Since the beginning of this pandemic, I have been struck by the outsized impact of Covid-19 on American Indians, and by the lack of serious discussion of their apparent special vulnerability to the disease. The stories we read and hear are about bad water and poor living conditions among the Navajo and the Ojibwe—and in Black and Latino zip codes. I understand—and want nothing more than to make sure that everyone in America has clean and lead-free water and access to good health care. And I believe, with my liberal cohort, that it is government’s duty to ensure clean water and good health care. We cannot, in today’s world, be our own water testers and doctors.
But I believe there is more going on here. I know from talking to Indian friends about generational memories of the 1918 Influenza—and about the devastating effects of diseases on Native peoples in the first centuries of European colonialization. My information on biology and virology comes from a rereading of Charles Mann’s book, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.
Mann describes the initial impacts of infectious diseases—smallpox, measles, typhoid, malaria, diphtheria, influenza—on Native Americans at length. In brief, he argues that the near absence of domesticated animals in the New World meant that the people had not developed acquired immunities—even partial immunities—to diseases that we now know crossed to humans from the animal and avian worlds. Most importantly, smallpox crossed from camels to humans about 15,000 years ago, meaning that Eur-Asia had lived with smallpox for centuries, acquiring enough immunity so that its regular rages through populations left severe pox on bodies but no longer was lethal for most people. And once they had been infected—as many of the first explorers and settlers in the New World had been—Europeans were largely immune to further infections.
Mann goes on to argue—along with social scientists who are now called “long counters,” that infectious diseases devastated the New World, and that as much as 95 percent of the pre-contact population was swept away in the first two centuries of contact. The population, long counters argue, might have been 90 million or more, with 25 million in central America and 10-12 million in North America. He shares contemporary accounts and scenes of mass die-offs and graves.
“Low counters,” working largely from actual counts made by early explorers and settlers, argued that such a decrease was impossible; they posited an initial population in the entire New World closer to 10 million. This was a very serious disagreement, but with DNA and new finds, the evidence now mounts on the side of long counters. (In years before all this new biology and virology, Alvin Josephy joined the long counters on the basis of linguistic research—but that is another story!)
Mann bolsters his argument with information developed by virologists in the 1960s-80s that there was more to Native Americans’ “virginity” as re infectious diseases than acquired immunities. It’s a complicated story told in about 20 pages of 1491. Basically, there was a “restricted’ gene pool and a more homogenous population among Native Americans than that of Europe in 1492. “HLAs”— “human leukocyte antigens”—appear inside most human cells, and are the human body’s main line of defense against intruding disease. “Most human groups are a scattershot mix of HLA profiles, which means that almost always some people in the group will not get sick when exposed to a particular pathogen.”
American Indians more “restricted gene pool” showed—and still shows—a more restricted range of HLA profiles. This homogeneity was good in restricting cystic fibrosis, juvenile diabetes, asthma, and schizophrenia among American Indians, but meant that a much larger percentage of them were totally susceptible to European diseases.
There’s yet another factor, something called “helper T-cells.” Apparently, these small jewels are arranged to fight off microorganisms—or parasites, but do not exist dually to fend off both. The original Americans helper T-cells were aligned to fight the parasites that they dealt with, and not the European infections.
There is more science here than my mind can get around, but I can get the gist of it—the fact that the original inhabitants of the Americas were extremely susceptible to European diseases, and died in extraordinarily great numbers because of it. And that there are genes and genetic memories that impact Indian response to the current pandemic.
I know from Indian friends that thinking—and remembering—across generations is normal in Indian Country. And, as I said earlier, memories of the 1918 influenza are current today. Native Americans, including those listed as Latino—who are part of American indigeneity—have 1918 stories and the stories of earlier decimation by disease—and they still carry the HLA and Helper T-cell make-up of that distant past.
Here’s a simpler metaphor for what is going on: According to Mann, nine of ten Native Americans, and “almost all South American Indians” have type O blood. Europeans are more evenly split between O and A.
To my liberal friends: Fix the water; make sure that the Indian Health Service is well funded and outfitted. To my Conservative friends: Get the damned distribution system—for the wonderful vaccines that we have developed—straightened out, and forgo just a little of your profits for the good of your families, towns, cities, the nation and the world.
And to government and private health sectors both: look to Indians to see what more they can tell us in their stories—and their genes—about this pandemic that is upon us.
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Note 1: my mom took me to the neighbors’ house to make sure I got chickenpox young. Before our ubiquitous childhood vaccines, mothers were responsible for “inoculating” children by exposure at young ages, when recovery was apparently easier.
Note 2. Smallpox was the first disease to which humans produced a rough vaccine from live cells. Washington famously inoculated his troops at Valley Forge, and they survived to fight.)