch up and take home. The grave belonged to Harrison Thornton, one of the first white teachers in Arctic Alaska, a Presbyterian from Virginia who’d come to Wales in 1890. He found the ridge-top burials grotesque and tried to persuade the Eskimos to bury their dead in the ground. In the Arctic, however, the earth is frozen year-round close to the surface, perhaps the reason why the Kingikmiut chose the ridge. Thornton was appalled when he came across a corpse that a dog had dragged down from the mountain. One day he heard Eskimo children laughing outside his house. He opened his door to find a puppy playing with a frozen human foot, part of the remains of an old woman who had died weeks before. “The children seemed to think it a good joke,” he wrote acidly in his journal.
The Kingikmiut didn’t know what to make of this guy with white skin. Was he here to trade? Why was he building his home on Kingikmiut land? When was he planning to leave? Thornton thought the Eskimos inferior and despised their newly found love for liquor. The Kingikmiut had learned how to distill whisky, and it often felt to Thornton as though the whole village was drunk. He grew agitated and paranoid and walked around Wales with a revolver strapped to his belt. He announced that if anyone came to his door at night and refused to give their names, he’d shoot them. One late August evening in 1893, three boys knocked. When they heard Thornton’s footsteps, they fired a whaling gun through the door and killed him.
The village voted itself dry during the 1970s. But that didn’t stop the bootleggers. They sold alcohol in the village for ten to fifteen times the amount they paid for it in Nome. The going rate for a fifth of Rich & Rare Canadian Whisky in Wales: $150 (all figures US). A half-gallon: $300. Somehow people found the money, and booze flowed freely as Mike came of age.
In the early 1970s, most of rural Alaska didn’t have television. What villagers knew of the outside world came from white teachers and preachers; weekly movie nights and the small book collection at the school; the Sears catalogue, from which they ordered their clothes; and the Alaska Sportsman, a popular magazine throughout the bush. In 1973, social scientists from the University of Alaska wanted to see how television might affect native communities before it became widespread in rural Alaska. They chose Wales as their test site. The team installed a videotape player in the school library and ran cables to home TV sets, then monitored people’s viewing habits. Villagers were soon watching so much television that almost no one came to school board and city council meetings.
Mike Weyapuk belonged to the first generation to grow up with television. He soaked up more from Bob Barker, alf, Tom Brokaw, and Larry King than he ever did in school. He especially liked history and science documentaries. He learned why the northern lights dance red and green over Wales. He saw a documentary about Mongolia and thought some of the people looked like his neighbours. Another show chronicled the life of an Inuit man. When the man died, colonialists chopped off his hands, covered them in plaster, and used them as ashtrays. It occurred to Mike that there were people out there who treated Eskimos like animals.
On September 1, 1983, a news report flashed across the screen: A Soviet fighter jet had shot down Korean Air Lines Flight 007. The plane crashed north of Japan near Siberia, killing 269 people, including a US congressman. The Cold War was heating up, and the Bering Strait was as tense as Berlin. Soviet and US submarines played cat-and-mouse games underwater while fighter jets chased one another above. The Soviets manned a radar station on Big Diomede Island, forty-seven kilometres west of Wales. The US Air Force watched from a radar transmitter on top of Cape Mountain, just behind the village. The first sign of a thaw came during the years Mike’s mother gave birth to Lucille and Brian. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev were talking about reducing their nuclear arsenals.
Then Mike’s mother, the family’s rudder, got sick. In August 1987, she died of breast cancer. Fall turned to winter. Ice floes oozed through the strait. Polar bears roamed the shores. The arctic wind blew incessantly. Ground blizzards consumed homes. Planes couldn’t always land, so shelves and freezers thinned. The mail backed up. Nuclear winter had descended on Wales.
Mike’s father was the first to lose it. Walter stopped hunting and started drinking. Bad things happened that Mike would spend his life trying to forget. During those wayward times, he cared for his little brother and sister, and when he had time to himself, he visited with his grandparents. Winton and Carrie Weyapuk lived just across from his house but seemed a world away. Their damp storm shed smelled of whale, and tall seal boots hung on a nail. They ate native food from the land and sea, not the peas and chicken Mike had grown used to. Life slowed when he passed through their door. In their lifetime, the village had gone from sod mounds to wooden houses, from seal-oil lamps to electricity, from storytelling and dancing to radio and television. Mike hauled his grandparents’ drinking water, dumped their sewage buckets, and took out their trash. They were calm and patient, and he listened quietly to their stories.
