Tag Archives: smallpox vaccine

Combating Smallpox

Lokata Sioux Winter Count Showing Smallpox Outbreak, courtesy National Institutes of Health

Lokata Sioux Winter Count Showing Smallpox Outbreak, courtesy National Institutes of Health

Smallpox decimated Native Americans (see last post) after Europeans arrived and spread this virulent disease on a population with no immunity to it. However, the disease was not simply accepted and endured. Though native peoples did not immediately connect smallpox with Europeans, they did understand illness and how to treat it.

Native Americans first turned to traditional medical practices to help combat smallpox. Drums, rattles, and incantations helped patients rally, while fasting and dreaming also followed traditional healing ways. Herbs and oils were used to alleviate discomfort. Unfortunately, the common use of the sweat lodge in treatment may have made a patient’s condition worse, since heat and steam caused sweating and dehydration, while cold water plunges may have overly shocked the body.

The Cherokee developed a Smallpox Dance in the 1830s, and other tribes formed curing societies and developed healing rituals. Families eventually stopped their traditional practice of crowding around a sick patient and allowed a quarantine for those with smallpox; people also avoided traveling to places with active cases, and burned (or thoroughly cleaned) homes where someone had died of smallpox.

The smallpox vaccine was available as early as the 1700s, though Native Americans were not routinely vaccinated. When the vaccine was offered, however, many native peoples took advantage of it. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was the official vaccination administrator, but missionaries andĀ  traders also urged vaccines. Traders, especially, who cared little for Washington politics and did not need to put white settlers’ needs ahead of their trading partners’, were probably just as successful in helping the vaccination effort as the BIA.

The Mandan Tribe Suffered Greatly From Smallpox

The Mandan Tribe Suffered Greatly From Smallpox

Medicine Man Administering to a Patient, courtesy National Institutes of Health

Medicine Man Administering to a Patient, courtesy National Institutes of Health

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedintumblr

Other Ills at the Asylum

Blankets Infected With Smallpox Were Distributed to Native Americans to Start an Epidemic, courtesy sphtc.org

Blankets Infected With Smallpox Were Distributed to Native Americans to Start an Epidemic, courtesy sphtc.org

Though there is no mention of any smallpox epidemics at the Canton Asylum for Insane Indians, the threat of this terrible disease was very real. Smallpox had devastated Native American communities once Europeans arrived, since native peoples had no immunity to a disease they had never encountered. Mortality estimates range from 50% for the Cherokee, Catawba, and Huron, and as high as 90% for the Mandan after first contact.

Native Americans did not immediately connect smallpox to the Europeans who brought it. Plains tribes thought the disease was the Bad Spirit appearing, while the Creeks and Cherokees thought it came to them because they had violated tribal laws. Missionaries and Jesuits were later blamed for smallpox because of their religious paraphernalia and concern about dying, and they may well have carried infection to the various peoples they visited in the course of their work.

By the early 1900s, Native Americans were well aware that Europeans had brought this tremendous disaster with them. In 1914, Dr. Harry Hummer vaccinated 48 patients and five employees against smallpox. (Another five employees had previously contracted smallpox, and 13 refused the vaccination.) Hummer askedĀ  the Commissioner of Indian Affairs what he should do about the employees who had refused the vaccine, and he had a right to be concerned. Considering the frail health that many of his patients endured, smallpox would have been an overwhelming illness for them to fight.

Smallpox Prevention Poster Distributed by the Minnesota Department of Health, circa 1924

Smallpox Prevention Poster Distributed by the Minnesota Department of Health, circa 1924

A Navajo Hogan is Burned After Occupation by a Smallpox Victim, Leupp Indian Reservation, circa 1890 to 1910, courtesy National Library of Medicine

A Navajo Hogan is Burned After Occupation by a Smallpox Victim, Leupp Indian Reservation, circa 1890 to 1910, courtesy National Library of Medicine

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedintumblr

New Reasons for Insanity

Blackfoot Family

Blackfoot Family

Many (white) observers over the years believed that insanity was rare among Native Americans. Their conclusion was born out during the Indian Bureau survey that tried to assess the need for a special asylum for insane Indians; among the thousands and thousands of Indians living on reservations, fewer than a hundred could be identified with mental problems. Continue reading

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedintumblr