‘The Year of the Plague’: The pandemic, through a storyteller’s eyes

A woman sits outside for a photo.
For the past year, Ojibwe storyteller Anne Dunn has been alone in her small house, trying to figure out how to tell the story of the pandemic.
John Enger | MPR News

It takes distance to tell a good story. You have to back off a little ways, or the plot gets muddled. 

As COVID-19 vaccines become more widely available, the idea of a more normal world — a future — is also becoming more possible. And in that future, we’ll have to figure out how to tell the story of this pandemic to make sense of it, and to pass along the lessons to the next generation — the ones too young still to remember for themselves. 

But the pandemic isn’t over — not yet. And reaching that distance, to stand and look back, and see the whole mess clearly, is still out of reach for many. 

Except for, maybe, Anne Dunn, the well-known Ojibwe storyteller and elder. For the past year, she’s had all the distance she could hope for. 

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“I kind of hunkered down,” she said. “I wanted to survive this thing.”

“Hunkered down” is an understatement. 

Dunn hit full immunity just a few days ago, courtesy of two doses of the Moderna vaccine. Before that, she was totally alone, in a little house on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation for more than a year, wondering — as storytellers do — how to weave the pandemic into a coherent narrative.

“I think I’ll call it ‘The Year of the Plague,” she said. “Something like that. Something horrible.”

Aside from naming it, she’s a bit light on the details for now. Even Dunn, at her great distance, has had trouble coming directly at this story we’re still living. Instead, she’s been making sense of it through other, smaller stories — about disease and healing and mortality — which have come to her during her year of isolation. 

One is a troubling tale her mother used to tell about a small village of Ojibwe people very, very long ago, suffering from a disease called white lung. 

They had no defense, no medicine — and the people were dying. 

Then a wolverine came out of the woods and gave them a cure. Kill me, he said, and wear my fur around your faces as a mask, and you won’t get sick. 

“So you know what that meant,” Dunn said. “They were all going out to kill wolverines. That’s the part I never liked. The massive killing off of wolverines.”

There’s another story, almost exactly the same, except the disease is cured by a single dead skunk. Dunn likes that one better, but worries it’s not as realistic. Everything has a cost. 

Dunn also traveled back, in her mind, to a story from her childhood, a large portion of which she spent in a tuberculosis sanatorium, getting poked and prodded by strange white men in long, white gowns. 

They pinned her to her bed and shoved tubes down her throat — at least, they tried to. She bit down on the tubes so hard, she said, that three doctors couldn’t move them. 

“Even an 8-year-old girl has a very strong bite,” she said. “Eventually, they had to put tubes down my nose, where I didn’t have any teeth.”

She thought of these things one night, she said, then got a pen and wrote “do not resuscitate” on a note by her bedside. The idea of tubes again — it was too much to bear. 

At a certain point, after months alone, Dunn said these stories became more vivid, and she began to lose track of conventional reality. She traveled to a sort of liminal space, where her dreams bled out into the daylight. She was visited by her mother, and her favorite singers — all long since passed. 

In one of those moments — another dream — a young woman knocked at her door, telling her to get her things. It was time to go. 

“I said, ‘Go? Go where?’” Dunn recalled. “She told me, ‘We have to go out and find our freedom. We can do what we want to do.’”

This girl, she realized, was her younger self. They walked together until she got tired. Then they sat on an overturned canoe and showed each other pictures from their respective eras of life. Youth and age, brought around and together again — full circle.  

“We put our stories together and they became complete, and that was our road to freedom,” Dunn said. “We were liberated together on this road of memories.”

It felt like an ending — or maybe not. She’s not sure. Pandemics have a way of making one think about death, she said. Probably the dream was more hopeful than it felt at first.

In some ways, this lonesome year came as a welcome challenge for Dunn. She likes the idea of journeying off to strange places, and bringing back knowledge. She feels bad for other people, who can’t see isolation in quite the same way. 

“For many people it was quite horrible,” she said. “But I’m just not there. That’s not where I go.”  

Now, with the vaccine, she’s about to reenter regular life. She's made dental appointments, and plans to go shopping with her daughter. The dream state has lifted. 

The story of this year, the year of the plague, in Anne Dunn’s telling might turn out to be a bit conventional, with a villain and a hero and a quest for medicine that will heal the world.  

She’ll eventually tell her grandkids that story, now that she can see them again. But she doesn’t think she’ll spend too much time on it. Mainly, she said, she wants to tell them about all the places she traveled in her mind, and the wisdom she learned there. 

After all: They’re much better stories. 

COVID-19 in Minnesota

Data in these graphs are based on the Minnesota Department of Health's cumulative totals released at 11 a.m. daily. You can find more detailed statistics on COVID-19 at the Health Department website.

The coronavirus is transmitted through respiratory droplets, coughs and sneezes, similar to the way the flu can spread.