Winton told his grandson about the ancient qargi, the ceremonial house that served as the stage for every important ritual conducted by the Kingikmiut. There was once a qargi next to Mike’s home. The chiefs met there to resolve trading and territorial disputes. Shamans performed rituals to appease spirits. Hunters held dancing and drumming events before heading off on the ice pack. The qargi was also a shelter for orphaned boys and single men without families, who would carve ivory and play games late into the night.
One evening, fog rolled over Wales and a fire-breathing monster, part man, part skeleton, slithered into the qargi. Everybody scattered to the benches along the walls. One boy jammed his pinkies into two holes in the wall behind him and held on for all his might as the monster led the rest of the boys outside and behind the mountain. They were never seen again.
Winton also told stories about Kingikmiut hunters from long ago, fearless men who ran caribou herds into lakes while others awaited in kayaks to spear them. Hundreds of hunters went after walruses and seals, but what they truly lived for was the bowhead whale, an animal that can stretch over twenty metres and weigh over 110 tonnes. Hunters today fire guns and bombs to kill whales, but in ancient times the Kingikmiut relied on brute strength to harpoon them. In a good year, they killed as many as two dozen bowheads. When Mike was a boy, Wales was lucky if it landed one bowhead every few years.
In the fall of 1918, Winton told his grandson, a man rode into Wales with his dead son strapped to his dogsled. Most of the villagers attended the funeral. A few days later, most of them became sick. Winton was eleven years old. He and his family moved to his uncle’s sod house after his father died. The next morning, he awoke to find his mother and uncle both dead. He lived among the corpses until somebody took him and his brother to the school, where the orphans had gathered. He saw people dying and bodies stacked in rooms. Then there were the dogs, dozens of dogs chewing on corpses throughout the village.
Mike would grow up to be thoughtful and helpful, the kind of young man who’d give his chair to an elder; curious and smart, comfortable with sharing his opinions with a stranger; a hard worker who tried to stay employed as much as could be expected in Wales. He also became increasingly judgmental. Mike despised what he called “propaganda,” a veil of denial that he believed kept people from speaking their minds out of fear of ridicule. When he saw contradictions within himself, Mike turned into his own worst enemy. He would seethe with anger for days at a time.
Mike took his first drink when he was twelve. He and his friends would split bottles and black out. When his friends ended up in jail for drinking, Mike would get drunk alone. One early fall day, he downed half a bottle of whisky, stepped out on his father’s porch, and pointed a rifle at a man and a woman. He served four months in jail. Mike would curse the bottle, and long stretches of sobriety followed. He could white-knuckle it for a while, but then waves of anger, resentment, and melancholy would wash over him. He ran a knife from his shoulder blades to the centre of his stomach, leaving faint tracks that made his chest look like a bird spreading its wings. He sketched pictures of skulls and monsters, like the one his grandfather told him about. Death metal screamed from his stereo:
Lying, dying, screaming in pain
Begging, pleading, bullets drop like rain
Minds explode, pain shears to your brain
Radical amputation, this is insane
Mike often passed an abandoned two-storey house on his way to school. It had a pitched roof and a rusted bell holding up one of its corners. The backside was gone and he could peer inside at its contents as if it were a dollhouse. Amid the rubble and broken walls were a polar bear hide, a Singer sewing machine, an off-kilter piano, and a motorbike. When the wind blew through the broken windows, the house spewed loose-leaf paper across the tundra, children’s homework assignments from decades ago. The house belonged to the first Eskimo teacher in coastal Arctic Alaska. Arthur Nagozruk was born in 1890. When he was a boy, he waited early in the morning, well before school started, for the doors to open, eager to hear what his white teachers had to say. As a young man, he led the Kingikmiut on a journey to wed their old ways with the modern world. The village formed a city government and a reindeer company, and oversaw a school run by Eskimo teachers. Everyone still hunted and danced, though. They spoke their language. They listened to their shamans. Nagozruk proclaimed 1917 to be the first year that no white people had lived in Wales since Harrison Thornton showed up in 1890. It was also the last such year. After the 1918 flu, the white teachers and missionaries returned and never left.
