For Native Americans, the story of pandemics started the moment European colonizers stepped foot off their ships. Savannah Maher’s tribe the Mashpee Wampanoag experienced that first Great Dying. Arapaho and Shoshone descendant Taylar Stagner tells the history of how those diseases came West as a form of biological warfare.
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[ ↓ Transcript ↓ ]
The Great Dying by Savannah Maher
It’s high tide on Waquoit Bay. I’m sitting in a canoe, and my uncle Rusty is pulling me along behind him as he wades up to his chest.
“Oh, there’s plenty of rockweed here,” Rusty says. “Nobody hit this spot.”
Rockweed is a type of algae that clings to rocks and dock pilings along the shore of this bay. It’s full of air pockets that cause it to float on the surface of the water and make it look sort of like green, slimy bubble wrap.
“This is nice looking rockweed, too,” Rusty says.
“What makes it good?” I ask him.
“It’s nice and wet and fresh. The tide’s been washing it back and forth. It’s clean, full of saltwater.”
We’re gathering rockweed to prepare for an Apponaug, which is the Wampanoag word for what we now call a clambake.
The rockweed will serve a dual purpose: first as our cooking surface, we’ll toss it onto a pile of piping hot rocks to insulate our dinner from the heat, and it will also our dinner a nice flavor. As the rockweed is cooking, it will steam up and cause the clams and the lobsters and everything to cook. Rusty is pulling rockweed from the bay by the fistful and tossing it into the canoe, where it’s piling up at my feet.
“The first time I did this with my father I was probably about five or six years old,” Rusty says. “He was doing most of the gathering. And we were just doing what Weeky’s doing.”
Weekanasq is Rusty’s granddaughter who’s playing on the beach.
“Waiting on shore?” I ask.
“Mmhmm, or hanging around in a boat like this,” Rusty says. “We didn’t even worry about life vests then. We would just hang out in the boat and all the fishermen would be out there gathering the rockweed and everything like that. Or clams.”
Rusty’s kids are the fishermen today. On the other side of the bay, they’re digging clams for the bake.
A little later, I join my cousin Miles as he jostles the rake around until he feels some weight drop into a basket. He talks me through what he’s doing.
“I’ve got a rake here that’s got a little rake and a little basket on it and, yeah, I just drag it through the sand. When I pull it back out of the water, I check to see if there’s any quahogs in it. I just grab out the quahogs and put them in my bag, empty out the rest of it then go again.”
Standing out here in the bay with my dirty feet, the salt of the ocean starting to collect on my skin, this is where I feel the most like myself. And where I feel the most Wampanoag. The fish and the clams and the mussels of this bay have been feeding Wampanoag people and keeping them strong and healthy for a really long time.
“You know, our people have been here for, well, what can be proven by science, it’s 12,000 years,” my cousin Ramona tells me in mid-July, sort of between waves of this pandemic.
“Ramona, could you introduce yourself?” I ask her.
“Hello, my name is Ramona Louise Peters, also known as Nosapokut. I’m a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe and a member of the Bear Clan.”
My tribe’s relatively successful vaccine rollout has emboldened me to come home for the first time in nearly two years, and to gather even with my family’s most precious and vulnerable elders. In a few weeks, breakthrough cases will be on the rise. I’ll think back to this afternoon spent with Ramona, who walks with a cane now and breathes with the help of an oxygen machine.
But for now, Ramona’s presence is grounding. The steady hum of worry that’s followed me for the last 18 months goes quiet for a while as exactly it means to be Mashpee Wampanoag.
“Mashpee is located on Cape Cod, what now is Cape Cod, and we stick out in the ocean the furthest east. So we are the first to see the sunrise,” Ramona says.
This is so central to our identity that it’s how we named ourselves. We are Wampanoag, or Wopanaak: Dawn people. People of the first light.
And for us, this region that’s now called New England is Dawnland.
“We are the first to see the sunrise and a lot of the things that have come off the Atlantic Ocean have come here to visit us,” she says. “We’ve seen a lot of tides come and go–Vikings and explorers of all sorts–and eventually, the colonization of the English landed in our territory. And so, we are first encounter people.”
If you’re aware of Wampanoag people at all, there’s a good chance this is why.
On some November day when you were a kid, the public school system introduced you to us as the friendly and cooperative Indians who welcomed the Pilgrims to our shores, taught them how to grow corn, and ushered in the formation of American society as we know it.
As a little girl, Ramona says even she wasn’t shielded from this cozy lie.
“What I knew of our history was that we welcomed the Englishmen to live with us in our homeland, in our territory, and gave them space.”
The truth is that the Wampanoag Nation entered into a treaty with the leaders of Plymouth Colony.
Ousamequin, who’s better known as Massasoit, was the Wampanoag leader who brokered it. He would allow these strangers to live within the boundaries of our territory in exchange for mutual protection and allyship, should any other intruders land on our shores.
It wasn’t long before these so-called “allies” made it clear they’d rather just have the land to themselves.
“And then things went awry,” says Ramona. “And they went westward and they harmed other Indigenous people from here to California. But I had the feeling of responsibility that our people were somehow responsible for allowing them to land and prosper.”
She feels that somehow we were responsible for the violence, the warfare, the cultural and linguistic erasure, the theft of billions of acres of Indigenous land, and the introduction of strange illnesses across the continent.
I think that last part is a comfort to a lot of white Americans. If it was disease that caused so many Indigenous people to die, you can chalk the whole thing up to a tragic but unavoidable accident. You don’t have to think very hard about the genocide that got you here.
But we don’t quite see it that way.
“Biological warfare was known in Europe well before they came here for centuries,” Ramona says. “Using disease to depopulate areas that were set for colonization or overtaking … so I don’t see it as accidental.”
A Special Providence Of God
Neither does Paula Peters. Another community historian, and another of my relatives.
“My traditional name is Sokwaban and I am Mashpee Wampanoag and I’m your mom!” she says with a giggle.“And you had asked me about how I informed myself around this history of the Great Dying.”
My mom was introduced to this history the same way that Ramona was: through the public school system. When she was in first or second grade, she remembers a teacher confidently telling the class that all the Indians in New England had died off shortly after the arrival of the Mayflower. Never mind that a little Wampanoag Indian was sitting right in front of her.
As an adult, she started doing her own research.
“It kind of starts with all these journals of the travelers who came here, the settlers who came here. They were the ones who wrote everything down,” she says.
My mom has a big stack of books in front of her, full of accounts from the likes of Roger Williams, Myles Standish, William Bradford–some of the earlier European colonizers who invaded Dawnland.
“They’re very plain and matter of fact about how they brought illnesses and diseases to this country.”
She picks up one book that looks to be about 500 pages long.
“William Bradford, who was then-Governor of Plymouth Colony after it had been established, traveled with some other of his colonists inland to visit with Massasoit, and along the way, he said that they found his place to be forty miles from hence…”
She’s quoting Bradford’s journal now.
“The soil good and the people, not many, being dead and abundantly wasted in the late great mortality which fell in all these parts about three years before the coming of the English, wherein thousands of them died.”
Even before the formation of Plymouth Colony–between about 1616 and 1619–our people suffered an epidemic that’s now sometimes known as the Great Dying. The illness was introduced by European colonizers, and it was one that had never existed on this continent before.
“And so the people here had no experience with it, nor did they have any immunity to diseases that came from other places.”
And this strange illness managed to weaponize our traditional ways of healing against us.
“When people did get sick,” my mom says, “it was customary for tribal families to gather around that person who was sick and they would do ceremony and it included the community, it included everyone, so this illness spread very, very quickly.”
Tens of thousands of Dawnland people were lost to the Great Dying. As many as 90 percent of us, by some historians’ estimates. In Bradford’s journal, he describes a Wampanoag village decimated so forcefully that there was no one left to bury many of those who died.
“Their skulls and bones were found in many places lying still above the ground where their houses and dwellings had been. A very sad spectacle to behold.”
I think often of my ancestors who survived this. How horrific it must have been to witness that kind of mass death. How destabilizing to lose whole families and communities in what could have been a matter of days.
I can’t imagine that Bradford’s sympathy would’ve meant much to them. Particularly since elsewhere in his writings, he describes the Great Dying as a special providence of God.
“It consequently made way for a foundation for the propagation and advancing of the gospel of the kingdom of Christ in those remote parts of the world, yea though they should be but even but stepping stones unto others for the performing of so great a work.”
This is how our colonizers interpreted the epidemic that my people still grieve today: as a divine gift. And we know that because they all wrote about it.
