Category Archives: Indigenous People After Contact

Exterminate all the Brutes

Kurtz, the central disturbing character in Conrad’s novel, The Heart of Darkness, was a product of Europe.  He was the child of Europe, believing naturally, without thinking about it, that Europeans were naturally superior to and could help the native savages achieve civilization. All the Africans had to do was assimilate to the superior Europeans. Europeans of course, are famous for this point of view though it is shared by many peoples.

Kurtz had been given the task by his company of preparing a manual to help new Europeans learn about the job of “helping” the native inferiors.  As Marlow, the narrator of the novel,  said, “the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs had entrusted him with the making of a report, for its future guidance.” He wrote it.  “He began with the argument that we whites, from the point of development we had arrived at, ‘must necessarily appear to them [savages] in the nature of supernatural beings—we approach them with the might of a deity,’ and so on, and so on.  ‘By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded.’  The reader, like Marlow got the idea reading this pamphlet of “an exotic Immensity ruled by an august Benevolence.”  It made Marlow tingle with enthusiasm.  No doubt it had the same desired effect on new recruits.  Marlow noted “that this was the unbounded power of eloquence—of words—of burning noble words.”


Marlow explains though that this report was started “before his—let us say nerves–, went wrong, and caused him to preside at certain midnight dances ending with unspeakable rites which …were offered up to him.   After all Kurtz, as Marlow said, “had the power to charm or frighten rudimentary souls into an aggravated witch-dance in his honour.” Those rites are merely hinted at. Conrad never explains exactly what happened, we just know that Kurtz was treated like a god, and withered black human  heads were attached to the end of spikes on poles in the dark jungle. How that happened we are left to imagine, and our imagination is no doubt more effective than any bald statements would be.  Good novels can do that.  As a result, at the end of that report Kurtz abandoned  his noble ideals, and his noble words.

As Marlow said,

“…at the end of that moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment it blazed at you, luminous and terrifying, like a flash of lightening in a serene sky: ‘Exterminate all the brutes.’”

In Kurtz’s case, that was the inevitable result of all those noble ideals. Just as it was the inevitable result of all the pious talk of civilizing the natives. It was all a lie—a cunning, false rapacious lie!  That was the end of the noble philanthropic enterprise of European colonialism.  That was the end of noble lies everywhere. That was the heart of darkness we all carry within us and which we have to guard against. Or we too will end up exterminating the brutes!

This has significance far beyond European colonization. It is a chastening for all enterprises with excessive hubris. We would do well to be modest. Humility always becomes us. Over confidence not so much.

Kurtz is us. We are no different. That is the most terrifying part of his story.

Joseph Conrad and The Heart of Darkness and The Conquest of the Earth


It is time to return to the classics. The novel, The Heart of Darkness is certainly one of the best books I have ever read. I think I have now read it 3 times.   It is well worth a re-read. It is a definitely a classic. And it is a short read (unlike Moby Dick).

The book was originally serialized in Blackwood’s Magazine in England in1899 by Joseph Conrad whose original language was Polish. He only became fluent in his twenties. It always amazes me that he became such a good writer in English in such a short time.

It is a simple story. A steamboat captain Marlow, travels up the Congo River to meet Kurtz an agent of the ivory company for whom he works. There, Marlow finds Kurz living among “the savages.” He tells the story to a group of civilized Englishmen drinking and smoking cigars while sailing the river Thames in London.  The setting is important. A key question is whether or not the heart of Darkness is London or the Congo.

The novel describes a journey by Marlowe, the protagonist and narrator, to the heart of Africa.  It was a trip up the winding Congo river, (we presume). That river is described, not accidentally, as a snake. There Marlowe found a corrupt agent of the English company hunting for ivory.  The book powerfully describes the black heart at the centre of European colonialism and exploitation of the continent of Africa and other places as well. He reveals the deep dark truth hidden by the pretense of lofty moralistic goals.  Illusions he calls them. Of course, the book is more than a trip to the heart of the darkness of Africa, it is also a trip into the heart of darkness of each of us who remain behind in the safety and comfort of our homes. That darkness exists there too.  And what Marlow finds, and what we would find in the centre of our own heart of darkness, if we were brave enough and honest enough to make the journey was horror!

One of the interesting things about how the story is told, is that it is told by Marlowe to 4 or 5 others sitting on a boat in the Thames. Why there? Why is this relevant?  In my view it is important because Conrad wanted to make it clear that everyone is capable of savagery. The savage is within each of us–even civilized people in London, the centre of the world at that time. London is also in the heart of darkness!

Conrad lays bare the reality behind the ‘civilizing’ goals of the European traders. With that he lays bare the thin veneer of civilization and the thin armour around our own darkness inside of us, for none of us are pure. We are all tainted.  We all share the rapacity that engulfed the traders like Kurtz.

With Conrad’s analysis we also learn the despairing truth behind the notion of the “benevolent despot” that has so tortured Africa. It is a lie. A lie that Kurtz embodied.  Kurtz who eventually gave way to unspeakable lusts and gratifications had gone to the heart of the continent with enlightenment goals. Sentimentally, he wanted to be a humanitarian helper. So many Europeans have gone with similar lofty goals only to be thwarted. Not usually as sensationally as Kurtz, but they have been destroyed nonetheless by their own rapacity and naiveté.

As Marlow takes the trip up that river he realizes the land is a swamp and he feels the reality of the person who ventures into this dark heart on behalf of some commercial enterprise back home.  Conrad feels for the innocence of that intrepid venturer, who does not know what he is getting into.

” Or think of a decent young citizen in a toga—perhaps too much dice, you know,–coming out here in the train of  some pretext, or tax-gatherer or trader even, to mend his fortunes.  Land in a swamp, march through the woods, in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had close around him,–all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men.  There’s no initiation either into such mysteries.  He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestableAnd it has a fascination, too that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination—you know, imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate. “(emphasis added)


Our commercial enterprises into the heart of dark continent have come cloaked in lofty goals.  But, according to Conrad, the people who came may have looked like religious zealots looking to help the poor savages, but they were the real savages.  They came with strength. It was an accidental strength based on the technological weakness of the indigenous.  There was no moral superiority that accompanied it. Conrad described those efforts this way,

“It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind—as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.  What redeems it is the idea only.  An idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before and offer sacrifice to.”


One of the things Conrad looks at in the book is the conquest of the earth by the men of Europe a dubious enterprise at best.  Conrad took a close look at colonialism and the sense of superiority and what he saw as the darkness at its heart. As he said, it was not always pretty.

The Blindness of Privilege


Recently a person I know, the daughter of a friend of mine, said that she just could not understand “Indians.”  Why didn’t they just get over it? Why didn’t they forget about past wrongs? She said, “If our family could get over being cheated by a scam artist and robbed of hundreds of thousands of dollars, why can’t they get over residential schools?” I did not hear this first hand, so unfortunately I did not have an opportunity  to challenge her statements.

First of all, I know a little bit about the losses of my friend’s family. They lost a lot of money.  No one would like to lose all that money.  But the fact is that they were still left with lots of money after it happened. The family is still wealthy. They are just a little less wealthy than they could have been and or should have been.

This is actually a common attitude among white people. I have heard similar statements many times.

Frankly, though my white friends are much better off than most indigenous families. None of them were taken away from their homes and made to live in shabby schools with predatory teachers and religious scoundrels while they ate poorly, spent half of each day working literally like slaves, and all the while were taught that their parents were worthless, their culture was worthless, and they were worthless. Then the children that survived (and thousands did not!) were robbed of the opportunity to learn how to take care of children, which they could have learned from their parents. Instead, they were dumped in schools where no one wanted to teach them things like that, they wanted to teach them religion and the benefits of the white ways. Many of those children were then physically, mentally, emotionally, and sexually abused. They grew up thinking that they and their families and their race were all worthless. This happened for generations and the effects have cascaded through the generations. Then as adults these former children were subjected to pervasive systemic racism. The trauma of losing some money hardly compares.