Mike’s teachers came from states like North Carolina, California, and Minnesota. Some were not much older than he was. They had come looking for adventure. Other teachers were middle-aged and seemed lost. In the early 1990s, Mike’s teacher was a young man who liked to cross-country ski and lift weights. He was like a big brother to the five boys of Mike’s high school class. One fall, the students and their teacher built a snack shop next to the school gym. They sold candy and soda, popcorn and potato chips. They cooked pizzas and delivered them inside old film-reel cases to homes when it was thirty below. The boys were raising money to fund a class trip to the lower forty-eight states, and by the spring of 1993 they had socked away $15,000.
Students in many Alaska villages take class trips, often visiting the places where their teachers grew up. If your teacher is from Southern Cali-fornia, you might fly to see Hollywood. If she’s from Florida, you could spend a week at Walt Disney World. Mike’s teacher was from the suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota. There’s not much in these suburbs, but there is an artificial city of Gap stores and Victoria’s Secrets, wedding chapels and roller coasters, and arcades and log-chute rides: the Mall of America in Bloomington, which, in the early 1990s, was the world’s newest, biggest shopping centre.
At the end of the school year, the boys and their teacher boarded a propeller plane in Wales and flew to Nome; then they flew to Anchorage, where they transferred and headed to Seattle; one more plane ride and they arrived in Minneapolis, twenty-three hours after they’d left Wales.
The Mall of America is so enormous that you could fit Wales inside it and still have room for a water park. It boggled the kids’ minds. They spent two days alone exploring the north and west wings, moving from one shop to the next, riding the escalators up and down, until they discovered the video arcades. There were three, and that’s where they spent a lot of their time.
For most of the boys, it was their first and last trip to the contiguous states. They finished high school, dozed into village life, and began to die. Jeff was the first to check out. In 1999, he disappeared while celebrating his twenty-first birthday in Nome. A tourist found his mangled body on a beach, the head missing, the cause of death unknown. On Christmas Eve 2004, Gary went missing in a blizzard. Villagers found his body three months later, when the snow began to melt. By the time Mike killed himself, three of the five boys from his high school class were dead.
Mike used to hunt with his uncle Jonah, who would show up unannounced and tell his nephew to get dressed. Mike would grab his .22 long rifle and warm clothes, and they’d snowmobile up the coast to shoot bearded seal. One summer morning, Mike awoke early and saw Jonah pacing the road with his head down, as though he was trying to remember something. He was combing the sand for coins and scraps of ivory. After Jonah died of a heart attack in 1995, Mike began catching himself picking through the sand for pennies, nickels, dimes—quarters if he was lucky. He could burn a few hours staring at the sand. It was something to do.
Mike inherited Jonah’s guitar, a 1976 sunburst Gibson Les Paul with a worn maple fretboard. He didn’t have a guitar pick, so he sliced up the plastic lid of a bowl into tiny triangles. They were too thick and bounced off the strings like tennis balls. And the guitar was out of tune. It took Mike months to learn how make it sing on key. Even then it sounded horrible. Mike flew to Nome and caught a cab to Rasmussen’s Music Mart. He got himself a tuner and some picks, a few guitar magazines, and a book of scales and chords. Sitting on his lower bunk, he taught himself to play.
As Mike improved his skills, his younger brother and sister were learning old Kingikmiut songs and dances in the school gym. Elders, waxing and waning in their twilight years, suddenly remembered the songs of their youth. Boys and their fathers built walrus-skin drums. They learned to curl their arms and dance to the beat. Girls were taught to let their arms fly like wings and sway their bodies in unison. Mike graduated from high school two years before the revival of the village dance festival, but he could have walked over to the gym and learned to drum like an ancient Kingikmiut. Instead, he chose to learn the songs of Metallica and Pantera. Snow piled up past his bedroom window. Wind shook the house. Mike turned on the chorus on his amplifier and practised the melodic opening to Metallica’s “One.” The lyrics go:
Now that the war is through with me
I’m waking up, I cannot see
That there’s not much left of me
Nothing is real but pain now
Hold my breath as I wish for death
Oh please God, wake me
Mike got a part-time job as an operator at the village’s water tank and spent summers building houses and a community centre, earning wages that paid for his growing collection of electric guitars. Jonah’s Gibson had sentimental value, but Mike’s most prized instrument was his Paul Reed Smith. The maple top was whale blue, and abalone inlays shaped like flying birds dotted the rosewood frets. It cost more than $1,500. Mike dreamed of building his own guitars. He wanted to use walrus ivory for the neck and laminated whale baleen for the fretboard. He had many dreams like this, all of which revolved around leaving Wales. Chief among them was to start a heavy metal band in the lower forty-eight.