“They’re using their religion to justify the things that happened to Indigenous people as a result of colonization,” my mom says. “They have these really twisted values about who gets sick and who gets to live and who deserves to die.”
And they carried those twisted values westward.
That’s what caused Ramona so much guilt and shame as a young person. This notion that we’d made way for other Indigenous people to be harmed as well.
“And this was always between me and other Natives,” says Ramona. “It wasn’t about the colonists at all. But it definitely affected my personality, I think. When I was around other Natives, especially the elders, I would kind of keep my head down.”
But these feelings didn’t stop Ramona from spending time in other tribal communities. If anything, she says they convinced her that the fate of all Indigenous people and nations was wrapped up together and that we needed to work together to protect our rights. At just nineteen, Ramona became a footsoldier for the American Indian Movement.
“I thought I was invincible, for goodness sakes,” she tells me with a big laugh. “I remember those days. Talk about thrill-seeker.”
This is all news to me. “Really? Ramona!” I say.
“Yeah, I was out there. I was very militant at one time and geez, I carried guns. I was really in the movement.”
She remembers one of the first missions that called her away from Mashpee.
“Some Mohawks from Akwesasne decided to take some of their homelands back and so they occupied a camp that used to belong to the Rockafeller family in the woods of the Adirondacks and they took it over. And then some neighboring white folks decided to shoot at them to run them off. And so there was a warrior’s alert called for all the tribes in the region to send warriors to help protect.”
Ramona and a friend rounded up some supplies and headed West.
“We went in a little powder blue Volkswagen bug with some guns and some food and we drove over there,” she says, laughing at the memory. “And there was a little bit more shooting and it slowed down and we started shooting back. And we got marched on by the Klu Klux Klan. Jeez, that was the first time I ever saw hate.”
Ramona spent her young adulthood taking up arms against anti-Indigeneity. She occupied boarding schools in Kansas. Joined the frontlines of AIM missions from the great plains to the desert southwest. All in service of tribal sovereignty and the preservation of treaty rights.
“I felt that any tribe who wanted to live off the land and be more old-style, I thought they had the right to. Any tribe that wants to do that has the right to, so yeah I supported it with my life,” Ramona says.
“I wonder if putting your life on the line for Mashpee and for other tribes also, I wonder if that had anything to do with those feelings of guilt that you had as a young person?” I ask her.
“Hm. That’s very well.. Very possible. Sure. You know, I hadn’t thought of it, but Savannah, you might have something there.”
Maybe Ramona was offering a penance to these other nations. Maybe she was trying to get out ahead of the next great threat to Indian Country and stop it in its tracks.
But Mashpee always called her home.
When you think of a clambake, maybe you think of a fancy white people activity, something some rich tourists in pastel shorts would hire a caterer to arrange to close out their Cape Cod vacation.
But what you’re picturing is a co-opted and whitewashed version of an Apanoug, a centuries-old Dawnland tradition.
I think my favorite part of putting on an Apponaug is the ritual of it. The gathering comes first. Once your clams are dug and your lobsters are caught and you’ve got plenty of rocks and rockweed, you assemble a crew to prepare the dinners.
In my family, this sort of thing usually happens in my mom’s kitchen. Now, my cousin, Maya, is teaching her husband Stephen how to open quahogs for chowder. Maya’s brother, Hartman, is digging through the shells, looking for the ones with deep purple streaks, good for making wampum jewelry. Some very dear family friends, Liz and Caity, and Michelle are wrapping up servings of corn, potatoes, and hotdogs in cheesecloth.
My mom calls us out to the garage to show us what’s inside a cooler.
“So here’s the clams. And I’m soaking them, yeah, littlenecks, steamers, in water and cornmeal because they’ll soak overnight in the cornmeal and they’ll eat the cornmeal and poop out all the sand, hopefully.”
“Oh, that’s a hack,” says Caity.
“That’s an OIT. An Old Indian Trick,” my mom says and we all laugh.
Surviving an Apocalypse
Like Ramona, I’ve spent my young adulthood in the West serving other Indigenous people and getting to know their histories and cultures. And I’ve always been proud to tell just about everyone I meet here where I come from.
But sometimes, this thing happens that I’m still not sure how to respond to. The new person that I’ve just met says they didn’t know there were any Indians so far east. Or maybe they don’t seem to believe me that there were.
Someone who works on Indian education standards for the state of Wyoming once looked me in the eye and said, “So, does that mean you didn’t all get wiped out by smallpox?”
