For Cherokee family in Alaska, isolation is nothing new 

by Mar 31, 2020COMMUNITY sgadugi, Front Page





McGrath, Alaska, population 342, is home to the Welch family, three of whom are members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) and are completely accustomed to the social distancing and isolation that people in the mainland are experiencing now due to COVID-19. McGrath, located in the wilderness area of the state, is 220 miles from Anchorage as the crow flies – which is the only way to get there. 

Kevin Welch, an EBCI tribal member, splits wood in the snow. (Photos courtesy of the Welch family)

The Welchs include Kevin, an EBCI tribal member originally from the Big Cove Community who now serves on the McGrath City Council as well as School Board; Sarah, who serves as the administrator for the City of McGrath; and their two children Winston and Eva who are both EBCI tribal members.     

“We’re kind of self-isolated by the fact that we are out in the middle of nowhere,” said Kevin.  “There’s no roads here.  There’s roads around town, but none to here.  You can fly in.  A couple of weeks ago, the Iditarod (sled dog race) came through and we were mile 314 on the Iditarod trail.  So, we are way out here.  Coming by dog sled, it is 314 miles.”  

McGrath, located on the Kuskokwim River, is also home to the McGrath Native Village Council, a federally recognized Alaska Native Village.  

Winston, an EBCI tribal member, and the family dog, Woogie, overlook a snowscape in McGrath, Alaska.

“The good part about it is out here everybody, because it is a rural area and a subsistence-style life, has basically a four- to six-month supply of stuff,” Kevin noted.  “We’re not preppers by choice.  We’re preppers by necessity.  We keep freezers full of moose and fish and berries that we gather because they’re available.  Then, the other things like bread and flour and the most essential thing, coffee, we order in.”  

Sarah said, “The one interesting thing about Alaska that I don’t know that other states are doing is we’re not really calling it a ‘hunker-down’ or any of that.  The Governor here and our public health officials really are encouraging people to get outside.  Family is good within the six-foot distance; non-family or non-immediate family, keep a six-foot distance.  But, get outside and walk, hike, take your dogs for a walk, go dog-mushing, go skiing, go practice your subsistence.”  

Kevin said that living in McGrath is very similar to living on the Qualla Boundary.  “It’s a real social community.”  He said it reminds him of growing up in Cherokee.  “When I was a kid, we did things together; we gathered.” 

He said school has been altered for their children due to COVID-19 precautions. “Winston has one more final, and then he’ll be graduating high school.  Unfortunately, with the virus thing, they went on spring vacation the first of the month and they’ve never been back to school.  So, they closed the school.  Pretty much, for the rest of the year, the kids are homeschooling.  They give the kids a tablet every Monday that has all of their homework on it.  A lot of kids live in dry cabins which don’t have water, electricity, or internet.  So, their homework is loaded on the tablet which doesn’t need internet to work.  They do their homework through the week, and the school provides them a lunch and a breakfast.”  

Eva, an EBCI tribal member, enjoys a sunny day in McGrath.

Being so isolated, the Welchs practice subsistence living by hunting, gathering, and preserving food that they grow, but they do rely on internet sites for other necessities.  “Amazon is really a lifeline of supplies for us,” said Sarah who said they are following CDC recommendations for dealing with shipped packages.  “So, Kevin and Winston get the packages at the edge of the driveway, bring the packages into our little covered porch, and then they go wash their hands.  Then, I put on disposable gloves, get sanitizing wipes, and then I open the packages outside and dispose of the cardboard boxes.  I wipe down the contents of the box with a sanitary wipe, and then I bring all that inside.  When that is done, I take my gloves off in a sanitary manner and then wash my hands.”  

Sarah noted, “The theme of our life and our work is self-sufficiency; being self-sufficient as much as possible.  But the truth is, we are all connected with everybody in the world.  We need supplies, we need medicine, we need technology.  So, while we try to live as self-sufficiently as possible, we have to be connected and we need those things from the outside to have this great quality of life that we do.”  

Winston and Kevin clear snow from their roof.

Kevin said they keep in contact with family in Cherokee weekly and added, “I worry more about them than they need to worry about us.  We are probably the exception.  Just stay safe and don’t expose anyone else.”