Mike’s dream provided purpose (leaving the village) built around ritual (playing the guitar), just as dancing and singing and drumming gave children and elders a connection to their past and hope for the future. There had to be some reason to get out of bed each morning. What other choices were there for a young guy when the only employers in Wales were the city and tribal governments, the school, the store, the post office, and the clinic? When a few families took all the jobs? When four out of ten people were unemployed, many of them not looking for work? When you were related to nearly everybody and could hardly date? When a TV dinner cost more than eight bucks? When a round-trip plane ticket from Wales to Anchorage set you back $700? When villagers got sick because they didn’t have clean running water? When there were no doctors in Wales? When sexual abuse ran rampant in rural Alaska? When six men in Wales, over 4 percent of the population, were registered sex offenders? When people dropped like flies, as though the village was dying before Mike’s eyes? The year after Uncle Jonah passed away, Uncle Louie died. Then Mike’s grandparents passed. A friend killed himself. Another friend’s father shot himself under the chin with a shotgun. Mike’s cousin died, then his cousin’s daughter, an aunt, yet another friend.
If you’re lucky, you find somebody in Wales to ride out the ups and downs with. In the late 1990s, Mike and Marie Ningealook found each other. Marie was lured by Mike’s seriousness and kindness. She empathized with his past because she had her own stories—personal battles with boredom and depression and family members who’d killed themselves. Mike grew close to Marie quickly. Maybe he didn’t need to leave Wales. Maybe he could build a life with Marie in the village. But as Mike drew closer, Marie distanced herself. She thought he was becoming possessive. If she wanted to be with her girlfriends, he tried to find her. If she spoke to a man in the village, he got angry. Mike told her he sometimes felt like putting the village out of its misery. Marie thought Mike wasn’t right in the head, and she found a new boyfriend, a barrel-chested man named Larry. Mike never got over Marie. He blamed Larry for taking her away and told people Marie had been a disloyal girlfriend who’d slept with all the men in the village. When Mike saw Marie and Larry, he stared them down.
One night Marie and Larry were drinking whisky in town. When he went to the bathroom, she shot herself with a .22 pistol. Marie was flown to the Alaska Native Medical Centre in Anchorage, where she didn’t wake up for five days. “I was so drunk that my arm went back, and the bullet went at an angle and shattered my cheek below my eye,” she told me in September 2002. “I was on a breathing tube for a week, and the doctor wanted to shut it off because he thought I might have brain damage. But my mother said, ‘No, I don’t care if my daughter comes home a vegetable. I want her back.’ I had part of my cheek below my eye replaced and part of my nose. I lost my taste buds for a while, and I can’t smell too well. I used to have double vision, and I had eye surgery done on that part. It’s something I won’t forget. But the doctor said I was lucky it hit my cheek first. If it hadn’t hit my cheek, my brain would have been Jell-O within a few minutes.”
When Marie returned to Wales, people asked her why she shot herself. She told them, “I was drunk and I didn’t know what was going on. Just leave me alone.” Mike thought Marie was dumb for trying it, and when he ran into her several months later he told her as much: “The next time you shoot yourself, use a .357. Do it right if you’re going to do it.”
One day in March 2001, I was at the city building scanning notices on the lobby wall. Among muskox hunting permits, dates for a dentist’s visit, a list of the warning signs of tuberculosis, a statement of laws banning alcohol in the village, curfew rules, and a reminder about flu shots, I found this plea: “Gravediggers needed.” Two weeks earlier, people from villages across the region attended an Eskimo conference in Nome. Then some started to get sick. They flew home to their villages, where their colds turned to flu. Half of the Wales school was home sick. Parents had stopped going to work.
At first it looked as though Louise Tokeinna had come down with the flu. The four-year-old’s temperature shot up. She stopped eating. Then she slipped into convulsions at her grandparents’ home. She passed away the morning of March 10, 2001. An autopsy found Louise had died of Reye’s syndrome, a rare, non-contagious disease that usually affects children with chicken pox, flu, or other respiratory illnesses. But as villagers were still awaiting news on the cause of death, some feared a deadly virus might be spreading. There were parents who kept their children away from Louise’s sisters. Nearby communities heard about the incident, and some avoided people from Wales. It was as though an ill wind had blown through Wales, reminding the people why their village was so small and their history so scattered.