It’s hard to describe what it feels like to be erased that way. I guess, imagine managing to survive a nuclear apocalypse, only to realize you’ve come out completely invisible on the other side.
When I find myself fighting to be seen as a Wampanoag person, I wish I could show people scenes like this one. Jokes and stories spilling out of my mom’s kitchen. A pile of quahogs on the counter with all my cousins huddled around it. Something ancient tying us to the land beneath our feet. A fire waiting for us in the backyard when we finish our work.
Everyone raises a cup and we all join in a cheer, “To clambake! Oh, Apponaug! Cheers!” we all say.
I came home this summer to finally be around my family and to celebrate that we’re all still here. That, so far anyway, we survived this thing. But I’m also here to try and make sense of a 500-year-old loss and how the pain of that loss reverberates in our community now. For my mom, the COVID-19 pandemic has stirred up new and more complicated feelings of grief around the Great Dying.
“If we knew then what we know today, just imagine how different our lives would be if people had been able to prevent becoming sick or had survived the Great Dying in much stronger numbers. This would be a different world,” she says.
“How do you feel about that loss?” I ask her.
“It does feel like a loss,” she says. “It feels like there’s something less of us here than there would be.”
It’s true that there are parts of us that did not survive the Great Dying. And it’s natural to mourn the loss of thousands of people, and the traditions and ceremonies and whole dialects of our language that went quiet when they passed. I understand my mom’s grief. Who would we be if so many of our Wampanoag ancestors hadn’t been taken this way?
At the same time, my mom loves being Wampanoag with her whole heart. And she raised her children to love ourselves this way, too. She taught us that Mashpee is complete. It’s durable.
We survived an apocalypse and made ourselves whole again. That’s the essence of who we are.
Probably my favorite sound on earth is of big piles of wet rockweed being heaved onto a bed of scorching hot rocks. Remember how rockweed is the bubblewrap of the ocean? The popping sound is those air pockets bursting open, the sizzle is the salty bay water inside evaporating in the heat. My uncle Rusty is the bake master today.
“This is gonna protect the lobsters from the heat of the rocks,” Uncle Rusty says.
He’s shouting instructions to his brother Robert, his son, Miles, and his cousin, Jim, even though they’ve all done this more times than they can count. First, they arrange the corn in a ring around the edge of the bake.
“The corn will make a basket, and then we’ll put the lobsters right in the center.”
Next, a bedsheet goes on top, followed by a plastic tarp to trap the heat and the steam. The whole rig gets held in place by some heavy rocks.
“Go get some good ones, Miles,” says Robert.
“There’s rocks right here,” Miles says.
“No, no, no, no, go get some good ones.”
As the steam builds up, the tarp inflates to form a little dome, and the food starts to cook. Then it’s time to wait.
“Probably about 45 minutes,” Rusty tells me.
Rusty has his own OIT for knowing when everything’s done.
“I’ve got a potato there, right on the edge, and we open it up and stick a fork in that potato. When the potato is done, it’s done.”
If you know my cousin Ramona, you’re probably surprised to learn about the insecurities she experienced as a young person.
How did that shy Wampanoag girl who moved through the world with her head down become, well, Ramona: this strong pillar of our community who knows who she is and doesn’t apologize for it.
She remembers one turning point when she was a young woman visiting the Zuni Pueblo during a five-day ceremony.
“We were there early and preparations were being made, and so I wanted to help prepare, I was young and able,” remembers Ramona. “And I saw these old ladies out crushing corn, and they had these big baskets that they were throwing up the corn and the hulls were flying off in the wind. And I said, that’s kind of heavy work for elders. So I went over and asked to help. And they got all quiet and looked at me and they said no. And immediately my heart was like, crushed.”
I think I know the feeling that was washing over Ramona in this moment. The shame. The self-doubt.
“I barely could walk away,” Ramonda says. “Sort of slinked away and sat down. But one of the ladies came over to me and said, ‘Why are you so upset?’ And I said, ‘Well, you didn’t accept me.’ And she said, ‘Oh no, we are making cornmeal offerings for the Kachinas and this is our sacred duty. We can’t allow anybody else to help us.’”
Ramona had internalized this as a rejection. But actually, it had nothing to do with her or where she came from.