Who do you think was better off? Who should get over it? I think these children of wealthy whites should get over it. They should get over their privilege. They don’t even see their own privilege.  And they don’t even see the gross exploitation of others. There is nothing more blind than privilege. And nothing more ignorant. There is nothing so hard to see as one’s own privilege, because it seems so natural and right.

Should Indigenous People trust White-man’s Medicine?


Some people wonder why Indigenous people are suspicious of vaccines. The shouldn’t be.

Indigenous people in Canada, like African American people in the United States, have many reasons to be suspicious of statements made by Canadian Health authorities about what is good for indigenous people. Indigenous people have been lied to and exploited by Canadian health officials too many times to be sanguine about the advice they get from them. They have good reason for saying those health authorities do not have their best interests in mind.


At a time when all of Canada needs Indigenous people to trust the Canadian health authorities so that we can together achieve herd immunity and prevent the virus from mutating any more than it has, that would benefit everyone in Canada,  indigenous people are demonstrating hesitancy to take the vaccines that are available. The longer the disease is in Canada without being checked the more likely it is that the virus will mutate and perhaps become more harmful and overcome our defences including vaccines.

Yet as Elisa Levi an MD Candidate at the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine, member of Chippewas of Nawash, and Yellowhead Institute Research Fellow said about indigenous people,

“But it is equally important that they are given all the information necessary to make an informed decision and that their concerns are respected. Some members of Indigenous communities have legitimate concerns around medical treatments, rooted in historical trauma.”


We need to get Indigenous communities on side. Because of their high degree of socio-economic marginalization they suffer disproportionate risks of health problems and if they go untreated we all suffer. We need them on side not just to help them, but to help us too! As Levi said, “With a vaccine that is 95 per cent effective, it has been projected that 70 percent uptake is needed for community immunity.”

 However, to get them on side, we must take into consideration the historical trauma they have suffered because it has led to understandable vaccine hesitancy. As Levi put it,

Indigenous people have good reason to distrust government.” There are many reasons for distrust, but here is an important one: “in the 1940s, government scientists performed nutrition experiments on Indigenous people without consent in some of these hospitals, as they did with children in residential schools.”


The history of Canada’s residential schools is horrific. I intend to blog about this more fully, but for now, I think now this issue relates the pandemic and our historic treatment of indigenous children.

As Leslie Young reported in Global News,

“Before 1940, tuberculosis was a leading cause of death in residential schools – even more than in the general population, the report found. In 1880, the tuberculosis death rate in Montreal and Toronto peaked at 200 out of every 100,000 people, according to the report.

The death rate from tuberculosis at residential schools meanwhile was upwards of 4,000 out of every 100,000 people, according to one contemporary estimate at the turn of the century.”


In other words, at its peak the death rate from tuberculosis was 20 times higher in residential schools than in Montreal and Toronto!

 Of course the indigenous children were subjected to even more deception than that. Experiments were conducted on them just as American scientists subjected African American children. It was all part a pattern of white supremacy. Non-white children just did not count. They weren’t important. They weren’t even human. As Young reported,

“Students at various residential schools were also used as involuntary guinea pigs in a variety of experiments, notably a number of studies on nutrition.

Students were given more or less milk, some were given vitamin C tablets (and others were not), some were given vitamin-enriched flour, and others were not. The intent was to determine whether these dietary interventions cut the incidence of various diseases – but the control group students were never given the chance to share in any benefits, and in some cases, children were denied access to dental care or iron supplements.


They were also used as research subjects without their or their parents’ consent.

