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Rural Alaska

Photo essay: To live and die in Wales, Alaska

  • Author:
  • Updated: September 27, 2016
  • Published May 24, 2012

This weekend marks the seventh anniversary of the suicide of a young man most of you have never heard of. His name was Mike Weyapuk. He was 26 years old when he died. He lived in Wales, a Bering Strait village hugging the westernmost tip of North America, where you can actually see Russia from the shores of Alaska.

Wales was once one of the world's greatest whaling villages. At its peak, as many as 750 people lived in two settlements, hunting thousands of seals and hundreds of walruses every year. In a good year, they landed more than a dozen bowhead whales, and on such occasions, people from across northwestern Alaska and Siberia came to swap caribou skins and sealskins, iron and copper, jade and flint, ivory and beads. There were big dancing and drumming festivals.

That all began to change in the mid-1800s, when New Englanders and Europeans invaded the Bering Strait, seeking the world's last untouched whaling grounds. Then in 1918, a strange disease shown up in the village. That year the Spanish influenza circled the globe, traveling to Alaska aboard steamships. Mail carriers on dog sleds unwittingly spread the virus across the Seward Peninsula, striking Wales and killing nearly 200 people—more than half the village's population at the time.

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 U.S. average. One suicide led to another, spreading from village to village. To this day, the epidemic rages on.

Mike's life and death, as well as the story of one of Alaska's most historic villages, puts a face on the troubles -- suicide, sexual abuse, family violence, alcoholism, unresolved grief, mental illness and racism -- that have all too long plagued many of our communities.

For many readers, Mike's death simply adds to the horrifically high statics of suicide in Alaska. For others, he was a son, a brother, a relative, a neighbor, and a friend.

--Tony Hopfinger

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