Category Archives: Indigenous People After Contact

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.

Resilience

 

For a while in the 18th century it looked as if the indigenous people of the Americas had weathered the storm of European devastation. There is no exaggerating how disastrous contact with Europeans was on the indigenous people. Yet, indigenous people were nothing if not resilient. Non-indigenous people often falsely accuse indigenous people of being too married to their traditions. Why don’t they change with the times they often ask. Well they did. Richard White a Professor of History at Washington University has shown how false this assumption was:

“If the Indian peoples of the eighteenth century had been wedded to tradition, then there would have been no horse nomads on the Great Plains, no Navajo sheepherders or silver workers or weavers. There would indeed be, no Navajos, no Lakotas, nor Muskogees, nor numerous other groups who first began to think of themselves as separate and distinct peoples in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

In a world of disaster, Indian peoples forged opportunities. In the midst of a population collapse that turned villages into funeral pyres, they created new peoples and new tribes and confederacies. In a world where old ideas seemed incapable of explaining so much change, so much misery, and such staggering possibilities, they spawned prophets, rebels, and saviors in a seemingly unending profusion. Since Europeans could not be banished, Indians sought to include them in a common world and pursued new ways and forms to control and contain them. And, for a while, it all seemed possible.”

All of these were adaptations of Indigenous people to the new reality of life with Europeans.

In many cases indigenous people after contacting Europeans, created new traditions, which they passed on to their youth. They adapted. In fact they had to be great adapters in order to survive an extraorindary onslaught more horrific than that faced by any other people, anywhere, ever.

 

Royal Charters and beautiful plague

One of the instruments used by the British crown to advance its imperial interests was the issuance of Royal Charters authorizing the creation of corporations to advance the perceived interests of the crown and their loyal supporters. The Hudson Bay Company was a good example in Canada.  The East Indian company was another example. These were used around the world. These corporations were often given monopolistic authority to exploit the people and resources of the new territories. Of course those authorities were always granted by the crown without consulting the wishes of the people who inhabited those territories. Rarely did the European monarchs acknowledge that the indigenous people had any rights to oppose their desire or to own the land or resources even though they had occupied the land for millennia.

The English crown relied entirely on the right of “discovery” in the early phases of their colonial exploitation of the new continent. This is based on the false assumption that the land was “empty” before Europeans arrived.   The doctrine refers to “savages having no knowledge of the Divine Being” and whose ancestral territories were “hitherto uncultivated.” The colonists were royally authorized to wage war against these “barbarians” if necessary and even “to pursue them beyond the limits of their province.” The King even said that if necessary the settlers could “If God grant it, to vanquish and captivate the Indians; and the captives to put to death, or, according to their discretion to save.”

The European colonists took this as a license to do what they felt was necessary—anything and everything—in the pursuit of their exploitation. It is hardly surprising that genocidal actions ensued by those engaged in hot-blooded exploitation. As historian Anthony Hall said,

“Many of those engaged in colonization interpreted the plagues and diseases that had dramatically thinned much of the Aboriginal populations along the eastern seaboard as divine sanction for the effective extinguishment of Indian rights and title in the early charters. In 1631, for instance, Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts explained, “God hath consumed the natives with miraculous plague, whereby the greater part of the country is left void of inhabitants.”

Some might call it beautiful plague.

Genocide in the Americas

 

Of course there were specific acts of genocide in North America and South America. Like the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 where the U.S. Army’s Seventh Cavalry committed an atrocity mainly against women and children. Brave army that was. They said it was done in retaliation for the slaughter at the Battle of Little Bighorn where Siouian warriors under the direction of Chief Crazy Horse defeated General George Custer and most of his soldiers. The Battle of Little Bighorn was seen by many as the final military attempted crushing of Aboriginal Independence in the United States, if not North America. As Anthony Hall mentioned in his wonderful book, The American Empire and the 4th World, “At the time of this massacre the Indian population in the area of the present-day United States had been reduced to 200,000 from an estimated pre-Columbian population of between 10 and 20 million.”

As I have said before many of those deaths resulted from hidden biological warfare launched by germs that the European invaders unknowingly carried with them, but others from specific acts like this battle.

Those battles led, in Canada to an oppressive regime of shackling Indigenous peoples, who were not released from them them until after World War II and even then only to some extent. The main instrument of that dominance in Canada was the Indian Act, an infamous federal statute that has been amended many times but is still with us today, which I will blog about soon. I think people who don’t know about the Indian Act will be shocked. Until that law was changed, the  indigenous people of Canada were not allowed to organize, for fear of repetition of the violence against the control by Europeans and their descendants.

Whether the word “genocide” or not is used, there is no doubt that the process of transforming indigenous societies by European colonization was a harsh disaster for the Indigenous peoples. As Hall described it,

“…the actual process of transforming some of the richest and most extensive Indian societies on the planet proved catastrophic for the Indigenous peoples. Thus began the world’s most ruthless and sustained episode of ethnic cleansing, one that many believe continues yet. From its earliest stages, this drive aimed to extinguish Aboriginal civilization of the Americas and to replace it with an expanded transatlantic domain for the culture of Europe and for Western civilization.”