The funeral was held at the Lutheran church, the only church in Wales. One by one people came to the altar to talk about Louise and the hole her death left. An aunt said she remembered how the little girl sang along with a TV commercial for Anne Murray’s greatest hits. She loved an improvised version of “On Top of Old Smokey”: “We’d sing, ‘On top of Old Smokey, all covered with snow, auntie lost her poor Louise, on a dog team to Nome.’” An uncle cried on the altar. “It seems like whenever I’m getting close to somebody, they always leave,” he said. “Maybe I shouldn’t get close anymore. Maybe I should stay far away.” Small children walked up to the open casket and ran their fingers over Louise’s cheeks and lips. The service lasted four hours.
A procession of snowmobiles rode out to the dunes, one pulling a sled with the white casket, its sides rattling against the rails. Trails of snow funnelled over the Bering Strait. Yellow-tinted ski goggles hid the villagers’ watering eyes. Wind thrust sand in their teeth. Only those close to the pastor heard him say, “God, take care of Louise Tokeinna.” It had taken ten men two days to pierce a hole big enough for a child in the frozen dunes. It took half an hour to fill it. Men without shovels plowed their boots like diggers, pushing sand into the grave. Others fell to their knees and frantically cupped their hands like bowls.
In the centre of the cemetery, I gazed at a tall, whitewashed cross rising over an eroding mound shaved by wind. It was a mass grave holding the remains of nearly 200 people—more people than live in Wales today. These were the victims of the 1918 flu epidemic. When I first came to Wales and visited the burial site, I saw a pair of skeletons emerging from it, like fossils in a riverbank. Another time, I noticed four skulls resting beside the mound. On my last visit, leg bones and femurs grew from the grave.
Most of what Wales villagers know of their history comes from what their parents and grandparents have told them; if they don’t know much about the 1918 flu and what it did to Wales, it’s because their elders rarely discussed it. When they did, they seemed dazed. One elderly woman who lived through it would only whimper and mumble the names of the dead. I once asked a high school class in Wales what they knew about the 1918 flu. Some had heard stories of a mailman delivering the disease to the village, dogs eating the bodies, and children losing their parents. Others had heard a story about the government purposely infecting Eskimo villages. I asked the class if the flu lived on. Most of the students looked puzzled, but one boy raised his hand. “If the flu didn’t hit us, we’d probably be like a little Nome. Maybe we’d have a Wal-Mart.”
In 1918, far-flung villages like Wales would seem to have had the best chance of avoiding the flu. Airplanes were still evolving, construction of the Alaska Highway was years away, and there was no railroad linking western Alaska to the lower forty-eight states (this is still true today). A fleet of belching steamships was the only umbilical cord to the last frontier, hauling passengers, food, clothing, mail, mining equipment, and other goods. In October, when the Bering Sea started turning frosty and rough, the steamers made their last voyages of the year to the northern reaches of Alaska. Nome and its surrounding villages were cut off for months. The only link between Nome and Wales was a 200-kilometre-long dog-sled trail. News travelled by word of mouth. Wales had no telegraph.
The 1918 flu was cunning, patient, and tenacious. It fooled doctors into lifting quarantines, lying low in its host until it had the best opportunity to inflict mass casualties. When it reached remote parts of the world, it found an ally in isolation. More than half a million Americans died. In Alaska, between 2,000 and 3,000 people perished. Historian Alfred W. Crosby detailed the 1918 flu in Alaska in his book, America’s Forgotten Pandemic. He estimated that 8 percent of the native population there was wiped away. Isolation had “protected the Indians, Aleuts and Eskimos,” Crosby wrote, “and then, when the isolation failed in 1918, they died in greater percentages than any other people in the American empire.” The flu epidemic was the greatest human tragedy in Alaska’s recorded history.
In late August 1918, a naval ship left Boston and spread the flu to Philadelphia, where another ship was departing for Washington State by way of the Panama Canal. On September 17, it docked at the Puget Sound Naval Station near Seattle and delivered the epidemic to the Pacific Northwest. As the flu spread to Seattle, longshoremen loaded steamships bound for Alaska. Doctors examined boarding passengers and crew members. Those with flu symptoms were turned away and the steamers headed north. When the ships docked in Juneau and other towns in southeast Alaska, only slight coughing was heard, the kind that could be mistaken for a common cold. In mid-October, as Juneau doctors confirmed Alaska’s first influenza cases, other steamers continued their rounds. Travellers left Cordova, Anchorage, and other coastal settlements feeling fine, only to later infect Fairbanks and other inland towns. Local leaders and doctors across Alaska ordered the closure of churches, schools, and theatres. Travelling was prohibited between villages. Native potlatches were banned. Armed guards took up positions outside some communities. Some were ordered to shoot anybody who defied the ban.
