The Lost Alaskans: Uncovering the Tragic Tale of Sentenced Insanity


In the heart of Fairbanks, Alaska, a poignant ceremony unfolded beside the Chena River, echoing a profound loss and the unwavering spirit of a family reunited at last. Lucy Pitka McCormick’s loved ones honored her memory with traditional Alaskan cuisine, crafted with love and an abundance on the earthen firepit’s crackles.

As flames flickered, a profound act of remembrance took place. Whitefish, blueberries, and lard were transformed into a cherished Alaskan Native dessert, filling the air with an aroma of sweet nostalgia. Portions were carefully placed on a paper plate and respectfully nestled into the flames, a symbolic gesture to nourish McCormick’s spirit.

A Ritual of Healing: Lucy’s Journey Home

In the soft glow of the firelight, the family gathered in prayer as McCormick’s great-grandson diligently crafted a small plywood coffin. It was a poignant vessel filled with thoughtful gifts and necessities for the next world, such as her granddaughter’s intricate artwork and a brush to tend her spirit’s appearance.

This weeklong Koyukon Athabascan burial ceremony held in September was steeped in tradition, yet it carried an exceptional difference. McCormick had departed this world in 1931. It was only recently that her remains were identified and returned to her grieving family.

The grave of Lucky Pitka

At the grave of Lucky Pitka McCormick, her granddaughter Kathleen Carlo, left, and McCormick’s great-great-grandchildren Lucia, center, and Addison Carlo, right, place candles and stones during a reburial ceremony in Rampart, Alaska, on Sept. 29, 2023.
(Wally Carlo via AP)

McCormick’s granddaughter, Kathleen Carlo, described the overwhelming emotions that filled their hearts. “It was incredibly powerful to have Lucy back. You could sense the energy when she returned to Alaska, as if she had waited over ninety years for this moment.”

Reuniting Families: The Legacy of the Lost Alaskans

McCormick was one among approximately 5,500 Alaskans who found themselves institutionalized in a hospital in Portland, Oregon, between 1904 and the 1960s. A jury’s verdict of “really and truly insane” condemned them to a life within the hospital walls, considered a criminal offense at the time.

As Alaska lacked any facilities to provide care for those with mental illness or developmental disabilities, the afflicted were transported to Valdez and boarded a ship bound for Morningside Hospital, a 2,500-mile journey to their uncertain fate.

Many never returned home, their families left in the dark about their loved ones’ whereabouts. They became known as the Lost Alaskans, a poignant reminder of a tragic chapter in their state’s history.

Uncovering the Truth: The Work of Dedicated Volunteers

For over a decade, a group of dedicated volunteers in Fairbanks and Portland has been tirelessly working to identify these lost souls. They have meticulously searched through cemeteries in Portland and Alaska, uncovering unmarked pauper graves.

A recent breakthrough came with the launch of a new online database in February. This user-friendly resource allows families to search for their missing relatives and uncover any available information, such as commitment dates, burial locations, and death certificates.

Tragically, many records have been lost or destroyed, hindering the volunteers’ efforts. However, their unwavering determination has prevailed, piecing together fragmented information from old court records, cemetery files, and reimbursement records.

A Harrowing Journey: Alaska Natives in Morningside

One of the most harrowing chapters of the Lost Alaskans’ story lies in the plight of Alaska Natives. They faced prejudice and discrimination within the hospital system, often subjected to harsh treatment as cultural differences were dismissed.

Many were committed against their will, forcibly removed from their communities and stripped of their cultural identities. Their cries for help went unheard, and their suffering remained a dark secret for decades.

Healing the Wounds: Bringing the Lost Home

The reburial of Lucy McCormick in her Alaskan homeland symbolized not just a return home but a profound healing for her family. Her grandson, Wally Carlo, spoke of the immense joy and catharsis they experienced.

“Don’t ever give up hope,” he urged. “Their spirits won’t find rest until they’re found and brought back to their rightful place.”

The tireless efforts of volunteers have brought closure to countless families, allowing them to finally grieve their lost loved ones and honor their memories. The story of the Lost Alaskans serves as a powerful reminder of the resilience of the human spirit, even in the face of adversity.