“And she said, ‘You have to accept yourself before anyone can accept you.’ And then walked away. And I sat there like, ‘Whew. Thank you, ma’am!’ And that certainly changed things. It gave me a mental opening to see things a lot differently.”
Ramona tells me it’s been a long time since she’s experienced guilt over our history.
I ask her if she experiences grief.
“I do but I know it’s not reasonable,” she says. “There’s a certain spiritual redundancy. I guess I don’t know how to put it. It’s like, oh, you feel bad for your ancestors. If it’s all about them and not all about me, I need to transmute that into something for them. I would want my ancestors to feel my love for them and not grief.”
For the rest of my time in Mashpee, I try to take note of the ways we tell our ancestors we love them.
When word gets around that the bake is done, the whole family starts to gather around the pit.
Nobody wants to miss the sweet smell of the steam rising through the air when the tarp comes off. And everybody wants a good spot in the long line for a plate. When it comes off, everyone cheers. Soon you can hear the sound of lobsters cracking.
A few weeks from now, the Delta variant will be on the rise. It won’t be safe to gather this way anymore. We’ll all retreat back into isolation, and it will be less clear than ever when things will go back to “normal.” Whatever that means.
For now, I think this is our way of thanking our ancestors for getting us here and for giving us the tools we need to survive.
Maninfestus by Taylar Stagner
I’m driving about half an hour away from Billings to Chief Plenty Coups State Park, the radio blaring country and western music. The park is on the Crow Reservation. I’m new to Montana and decided to take a day trip. I have never been to Crow, which is weird because it’s only four hours away from where I grew up, the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. I’m an Arapaho and Shoshone descendant and I was recently hired to cover tribal affairs for Yellowstone Public Radio. It’s good to know that Montana and Wyoming have similar tastes in music.
I walk into the visitor center and an elderly woman with curly short hair going in all directions is sitting behind a desk. She’s greeting someone from out of state. The room is circular and is filled with exhibits about Chief Plenty Coups.
“Hello, sir, where are you from?” she asks someone. He tells her he’s from Wisconsin.
“Oh dear, well, welcome to Chief Plenty Coups State Park.”
I come up and introduce myself, hello, I’m a journalist, new in town… Bernadette Smith is her name. She’s Crow and has lived on the reservation all her life. She immediately asks me to come behind the counter she’s sitting behind and we get to talking. She even gives me her recipe for a bitterroot pudding.
Bernadette says this summer has been busy. She sees people from all over the world and loves telling visitors stories from the place she’s called home her whole life. Sitting next to her, she relays a story about Medicine Springs, a special pool of fresh spring water in the backyard of Chief Plenty Coups’ house. He was said to drink from the spring every day.
Bernadette sets up the story she wants to tell me. It’s the 1950s and Bernadette’s family lives a few miles away from another family whose little girl falls ill with polio. Polio is an awful disease that attacks neurons in the brainstem and spinal cord.
“But there was an elderly Indian Crow lady here that told her folks that she would take her and cure her. She had the ability to cure her,” Bernadette says.
The Crow woman said if she could take the little girl for 30 days she could cure her.
“She set up a tent down there on the other side of medicine springs and she made beds and they would bring food and leave it for her and the girl. She would take the mud from Medicine Springs and pack that little girl’s legs in that mud. That mud from the springs cured her and the family was just so happy.”
The water of Medicine Springs is used in ceremonies and was part of the reason that Chief Plenty Coups picked this part of the reservation to live on. The park is special. You can feel it when you come here.
Bernadette is overjoyed to share her knowledge with people from all over the world. She says one way to keep stories alive is to tell them. I explain I’m working on a history of disease and healing in Indian Country. She says like most Indigenous communities, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the Crow Nation hard. Traditional medicines and whole ways of life, pre-settler contact, have been lost. Thousands of cultures the world over have been snuffed out in the wake of colonialism and genocide. A whole visitor’s center of knowledge doesn’t even scratch the surface. It’s hard to conceptualize, but I’m going to try.
I took a class a few years back from a professor at the University of Wyoming. I really wanted to better know Indigenous history. I thought I knew all the highlights but really wanted to dig in. Who knew that I would keep playing scenes from that class over and over in my head years after that semester? I think something in that class galvanized me to take the path I’m now on, reporting on tribal news. Tell more Native stories, and pursue dismantling all aspects of colonialism.
Maybe that’s a big ask. But the class definitely helped me see my future was in telling stories.