All of this was camouflaged as science. But it was pure racism. To the white authorities the children were just objects. Dehumanized objects that they could do with as they chose.

We must remember, that these children were often taken away from their parents without their parents consent, to places where many were subjected to horrific emotional, physical and sexual abuse and then they were not protected from tuberculosis. And we did that all of that, purportedly, for their own good. At least that is what non-indigenous Canadians claimed. It was done because the officials said the parents of the indigenous children did not know how to take care of their children. They were incompetent parents, the adults said.

How can we expect indigenous people ever to trust the rest of us again? This demonstrates how historic injustice can come back to haunt the perpetrators and their successors. Now when non-indigenous Canadians  need the  cooperation of indigenous people, the lack of trust is seriously harmful to everyone.


Don’t listen to smug Conservatives


The Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has been severely criticized by conservative politicians including even my own Member of Parliament, Ted Falk, for suggesting that we should take advantage of the Covid-19 crisis to reset our economy and make it fairer. To conservatives, who by definition love the status quo because it has allowed them and their cronies to prosper, they ask ‘why change what is perfect?’  Any contrary suggestions are viewed by them with deep suspicion for it can only mean those nasty liberals and socialists want to use Covid-19 as an excuse to take over the economy.

Here is a statement by Trudeau that triggered hysteria from my political representative. It was a statement by our Prime Minster Justin Trudeau as follows:

“This pandemic has provided an opportunity for a reset…This is our chance to accelerate our pre-pandemic efforts to reimagine economic systems.”


Here is the response of my fear filled Member of Parliament to such a suggestion:

“For Justin Trudeau, COVID-19 is an opportunity to impose his radical “reset” agenda. Mr. Trudeau’s speech seemed a clear indication that Canada was on board with whatever the UN was recommending…  Justin Trudeau’s consistent willingness to sell out Canadian sovereignty to unelected UN bureaucrats should be a cause for great concern for all Canadians.   With our economy in tatters, it is almost unfathomable the level of delusion it would take to think that following the UN’s lead into some sort of global eco-socialist utopia is the answer to our economic woes—unless of course, you’re Justin Trudeau.”


Falk of course dredges up old tropes that the Conservatives in the US see as dastardly.  We could ignore that, but there is a larger question here that should be addressed. Are the economy and social system  so great that they  cannot be improved upon? Let’s take a look how others besides comfortable white businessmen, like Ted Falk are doing.

First, and most important, is the stunning impact of Covid-19 on seniors in long-term care facilities. For now, I will look at Manitoba, but the issues occur everywhere in Canada. In fact, I want to look at one main facility—the Maples—a privately owned and operated facility in Winnipeg. It was the scene of a horrific outbreak of Covid-19 that shocked our province. In a private long-term care facility of about 200 residents, in November of 2020 the outbreak led to the severely short-staffed facility asking Health Manitoba for help to deal with the critical outbreak. At first that call went unheeded. That led to 56 residents dying before it was adequately dealt with.  That is more than 25% of their residents who lived there! In fact, at one time 8 residents died in 48 hours! 26 died in 28 days! For years in Manitoba the care of senior’s has been outsourced to companies like Revera Inc., the private operator of the Maples, to presumably save on costs so that the province could avoid increases in funding for about a decade. Does that really save money? Is it worth the savings if they are real?

Then there are indigenous people in Manitoba. The indigenous people in Canada are typically the ones hardest hit by any widespread catastrophe. Canadians have come to expect that.

The chief and council of Pauingassi First Nation shut down their band operations, closed schools, prohibited public gatherings and required residents to stay home after they declared an outbreak of COVID-19 earlier last month. The small and remote First Nations community has less than 500 people living on the reserve. Recently almost a quarter of them, 118 people, tested positive for covid-19. After they tested positive many of them had to leave for Winnipeg where they could get treatment unavailable on the reserve.