In October 1918, the steamship Victoria was lumbering toward Nome when the town’s chief doctor was warned about the flu. When the ship arrived on October 20, the doctor examined about three dozen passengers and crewmen, then placed them under quarantine at Holy Cross Hospital. After five days, one person had fallen sick, but the doctor dismissed it as no more than an attack of tonsillitis. He lifted the quarantine. Four days later, a hospital worker died. Two days passed before town leaders quarantined all of Nome. People were ordered not to leave the city limits, but by then it made little difference. The same day the Victoria had arrived, crewmen had unloaded mail bundles. The mail was fumigated, but the crew had been in contact with the mail carriers as they packed their dogsleds. The carriers rode out of Nome that same day, unwittingly delivering the flu to villages across western Alaska. Nobody in Nome knew people were dying in the villages until it was too late.
Aweek into the epidemic, Nome’s chief doctor and Walter Shields, superintendent of the region’s Eskimo population for the US Bureau of Education, were both sick. When Shields died a week later, Ebenezer Evans, a thirty-seven-year-old teacher in Nome, was charged with containing the epidemic. He wrote in a report:
As one walked the streets of Nome, it seemed a city of the dead. A panic had struck the Natives, and their feverish conditions suggested the need of colder air…. They would leave their beds of sickness and go into the cold air, which, inducing pneumonia, carried them away rapidly…. From ten to twenty Natives were dying each day on average in Nome, and the dead wagon was in use constantly…. Many were frozen to death during the night, their fires having gone out.
Evans, now sick himself, had not heard from the villages. He ordered miners and their dog teams to inspect the hinterland. The temperature had sunk to -46Â°C, but little snow had fallen, leaving vast stretches of trail rocky and barren. As they travelled, they passed frozen bodies huddled together and packs of dogs fighting over human limbs. Dazed children wandered in search of their families. At a village north of Nome, a man froze with his arms around a stove. He was buried, still crouching, in a square box. One relief team moved ahead of the flu and reached Shishmaref, ninety-six kilometres northeast of Wales, in time to warn villagers. The village posted armed guards thirteen kilometres south of town with orders not to let anyone pass. No one in Shishmaref got the flu. When a team travelled up the coast to the villages of Teller and Brevig Mission, they found that the epidemic had struck at about the same time it had hit Nome. Evans wrote, “The flu killed almost everybody at a small settlement just north of Teller, a few adults and children being saved. They had arrived too late.”
In early November, a mailman and a boy rode a dog team up the frozen coast. When they got to a small settlement ten kilometres south of Wales, they were too sick to push on. The boy’s father met them to bring his son home. The boy probably suffered as most 1918 flu victims did: feverish, perhaps wrapped in reindeer skins, and coughing up blood. Arthur Nagozruk, the Eskimo teacher and leader in Wales, had told the father not to come to the village if his son was still sick. Perhaps the father was overcome with grief or did not realize that he himself was infected, but later that evening he rode into Wales with his boy, who was no longer ill, but dead.
Rescuers from Nome finally reached Wales three weeks after the flu struck the village. They found orphaned babies suckling their dead mothers and a shivering girl keeping tins of milk warm between her legs to feed her siblings. The rest of the survivors were holed up in the schoolhouse, living on reindeer broth. Evans documented this in 1919:
On entering Native igloos, in some cases, bodies were found in an advanced state of decomposition, where the adults had died and the children or women had attempted to keep the fires going. In many cases were found living children between their dead parents, huddling close to the bodies for warmth; and it was found in Wales that live dogs, taken into the house for comfort, had managed to reach the bodies of the Natives and had eaten them, only a mass of bones and blood evidence of their having been people.
Nagozruk kept records of who died and who survived the flu. The disease carried off most of the Wales village council, two Eskimo teachers, most of the whaling crews, and the owner of the largest reindeer herd. Seventeen people lost spouses. Three families were entirely wiped out. Nagozruk himself lost his wife and two sons. Five babies born around the time of the epidemic died. The flu orphaned more than forty children. About 120 people survived. Wales was no longer, and never would be again, one of the largest Eskimo villages. The flu killed too many people to bury on the mountain. Rescuers dynamited two holes in the sand dunes and stacked 172 bodies one atop another. They dumped limbs and other body parts from an untold number of victims into the pits. There were no funerals. The rescuers rounded up some forty-five dogs that had chewed on bodies or were going hungry. They killed them and buried them in the dunes, too.