If you look at the modern definition of “genocide” now embedded in international law, you will that this clearly qualifies as genocide.

At times the Aboriginals looked to the monarchs of the Old World to staunch the bleeding. At best that met with mixed success. For example in New Spain the Spanish monarch was seen as the only force capable of protecting any Aboriginal rights. However, as Hall said,

“While the Spanish sovereign sporadically placed some checks on the murderous excesses of the Spanish colonists, the interventions of the central authority were generally too weak to moderate significantly the acquisitive zeal that attracted fortune-seeking immigrants from Europe to the New World”

England hardly provided more protection than its Spanish rivals. As Hall said,

“While England’s early colonial enterprises in North America were shrouded in the language of Christian evangelization, a more pressing spur to join in Europe’s transatlantic expansion was the fear that, if action was not quickly taken, Roman Catholic powers, including Portugal and France, would soon monopolize and control the apparently vast wealth of the so-called New World.”

Whether we like it or not, or admit it or not, this history is still with us today. Our society in fact is built on that genocide.

 

Are we repeating what Europeans did to Indigenous People in the “New World?”

 

I have been blogging a lot about the incredible destruction by Europeans of Indigenous people of the western hemisphere after they first made contact. Lately I have wondered if the descendants of those Europeans, together with the immigrants who came from the west and their descendants have been unwittingly repeating the crime some 500 years later. Only this time they are doing it again to indigenous people but also to the rest of us. Are we doing it to ourselves in other words?

Kate Jones and her team of researchers found that 335 new diseases emerged between 1960 and 2004, and at least 60% came from animals. There is really nothing surprising about this. Many human diseases evolved from contact with animals. Europeans much more than people in the western hemisphere domesticated animals for centuries. As a result over millennia they developed immunities to many of those diseases. When they arrived in the “New World” and contacted people in the new world who did not have that long history of contact with such animals and as a result had on immunities to the diseases the Europeans brought with, they were devastated by the diseases. Within a century 95% of the indigenous people were dead according to some experts.

As John Vidal reported in the Guardian:

“Research suggests that outbreaks of animal-borne and other infectious diseases such as Ebola, SARS, bird flu and now COVID-19, caused by a novel coronavirus, are on the rise. Pathogens are crossing from animals to humans, and many are able to spread quickly to new places. The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that three-quarters of new or emerging diseases that infect humans originate in animals.”

Kate Jones has discovered that these zoonotic diseases are increasingly linked to environmental changes caused by human activity. We disrupt pristine forests by logging, mining, and road buildings through remote areas without paying any attention to what we are doing. We think the world is ours for the taking. We see ourselves as lords of the universe with the divine right to do with it as we please. By doing that we bring people into ever closer contact with animal species we have never encountered before. As a result we have built up no immunities to any new diseases or pathogens they carry just like the Indigenous people of the Americans when the first European explores arrived. Could that happen again and basically for the same reason? Are we doing to ourselves what we carelessly did to the indigenous people of the western hemisphere? It’s beginning to look that way.

Maybe we need a new attitude to nature.

Royal Proclamation

 

Many Canadians have been heard to say, the protesters of the pipeline must obey the rule of law. The rule of law is the basis of Canadian society. I agree. But what does that mean? It means everyone–the Indigenous people, white settlers, businesses, must obey the law. Lets not just pick on the Indigenous people. Canada is a country governed by law. That is what the rule of law means.

But this is complex. It is not enough to say that protesters must obey injunctions. Everyone must obey the law, even the majority who control the government of Canada or British Columbia.

To understand the point I want to make you have to look at some very old law–the Royal Proclamation of King George of England in 1763

There was a deep conflict in North America in the 18th century. One big issue was who would control the expansion of European-Americans into Indian Country? The governments of the United States after 1776, and Britain after its victory over France in the Seven Years War that began in 1756 and ended in 1763, jostled over who would get that control.

In 1763 just after the end of the Seven Years War, and before the American Revolution, the British Monarch, King George, issued a Royal Proclamation in which he asserted his absolute claim to exclusive authority to acquire by purchase (not conquest) aboriginal title in the lands that he reserved for Indian peoples as their hunting reserves. That land included most of North America and all the land west of the Mississippi River.

By this proclamation, that is still valid law in Canada, the British sovereign monopolized the exclusive authority to transfer lands from Indigenous people (Indians as he called them) to non-indigenous people. No private deals could be made! By this act, the British crown usurped the right to control and regulate the westward expansion of Anglo-American settlements. Really, the British King said he and he alone had the authority to decide who would own North America. Talk about hubris! However, by this Proclamation, King George also acknowledged that the land in North America (including in 1763 much of what is now the United States) was owned by the original inhabitants and ownership (title) could only be acquired by purchase! And only the crown could buy.

Americans of course, were loath to accept this and it was this proclamation and later taxes imposed on the Americans that led to their revolt against British rule. Indigenous people who had lived on this continent for millennia, never acknowledged that the British King had this authority. But they liked the acknowledgement that no one could acquire ownership of land after that time except the Crown and then only through purchase from indigenous people.