This shows what has been happening in northern Manitoba as during the past few weeks regularly more than 50% of the new covid-19 cases were discovered on northern First Nation reserves even though only 10% of Manitoba’s total population is indigenous! As of February 19, 2021, 2/3rds of Manitoba’s total Covid-19 sufferers were indigenous. As well 1/3rd of Manitoba’s Covid-19 patients in Manitoba were indigenous and 1/3rd of Manitoba’s patients with the most severe effects in Intensive Care Units were indigenous.

Why is that?  Probably the cause of this disparity is that so many indigenous people are poor in comparison to average Manitobans. As a result, they have less access to quality care and live in housing that is frequently severely overcrowded. In Manitoba, there is almost a 20-year difference between the average age of people who die from Covid-19 that are indigenous and those who are not. Indigenous people die younger from Covid-19 and in comparison to non-indigenous people, they die in droves.

Yet at the same time 2/3rd of Manitoba First Nation communities were Covid-19 free. Imagine what would happen if more contracted it. In my opinion the reason so many are Covid-19 free is that they are so remote. If they were not so remote more of them would have Covid-19 and then inevitably, the consequences would be disastrous in each of those communities. These are troubling statistics and point to some serious inequities in Canadian society. Inequities that smug politicians like my Parliamentarian Ted Falk are loath to notice. He is worried instead about the UN leading us to eco-socialism thanks to our leftie Prime Minister.

Conflicting Stories; Colliding Freedoms


We are hearing a lot of conflicting stories about Covid-19 and its variants and the vaccines. In Europe it seems like the pandemic has fresh legs that make it spread widely again, with more raging force than ever before. Yet in Manitoba we are “cautiously” opening up according to our Chief Medical Officer Brent Roussin. Is this really cautious? Why does he not think the same thing that is happening now in Europe won’t happen here too? I hope he is right, but I fear he is wrong. I hope he is not feeling the pressure from religious people like those in the Church of God Restoration outside of Steinbach, and others, that want to open up faster.

Yet the Winnipeg Free Press today reported,

“CANADA’S chief public health officer said Sunday that the collective efforts to fight COVID-19 are paying off, even as the country sits at a “critical juncture” in the fight against fast spreading variants.

Dr. Theresa Tam said on Twitter that COVID-19 disease activity continues to decline and vaccination is heading in the right direction.

“Our collective effort has begun to tip the balance in our favour,” she wrote. But she said Canadians need to maintain COVID-19 precautions to protect each other, especially as cases of more contagious variants are mounting across the country.”

On the other hand, the same article reported that “The faster-spreading COVID-19 variant first discovered in the United Kingdom has made its way into some schools in British Columbia, health officials announced late Saturday.”


Is that not concerning, considering what we know about the new variants of Covid-19?  I know vaccines help, but frankly not many Canadian arms have received it. I would feel a lot better if they did.

Of course, as we all know Covid-19 is amplifying existing inequities. That same article reported on this issue as follows:

” In a message published Sunday, Tam noted that COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on racialized communities. She said cases are 1.5 to 5 times higher in racialized communities in Toronto and Ottawa, while people living on First Nations reserves have a 69 per cent higher rate of infection compared to the general population.

“These disproportionate impacts among racialized and Indigenous communities are not due to biological differences between groups or populations,” she wrote.

“Rather, they reflect existing health inequities that are strongly influenced by a specific set of social and economic factors — things like income, education, employment and housing that shape an individual’s place in society.”

She said it’s imperative to work to fight racism in workplaces, education and health and social services systems, which she said has contributed to vaccine hesitancy in some communities and helped to create the inequitable living and working conditions that make some groups more susceptible to COVID-19.”


Often, I think William Faulkner was right: “We can never catch up with injustice.” But, I wish our religious people would not divert the attention of our health officials from fighting Covid-19 to dealing with their demands that they deal instead with their dubious claims of infringement on their religious freedom. I wish those religious zealots instead spent more time working to eradicate social injustice. Would that not make God happier?

How Much Truth Can you Stand?


Nietzsche did not always get it right, but sometimes he hit the mark dead on. He hit the mark when he said, “a man’s worth is determined by how much truth he can stand.” But sometimes the truth is just hard to bear. That’s why it’s worth so much.

What Nietzsche said about individuals is also true of countries–their worth too depends on how much truth they can stand and frankly, most of them can’t stand very much. The United States and Canada are pretty good examples.

After the storming of the Capitol, the so-called sacred hall of American democracy, Joe Biden had this to say in his calm reassuring tone of voice so pleasant after 4 years of Trump’s hysterics:

“Let me be absolutely clear, the scenes of chaos in the Capitol do not reflect the true character of America; do not represent who we are.”

Is he right? Violence for political ends is particularly American. Entitled white men demanding their rights, while denying those of so many others is exactly who they are. People harbouring crazy beliefs without evidence is what Americans do best. Did you see the Qanon Shaman in the video of the Capitol under siege dressed in animal skins, a fur hat with horns, spear, face painted in the colours of the American flag, shirtless chest covered with hostile looking tattoos, chanting “USA’ over and over again with his fellow rabble-rousers? He looked pretty American. Where else could he be from?


A host of politicians and pundits after the rampage repeated “We are better than this,” or “This is not who we are.” I beg to differ. This is exactly who they are.

The New York Times posted an amazing video that did tell the truth. It said no one should be surprised at what happened. The speaker on the video pointed out the pictures in the rotunda behind the occupiers. They showed American soldiers (or at least their British ancestors) forcing native American women and children to submit to their dominance. The speaker on the video said,

“We have always been like this. America is a nation built on stolen land by stolen people. And if the rampage feels historic it’s because violence is in our national DNA. A mob razed a whole block in Philadelphia because they didn’t like the election results.”


America is a country where as soon as slaves were freed the rules of elections were changed to ensure that their voting would never disturb the real American choices made by their white superiors. It is a country where people don’t really believe in democracy at all, but they love to brag about it. They don’t believe in democracy because they only want the votes their own side to count. Where districts are twisted into impossible shapes so that the votes of opponents don’t count so much.

As the Times video said,

“And for the purest expression of the American way, just look at the man responsible for Wednesday’s violence–the man who leads by Twitter who knows that if you have enough money they’ll let you do anything. He told us who he was and we picked him, because this is exactly who we are. America the land of the snake oil salesman.”


You think snake oil is too harsh? Does that not describe the president who said he would lead the group of insurgents into the Capitol and then returned instead to the comfort of the White House to watch the proceedings on his big screen television?

To say, as Biden did, that the scene of chaos at the Capitol does not describe them is absolutely false. It is an uncomfortable truth, but as the Times video said, his “platitudes spin a fantasy as absurd as Qanon.” It is painful to admit but America prefers fantasies to hard truths. As the video pointed out,

“We can only realize our strengths if we stop whitewashing our sins. We are a nation forged in racist violence. A society that values wealth over wisdom. A country where personal ambitions mean more than morality. Masked with false piety where citizens wreak havoc with the very institutions that enable them.”


Now there is a new president. Many look to him as their saviour. I love Joe Biden. He’s dull, he’s boring, and I hope he won’t be a strong leader. That’s my kind of leader. But unlike Nietzsche, Biden got it wrong. He got it all wrong when he said, “this is not America.”

I am not saying this everything they are. The are fine people on both sides. Americans are also people who work together to get things done, giving a helping hand to a fallen friend, or even in some cases, a fallen foe. But these other Americans seem to have been silent for so long. Where were they when they elected a mean-spirited, cruel, and relentless bigot?

Not that Canadians are very different let me hasten to add. We have built this country by stealing land from the inhabitants contrary to promises we have not fulfilled. Often Canadians do this without resorting to war. We often have subtler and more corrupt ways of doing the same thing. We have sent  Indigenous children to schools where they were brutally assaulted in the name of “civilization” and “religion.” We are governed by unjustified beliefs as much as our neighbours to our south. Our claims to piety ring hollow. Just as it does for the Americans.

The video claims that everything we saw on January 6, as ugly as it was, was exactly who they are— because it’s the product of what they have always been. Until Americans and Canadian face that truth, we’ll never change it.


Villages of the Dead


Historian Richard White told a remarkable story about John Work of the Hudson’s Bay Company and how he led a group of trappers into California in the summer of 1833. He described the villages of the Central Valley now one of the greatest agricultural areas in the world, as “populous and swarming with inhabitants.” But when he returned in the winter, only 5 months later, he described the villages as “almost deserted and having a desolate appearance. He called them “villages of the dead.” He found the “few wretched Indians who remain…are living apparently unable to move.” Without knowing it, Work and his men had brought malaria with them to the Central Valley They did not do it deliberately, but that illness had devastating effects on the inhabitants.

After that Work and his men continued on to Oregon. And of course malaria came with them again. Malaria virtually depopulated the Willamette and lower Columbia regions. As Professor White said, “Twenty thousand or more people died in California, untold thousands more in Oregon. It is almost unimaginable to consider what life in these villages that were turned into mausoleums must have been like. At the same time it is equally difficult to comprehend the indifference shown by some Europeans or Americans encountering these astonishing scenes of devastation.”

Historian Richard White described a scene at a trading post this way: “In 1837 Francis Chardon, in command of the American Fur Company post on the Missouri, witnessed the outbreak of smallpox among the Mandans. On a warm summer day in July a young Mandan died. And with that death, the journal that Chardon kept became one of the most chilling chronicles in American history because he watched so closely and cared so little. He tallied dead Indians: he tallied rats his men killed in the fort. For him they seemed part of the same equation.” Of rats and men I guess you might say. What’s the difference?

The Indians, as the Americans called them, were not so indifferent. They knew the whites had brought these diseases to their country and they blamed them for it. Sort of like Americans now blaming the Chinese and the Chinese returning the favour. But, as White said, “By August Indians were dying so fast Chardon stopped counting.” There was nothing they could do.

A Mandan Chief, Four Bears, who had long been a friend of the whites gave one last speech before he died in which he told how his trust in whites had been misplaced. The whites, he said, “I always considered as brothers, turned out to be my worst enemies.”

After this the suicides began. One Mandan woman killed her two children and then hung herself. Many others did the same. The Mandans of one region were ravaged. According to Chardon more than 800 died and only 42 were left. In total, of about 8,000 Mandans only 250 were left. Of course, after that, their culture was wiped out too.

The story of European settlement of the west was not entirely heroic.

Sad Debris of Tribes


What always amazes me was how fast the diseases travelled after Europeans arrived in North and South America. It is remarkable how that happened. It seemed impossible; it was not. We have all learned something similar  in 2019-2020 with the incredible speed of COVID—19 that shocked us all. But that was done with the aid of modern transportation that allows planeloads of people from Asia to arrive in North America in a day. Yet the speed of diseases after first contact between Europeans and indigenous people was even more amazing than that, without any such modern transportation. See my earlier post on the speed of European diseases.

As Professor White pointed out,

“The first wave of diseases often arrived ahead of Europeans: it seemed a disaster without immediate cause. Later epidemics came directly, spread by contact with the Europeans, and the infected went to their graves knowing the source of the pestilence that killed them.”

The effect on the “lucky ones” who survived was demoralizing. Their world was shattered. It was as if not just their lives but their cultures were obliterated! It is hardly surprising that the effects cascaded through the generations after that. The people were crushed. And all of us still feel the effects.

It is difficult for us to comprehend how diseases can destroy whole peoples. COVID-19 is a pipsqueak pandemic compared to what happened in North America after Europeans arrived and found people who had no natural immunities to the diseases they carried often without incident.