The professor taught us about pre-contact all the way through the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. Afterward, the professor and I stayed in touch, and he advised me through the end of my undergraduate studies. He even wrote one of my letters of recommendation to graduate school.
I ask him to introduce himself.
“It’s me, Jeff Means. Ph D. Oklahoma. Devastatingly handsome, brilliant, funny… Don’t put that in. I will sue you.”
He also has a great sense of humor.
Professor Jeff Means is Oglala Lakota, related to Russell Means, one of the most well-known names from the American Indian Movement. Jeff wanted to go to college as a young man but could not afford to, so he joined the army.
“I was hoping we could talk about your time in the army,” I began.
“I’m going to hurt you. I was in the Marines!”
I wanted Professor Means to walk me through what he taught me in class, and to lay out what role disease and medicine had in the colonization of the Americas.
“And so, you know, the numbers are probably pretty accurate. If you hear the number about 90% of the Native population was probably wiped out by disease during the process of colonization by Europeans. And a lot of this happened well before Europeans got there.”
Professor Means says a lot of the records that historians used to estimate the number of Indigenous people inhabiting the continent were not accurate. He says the priests and explorers who wrote many primary sources were seeing ghosts of the original population.
“In other words, you know, [they believed that] nobody had been here before, that there was all just open free land. While the reality is, it was a widowed land, a land that saw its human population devastated. And in that process, it sure allowed Europeans a much more free rein over their ideas of expansion, colonization.”
Ghosts of the original population. A widowed land. Discussions like this always feel intensely personal. When Indigenous people talk about colonization, it’s not in the abstract. I feel it in my soul the seriousness of this discussion.
Professor Means goes on to talk about first contact and the diseases that ravaged trade routes from coast to coast. Indigenous people had no natural immunity for some of the diseases. On purpose or by accident, settlers cleared a lot of the continent, and many saw it as divine intervention. Savannah was right, early settlers thought that God had killed a whole continent of people for them.
Manifest Destiny is defined as the 19th-century concept that the westward expansion of the Americas was justified and inevitable. Manifest is from the Latin manifestus. Incidentally sharing the festus with the Latin infestus which means swarm over in large numbers, attacking parasitically. That’s what it felt like for Indigenous people as colonizers arrived: an infestation.
The push to move Indigenous tribes out of the way intensified.
“And that kind of belief, that confidence, that just sheer assuredness of one’s superiority, really is at the root of European expansion during this period,” Professor Means says. “The Europeans are moving out. They have absolutely no qualms about, you know, stealing, robbing. Yeah, go forth, intrepid champions of Christianity and kill these people, take their land, etc. And this whole came from that root.”
And Manifest Destiny has left its bloody footprint all over American healthcare. It started all the way back then. In 1830, the first piece of legislation Andrew Jackson passed as president of the United States was the Indian Removal Act. You have probably heard of the Trail of Tears.
“So you’ve got a malnourished group of people who are having to exert themselves heavily on this march west,” he says. “And at the same time, that just makes you wide open to disease. The elements are getting to you, everything else. So all different kinds of diseases struck. I mean, they got hit with cholera, diphtheria. It was just, like, one after the other. And, this is going to lead to so many deaths. There were maybe 100,000 Native Americans moved from the south. They got relocated. Probably about half of them were going to die on the way.”
My tribe, the Northern Arapaho, also was forced to march cross country on foot in the middle of winter to Oklahoma. So many were sick and dying, they didn’t make it and ended up settling with the Eastern Shoshone tribe on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Forced removal of Indigenous populations to make way for white settlers was only a temporary solution.
The time between the Indian Removal Act and the implementation of the reservation system is often characterized in Westerns. John Wayne stars in 1956’s “The Searchers.” Films like this portrayed the American West as untamed and lawless. Characterizing the land as a no man’s land that had to be taken and shaped into something civilized, resembling European society. But it wasn’t a no man’s land. It was a land where innumerable complex societies were already flourishing. Western films like this one capture the attitude of settlers of the era, never acknowledging the rich breadth of Indigenous knowledge that existed and was subverted in the push west.
In 1851, Congress passed the Indian Appropriations Act that created the reservation system. Tribal nations were coerced into signing treaties with the U.S. government and that put them on reservations that the U.S. made into open-air prisons, where resources like food and health care were used as ways to control tribes to coerce the Indigenous into assimilation.
