Immunity–and American Indians

Measles, smallpox, influenza—what a tragic and painful experience the first European contacts must have been for the first Americans!  We now know that huge numbers, unfathomable numbers, of American Indians were killed by European diseases.

Imagine Tisquantum (Squanto) coming back to his homeland after years in Europe as a slave, making his way to England and then coming home, where he finds his village deserted, his tribe gone to disease.

Imagine the families of Willamette Valley Indians dying quickly in each other’s arms from an unknown malady that has crept ashore from British or Russian ships in the 1770s and 80s. Imagine Nez Perce and Umatilla families doing the same in the 1780s—long before Lewis and Clark, long before they saw a white man—dying by the thousands from smallpox or measles, apparently carried by the Shoshone from the Southwest north to the Blackfeet and then along the Columbia River. Author Charles Mann quotes a Blackfoot warrior of the time: “We had no idea that a Man could give [a disease] to another anymore than a wounded Man could give his wound to another.” (1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus) Europeans, who had wrestled with the Plague, had the notion of quarantine; the Indians did not.

I think about the anxiety and fears that many Americans feel now with the threat of a disease that has been identified, that leaders are attempting to quell with social distancing and quarantines, that researchers have isolated and now can and do rush to find treatments and vaccinations. There are still unknowns, enough to foster our fears. And there are family tragedies—parents dying alone and isolated from their children. And panics—real ones about how the rent will get paid and the children cared for, and crazy ones that empty stores of toilet paper.

But imagine confronting coronavirus now without rapid communication and the mounting efforts to stem its contagion. Imagine it traveling from Asia to Europe and the Americas without knowing the map.

In Mann’s book he recaps scholars’ arguments about how many people lived in the Americas before Columbus. He talks about “high counters,” who guessed 100 million or more, and “low counters” who thought that too high by factors of 10. The high counters argued that disease had taken as many as 95 percent of the people.

Mann meticulously follows the scientific research of the past 50 or 60 years, which has shown how Native American immunities—or lack of immunities—were due to their lack of contact with the domestic animal incubators of viral diseases. There had been no camels, cows, or chickens, and thus no camelpox, cowpox, or chickenpox. They were further disadvantaged by long isolation and a limited range of genetic defenses against all viral infections that Africans and Europeans enjoyed.

The cynic in me says that our current war footing as re COVID-19 is vigorous in part because the disease pays little attention to rich and poor, color or ethnicity. Old white men, who still control most of the purse strings in America, are at risk; two Congressmen have tested positive! Would the response have been this strong to a runaway version of sickle cell anemia that settled disproportionately on Africans and African-Americans? To some virulent plague that attacked dirty, crowded refugee camps and/or slums in the Middle East and South American barrios?

My better nature joins Nixyáawii Longhouse Leader Armand Minthorn in asking us all to be strong together. He says that “there is never a wrong time to pray… to do right… to sing.” You can watch and hear Armand here:

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