Indians and Pandemics

Chuck Sams is the incident commander for coronavirus response on the Umatilla Reservation. He recently told Oregon Public Radio’s “Think Out Loud” that

“The tribes [Umatilla, Cayuse, Walla Walla] have faced pandemic before; our last one ended in around 1860, but that cost us nearly 90% of our tribal membership — lost to the measles between 1780 and 1860. That memory still lives on in many of us.”

Sams had done research at Tamástslikt, the cultural institute on the reservation, and found that people survived the last big measles epidemic about 1860 with isolation. Those who were fishing at Willamette Falls (and yes, inland tribes had fishing places on the Willamette through marriages) and those who were away in buffalo country survived.

Measles, smallpox, and other infectious diseases wreaked havoc on northwest tribes over the time period Sams describes. They came tribe to tribe from the coast, brought by English and Russian ships plying the fur trade. Inland tribes had not met the white traders in the 1780s, when disease might have reduced Willamette valley populations by 50 or 75 %.  And of course people from east of the Cascades would have been exposed as disease traveled up the Columbia.

Smallpox followed the fur trade across Canada and the Great Plains in the 1730s, spiking about 1780, before the fur trade was crossing the continental divide. But tribe-to-tribe contagion would have brought it over the divide before the traders.

Smallpox also traveled north from Mexico:

“In 1781, a band of Blackfeet attacked a Shoshone camp at dawn. When they slashed through the Shoshone tents, the Blackfeet war cries stopped… ‘Our eyes were appalled with terror; there was no one to fight with but the dead and the dying, each a mass of corruption,’” a Blackfeet warrior named  Saukamappee told a Canadian fur trapper.

It’s interesting that in this time of a global pandemic, the examples and experiences of American Indians, who arguably suffered the greatest historical losses ever to pandemics, are rarely even mentioned. Charles Mann, in his 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, provides a detailed examination of pandemics on a “virgin” population. Mann looked at historical records, but also talked with epidemiologists and virologists today.

Sams’ remarks are the only tribal comments I have heard in the time we have been dealing with our pandemic. I’ve read about impacts on black communities and discrimination in testing availability to African-Americans. I’ve read about impacts based on socio-economic status. I wonder if anyone is paying attention to American Indians at this time, if scholars are evaluating the impacts on tribal peoples—and looking to see how they are responding, based on tribal histories of the killers that some think were, in the end, the primary reason that Europeans came to dominate the Americas?

We are still not interested in listening to Indians.

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  1. I have only seen bits and pieces covering the impact of the latest pandemic on tribal peoples. I've only seen reportage on the murder of the two Metis hunters in Canada (unemployed due to pandemic, out hunting for family food) in the Guardian. A whisper of coverage about the two Quebecers who showed up at a First Nations village expecting to ride out the pandemic there and getting booted out due to lack of resources–and even there the village status of not having a doctor and being mostly elders is a sideline. Though it appears that the Canadian First Nations villages do have a protocol in place for booting outsiders out during the crisis. Otherwise your blogs have been the only thing I've seen.

    But no one, not even in the science fiction and fantasy genre which often does look at things like this, looks very hard at the impact of pandemic on native American peoples, and how it contributed to European colonization. I'm as guilty as anyone else in the genre, even though an unspecified plague provided an opening for colonizers in my fantasy series.

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