“Well, Native Americans were herded together in very small areas. They can’t support themselves economically. Their political power is completely gone. And all the things that used to make a man a man and a woman a woman, that gave them importance and something to look forward to in life, were pretty much gone. And that included health care. I mean, the United States was not really interested in providing a lot of health care,” Professor Means says.
The 1855 treaty with the Makah Tribe specifically promised health care, saying the U.S. government “shall furnish medicine and advice to the sick and shall vaccinate them.”
Indian Country assimilation efforts were now putting Indigenous children into residential schools. Medicine men were called “heathenish” by the Secretary of the Interior in 1883 and blamed these medicine men for families’ reluctance to send their children off to faraway schools.
“And what happened is, Native Americans practiced their own health care, which was pretty good actually. But once the United States got complete control over Native American nations, they forbid Native Americans from practicing their kind of medicine. They saw that as not acceptable, savage. It’s the same thing with trying to forbid them from having their religions or their language or anything else that was seen as backward and uncivilized.”
Consequences for practicing traditional medicine included having your family’s rations of food taken away or imprisonment.
The Department of Interior’s 1883 Code of Indian Offenses outlined traditional practices carried out by medicine men. This was to better assimilate Natives into white western culture, something Natives across the continent were hesitant of, and settlers could not understand why.
Indigenous medicines were known to be very effective for common alignments, and how to use certain techniques were important to the health of tribal communities. In an oral history from the 1970s, Myrtle Lincoln, a Southern Arapaho woman used to treat swelling with a plant that looked like milkweed. She said you could mix it with a type of fat, and the swelling would go down overnight. Or Bernadette’s story about the little girl with polio. Indian Country is filled with cures that modern science is only now starting to appreciate.
“And that’s going to give them plenty of time to self-assimilate because it was always assumed, again, because of the superiority of Western culture, that Native Americans would see the awesomeness of white culture and voluntarily abandon their own identity and culture and join in,” says Professor Means. “And when that doesn’t happen, then the United States as it gains more power (and this occurs over the 1800s up to 1900)– then the United States begins to make it part of American policy to force Native Americans to assimilate into American culture.”
It wasn’t until 1978 that the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was signed. Dances and medical knowledge could finally be practiced out in the open. But by then many people who carried knowledge had died or were reluctant to share knowledge.
The forced assimilation of Indigenous people into American life has had catastrophic effects on the health of Indigenous people. Lost traditional medicine teachings, few or no doctors on reservations, low funding, no transportation.
“This had a huge detrimental effect on Native American Health,” says Professor Means. “I mean, first of all, they’re usually eating foods that they weren’t familiar with. They were getting rations of flour and other foods. I mean, Indian fried bread basically comes from the fact that they were issued lard, butter, wheat flour, etc. So what do you do with that? Okay, well, you make this fried bread, right? But it’s not what Indigenous people ate. So there’s a problem with that.”
Often tribes on reservations could not leave, were not allowed to practice traditional medicine, and even though the treaties they were coerced to sign said that a doctor would be provided to them, none ever came.
When we talk about treaties being broken, that includes the lack of resources provided to tribes to adequately take care of the sick. Lots of people think Indigenous people are getting welfare when they don’t have to pay for health care. But the government is obligated to give this care in exchange for all the land tribes gave up.
Professor Means acknowledges that things are getting better, but until tribal nations have autonomy over their own destinies it’s going to be more of the same.
“We should understand that the colonial period in American history ended for white people in 1776. It has never ended for Native Americans. Native Americans are still colonized. Okay? Native nations are still under the control of foreign governments. It’s an uphill struggle.”
I visited Bernadette again at the end of July. She tells me that she still loves working at the visitors center at Chief Plenty Coups State Park.
Bernadette pulls out a binder of pictures, portraits of the 12 people who shared stories to go along with the exhibits in the visitor center. Some are very old but many are pretty young. All of them have given stories that you can listen to as you walk around the exhibits. I compliment her picture, and she tells me most of the people in the binder have passed on.
“That’s a great picture,” she says. “I don’t think it’s 20 years old. But they’re all gone.”
Bernadette says this and then looks at me, tears brimming. I’m really glad that I met her.
She says that lots of people here meet untimely deaths on the reservation. And that’s the legacy of Manifest Destiny.
Shall Furnish Medicine art by Zach Kennah