Science  /  Debunk

Disease Has Never Been Just Disease for Native Americans

Native communities’ vulnerability to epidemics is not a historical accident, but a direct result of oppressive policies and ongoing colonialism.

As the death toll from COVID-19 mounts, people of color are clearly at greater risk than others. Among the most vulnerable are Native Americans. To understand how dire the COVID-19 situation is becoming for these communities, consider the situation unfolding for the Navajo Nation, a people with homelands in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. As of April 23, 1,360 infections and 52 deaths had been reported among the Navajo Reservation’s 170,000 people, a mortality rate of 30 per 100,000. Only six states have a higher per capita toll.

The spread of COVID-19 is reminiscent of previous disease outbreaks that have ravaged Native American communities. Many of those outbreaks resulted in catastrophic loss of life, far greater than even the worst-case scenarios for COVID-19. Even the 1918–19 flu pandemic, in which an estimated 650,000 Americans died (0.6 percent of the 1920 population of 106 million), pales in comparison to the losses Native Americans have suffered from disease.

Until recently, histories of disease and Native Americans have emphasized “virgin-soil epidemics.” According to this theory, popularized in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, when Europeans arrived in the Western Hemisphere, they brought diseases (particularly measles and smallpox) that indigenous people had never experienced. Because they had no immunity to these diseases, so the theory goes, the resulting epidemics took the lives of 70 percent or more of the Native population throughout the Americas.

New research, however, provides a much more complicated picture of disease in American Indian history. This research shows that virgin-soil epidemics were not as common as previously believed and shifts the focus to how diseases repeatedly attacked Native communities in the decades and centuries after Europeans first arrived. Post-contact diseases were crippling not so much because indigenous people lacked immunity, but because the conditions created by European and U.S. colonialism made Native communities vulnerable. The virgin-soil-epidemic hypothesis was valuable in countering earlier theories that attributed Native American population decline to racial inferiority, but its singular emphasis on biological difference implied that population collapses were nothing more than historical accidents. By stressing the importance of social conditions created by human decisions and actions, the new scholarship provides a far more disturbing picture. It also helps us understand the problems facing Native communities today as they battle the novel coronavirus.

Virgin-soil epidemics undoubtedly occurred. In 1633, for example, a smallpox epidemic struck Native communities in New England, reducing the Mohegan and Pequot populations from a combined total of 16,000 to just 3,000. The epidemic spread to the Haudenosaunee in New York, but no farther west than that. Smallpox did not hit communities in the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes until 1756–57, a century or more after initial contact with Europeans. When it did, it was because Native fighters, recruited to fight for the French against the British during the Seven Years’ War, had contracted the virus in the east and infected their communities when they returned home. Lack of immunity mattered, but it was the disruption resulting from war that promoted smallpox’s spread.