The Bureau of Education discussed relocating the Wales orphans to other Eskimo villages or to faraway orphanages. Families in the villages of Kotzebue, Noorvik, and Kivalina pledged to adopt the children. In the spring of 1919, the government wrote a tally of how many children each village would accept, but the orphans never left Wales. Instead, it appears that families were frantically reorganized.
Henry Greist, a Presbyterian medical missionary from Indiana, came to Wales a year and a half after the epidemic. In an unpublished manuscript (the one I read in my anthropology course), he described what happened to the orphans, based on a story he heard from the acting government superintendent of northwest Alaska. Greist didn’t name the official, but it was probably Ebenezer Evans, who visited Wales in the spring of 1919. There are several errors in Greist’s account: he has the year, the village population, and the death toll wrong. But he does raise an interesting question about the way the Wales orphans were handled. According to Greist, the superintendent came to Wales a couple of months after the epidemic and called a meeting in the town’s one-room schoolhouse:
Informing the widowers, widows, and others of marriageable 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 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 marriageable 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 licenses were duly filled out, a mass ceremony was held in which the substitute district superintendent formally pronounced each couple ‘man and wife’…
Unhappiness hung over the village for years.
Harold Napoleon, a long-time native leader, grew up in the village of Hooper Bay, where the 1918 influenza and other flu epidemics killed dozens of people. He believes Alaska’s villages never got over the epidemic. While serving time for killing his son in an alcoholic blackout in 1984, Napoleon wrote an essay contending that the social ills of native villages—alcohol abuse, violence, suicide—can be linked to past epidemics. The 1918 flu and other diseases killed the leaders and the best hunters of many villages, and destroyed natives’ beliefs, he writes, paving the way for missionaries and teachers to impress their ways on local populations. Epidemic survivors “cry in the hearts of their children who have inherited the symptoms of their disease of silent despairing loneliness, heartbreak, confusion and guilt,” Napoleon wrote in his essay. “And tragically, because the children do not understand why they feel this way, they blame themselves for this legacy from their grandparents, the survivors of the Great Death.”
In the late summer of 2002, I travelled around northwest Alaska for a month. When I returned to my home in Anchorage, I fell into a depression and ended up in a crisis centre for three weeks. When I got out, my friends hid my shotgun. It was like this for more than a year. My girlfriend, now my wife, and my mother helped me climb out from the hole. I’m not sure what happened to me, but I’ve often wondered if I inherited my depression and the impulse to end my life from my grandfather. He served under General Patton in World War II, driving a Sherman tank. After the war, he had recurring nightmares of a battlefield strewn with bodies. There was no way to drive his tank around the field, so he rode over the corpses, the bones snapping under the treads. One day he walked into his garage, shut the door, and turned on his car. His daughter found him dead.
Mike Weyapuk didn’t have a mother or girlfriend to hold his hand. There was no crisis centre in Wales. He didn’t have the same choices I did. He couldn’t ease his mind at the movies or listen to live music. He didn’t have the money to leave Alaska in the dead of winter. He couldn’t meet a girl at a bar. He couldn’t take a road trip. He didn’t have friends to hide his guns. As he used to tell me, “You just grit your teeth and go on.” The last time I spoke to Mike was in mid-2004. He sounded lost.
In early 2005, a bootlegger showed up in Wales. He was a young guy with plans to smuggle booze into villages up and down the Bering Strait, using Wales as the base of his operations. The bootlegger stayed with Mike, who now lived in his grandparents’ old house. People didn’t see much of Mike, and when they did, he often just nodded and walked off.
I remember Mike telling me a popular Eskimo legend about an old man leaving his home. Long ago, a village had fallen on hard times. Food was scarce and the people were beginning to starve. An old man realized his mind was no longer sharp and that he didn’t have the strength to hunt. He felt like a burden to his family. He wasn’t needed in his village. There was no reason for him to exist. One night he crawled from his igloo, walked out on the ice, and drifted away, like a sandcastle slipping into the sea. Sometime between May 25 and May 27, 2005, Mike drifted away. He was twenty-six years old.