Professor White described the advance of diseases this way:

“They died in staggering numbers. In 1698 the French missionary Father St. Cosmé reported that in the villages of the Quapaws of the Mississippi there were now “nothing but graves.” In 1738 smallpox struck the Missouri, and where there had been “32 populous villages of Arikara” there were in 1803 but three formed from what the French-Canadian trader Pierre-Antoine Tabeau called the “sad debris” of tribes that had formed the larger Arikara confederation.

Remember this was long after the first arrival of Europeans in 1492. This was 300 years later and it was still going on! We who have recently experienced COVID-19 hope that it will go away after a couple of months! Diseases don’t always play by the rules. They certainly don’t play fair. As

White said,

“In the late 1700s and early 1800s the new epidemics were still sweeping over the Pacific Coast. To the early European explorers, it seemed that they had stumbled on a vast necropolis. When he sailed into Puget Sound in 1792, George Vancouver described deserted villages, the houses in collapse, the buildings and surrounding woods filled with human bones. Theodore Parker wrote similar descriptions of this trip down the Columbia River in 1835. In the 1840s John Sutter and other white travelers in the Sacramento Valley saw collapsed houses filled with skeletons and old village sites littered with skulls and bones.”

I don’t want to belabor the point, but I want it to sink in. This was nearly 350 years after Columbus arrived on the continent and about 100 years before I was born. This is not ancient history.


Sullen Madness

I have recently been struck by the fact that the current COVID-19 health pandemic we are facing resembles what happened to the Indigenous people of North and South America after the arrival of Europeans on their hemisphere. Only that was much more extreme!  It was even worse than the epic flu epidemic of 1918. We have a lot to learn from that  encounter.

The adaptation of indigenous people to the European invaders was remarkable, but they were fighting against the odds. As Professor Richard White said, “The ecological invasion that European contact had continued unleashed and  continued unabated. Diseases previously unknown to Indians, and to which they had no resistance, ravaged North America. Other diseases, such as syphilis and tuberculosis, which may or may not have been present earlier, spread to new areas.

 The new diseases were horrendous to people who had no natural immunities. Just like the current COVID-19 epidemic is proving a challenge to western nations even with their incredible wealth, science, experience, and expertise. the indigenous people of the Americas were not blessed with such advantages. One would have thought the modern western countries were in a good position to respond to the current threat. But they have not responded as well as we might have expected.

Non-indigenous people of the west, after epidemics and pandemics in recent years that have included: Ebola, SARS, MERS, swine flu, avian flu and COVID-19 are beginning to appreciate this, even though none of these came anywhere near matching the extraordinary effect of diseases on indigenous people of the Americas after contact that might have killed nearly 95% of the native population. There might have been 90 million people killed after the European invasion! But that was not the whole ugly story. There is more.

The new diseases of North America and South America ravaged some peoples and decimated others. Yet that was not all. As Professor White pointed out,

“But these new diseases did more than kill. They polluted the channels of everyday life. Smallpox disfigured those who survived. Rubella harmed the fetuses of pregnant women and marked the children for life. In the wake of epidemics, blind or scarred survivors or mourning relatives could become suicides, taking their lives in what the English trader James Adair called “sullen madness.” Venereal diseases turned love and pleasure into pestilence: they also took their toll on the generation to follow. Syphilis caused miscarriages and infected infants at birth. Tuberculosis made what once had been secure if dark longhouses and earth lodges into pest houses where the tuberculosis bacilli thrived. It made what had been the tasks of daily life—for example the chewing fibres to make baskets—into sources of contamination.”

Imagine living on continents or in nations or tribes where 95% of the people died! Think how the survivors must have been shell-shocked by that. Our current experience pales into significance in comparison. Even after all that, their misery it was just beginning! Life for “those who made it” became even worse—it was hell.

I will continue this discussion soon.