This Royal Proclamation is the basis for English (and later Canadian) authority over much of North America.  It really was the basis of law in Canada. The English realized that their claims over North America had a dubious foundation. The Royal Proclamation was intended to make that foundation sound. It was the foundation for empire–the British Empire–in North America.

The United States saw no need for such a basis for their expansion. They were content to rely on conquest. Canada never did that. It really did not do a lot of conquering. It took the position that it was governed by the rule of law.  Canada saw how the Americans were spending vast fortunes in its Indian wars and did not want to replicate that here. In one year 25% of the entire American federal government budget was spent on Indian wars.

It is important to recognize that the English government and its laws, which were later assigned to Canada after 1867, deliberately provided that land not purchased by the Crown from Indigenous People belonged to the inhabitants–the indigenous people.

That is still the basis of Canadian law in the wild territories. And this is still important today in understanding issues such as the melee over Wet’suwet’en land and pipelines over it.

Why is this relevant?  Because the Wet’suwet’en never ceded their territory except over those 6 parcels of land now included in those 6 First Nation Reserves established as such under the Indian Act. That means that no one has acquired those lands. The original owners, whoever they are, continue to own those lands. With ownership comes the right to say what can and what cannot be done on that land. What gives the Province of British Columbia the right to issue permits for developments, such as pipelines, over that land? What this means is that this is not ancient history; this is law.

Resilience

 

For a while in the 18th century it looked as if indigenous people had weathered the storm. Indigenous people are nothing if not resilient. Non-indigenous people often falsely accuse indigenous people of being too married to their traditions. Richard White a Professor of History at Washington University has shown how false this assumption was:

“If the Indian peoples of the eighteenth century had been wedded to tradition, then there would have been no horse nomads on the Great Plains, no Navajo sheepherders or silver workers or weavers. There would indeed be, no Navajos, no Lakotas, nor Muskogees, nor numerous other groups who first began to think of themselves as separate and distinct peoples in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

In a world of disaster, Indian peoples forged opportunities. In the midst of a population collapse that turned villages into funeral pyres, they created new peoples and new tribes and confederacies. In a world where old ideas seemed incapable of explaining so much change, so much misery, and such staggering possibilities, they spawned prophets, rebels, and saviors in a seemingly unending profusion. Since Europeans could not be banished, Indians sought to include them in a common world and pursued new ways and forms to control and contain them. And, for a while, it all seemed possible.’

In many cases Indigenous people after contacting Europeans, created new traditions, which they passed on to their youth. They adapted. In fact they had to be great adapters in order to survive an onslaught more horrific than that faced by any other people anywhere at any time.

 

Speed of Diseases

 

The speed of the devastation brought about by European diseases on contact with Indigenous people, for which the native people had no inherited defences as the Europeans did, was astonishing. Even the Europeans did not fully appreciate what had happened. They had never experienced anything like it either.

As historian Jay Miller explained, “Again and again, throughout the Americas, as Europeans advanced, they moved into regions already emptied by disease.” That seems incomprehensible. The European diseases travelled faster than they did!

As a result as the Spaniards in the south and later French and English farther north, moved on from ravishing one native community they would arrive at another only to find them already depleted.  As depopulation ensued local indigenous people could not muster enough people to carry on their traditional ceremonies, thus disconnecting the people from their land and hence their source of spiritual sustenance. Political and spiritual leaders were also lost. It left the native communities in disarray and reeling and unable to resist the European invaders.

Jay Miller described the contact between Europeans and Indigenous people like this:

“The end result of the European quest for riches, slaves, and land, was the reshaping of the native social order.  But it was not the direct action of Europeans themselves that produced this vast change. Rather, it was their inadvertent introduction of virulent diseases.  The germs that Europeans carried to the so-called New World visited utter and complete devastation on its indigenous inhabitants. Diseases unknown in the Americas, to which the natives had no immunity, struck whole communities with fierce and heartrending violence.’

What makes this even more surprising and disorienting, was that the indigenous people were so healthy. They were actually healthier  than the European invaders! As Miller said,

“Except for parasites, occasional malnutrition, and minor germs, the native population of the Americas was remarkably healthy. The people lived an open, uncrowded life, knew a great deal about herbal medications, and practiced cleanliness in sweat baths. This was sufficient to deal with most common illnesses. But this way of life proved no match for the germs cradled and nurtured in the filth of European cities and ports.”

Smallpox, measles, and other common European diseases wiped out entire communities before most of their inhabitants had actually seen a European. Whole regions were depopulated.

New diseases have come to plague people in the past, and in fact are doing so now as I write this with the introduction of a new, deadly, and scary disease, namely coronavirus. This has had dreadful effect on people around the world. But  imagine what the effect would be if we were faced with multiple new diseases! This is exactly what indigenous people experienced after contacting European invaders. If an indigenous community survived one deadly epidemic it would soon be met with another. If not small pox, then measles, or whooping cough, or scarlet fever, or influenza. The list of deadly new killers was astonishing.

In the result, some have estimated that 95% of the indigenous people vanished within a century of European contact! Nothing beats that.