Indigenous Communities and Pandemics, Past and Present

From the time Europeans arrived in the Western Hemisphere in the late 15th century to the present COVID-19 pandemic, Indigenous people have been highly impacted—in many cases disproportionately—by infectious diseases. Experiences with disease outbreaks are part of the oral histories of Indigenous communities across Canada and the United States, and these experiences are passed down through generations, shaping the ways communities respond to disease outbreaks in the present. An overview of the past and a survey of the present show that while this knowledge is being deployed by Indigenous leadership as they manage the COVID-19 crisis, these leaders are not adequately supported by the federal and local governments as gaps in government COVID-19 response coincide with long-existing problems that have rendered Indigenous populations especially vulnerable to disease.

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A Long, Dark History

As has been widely documented, the arrival of Europeans in the Americas brought a number of diseases to which Indigenous peoples had never been exposed, such as smallpox, measles, and yellow fever. Because they did not have the antibodies necessary to prevent infection, Indigenous people were subject to extensive depopulation throughout the hemisphere as communities came into contact with European ships and explorers.

The spread of disease throughout what is currently Canada is documented in the oral histories of Indigenous communities that experienced it, as well as in the journals and correspondence of explorers and fur traders. In the 16th century, Jacques Cartier observed the drastic impact of smallpox on Indigenous populations in the St. Lawrence River watershed, including the depopulation of the once-thriving Iroquois village of Stadacona (present-day Quebec City). As the fur trade spread west across the continent, so did disease, and by the end of the 18th century, George Vancouver was documenting deserted villages up and down the Northwest Coast

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In some cases, Indigenous people were subject to intentional genocide by European settlers, who either intentionally infected Indigenous people with diseases known to kill them, or took advantage of the ravages of disease to force Indigenous leaders to bend to the will of colonial armies. The most well-known incident of intentional infection occurred in 1763 during Pontiac’s War, an uprising against the British by a confederation of Indigenous groups from the Great Lakes region. Colonial correspondence from this time shows British military leaders discussing the introduction of smallpox to their Indigenous adversaries via infected blankets, an act later carried out by a trader at Fort Pitt (present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania).

After the establishment of the United States in 1776, politicians like Andrew Jackson were eager to push Indigenous people out of the eastern US to make way for settlers, even as these populations had already been drastically reduced by previous centuries of disease and warfare. When Jackson became president, he signed the 1830 Indian Removal Act to pave the way for the Trail of Tears, a multi-decade forced removal of the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw Nations from their ancestral territories in the southeastern US to “Indian Territory” west of the Mississippi River. These forced removals were known as “death marches” due to the arduous journey that killed many through the spread of infectious disease in addition to malnutrition and exposure to the elements. 

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On the Northwest Coast, the 1862 smallpox epidemic was devastating, killing approximately half of the Indigenous people living along the coast between southern Puget Sound and southeastern Alaska. The epidemic began in March 1862, when a steamship carried smallpox from San Francisco to Fort Victoria, British Columbia (present-day Victoria), a bustling fur trade hub. While many settlers were immune, the Indigenous people staying at a nearby encampment were not, and when those who did not die of smallpox returned to their communities, the disease went with them. According to Robert Boyd, a leading scholar on the matter, “this [Indian] epidemic might have been avoided, and the Whites knew it.” 

The disproportionate effects of disease on Indigenous people continued to be a factor well into the 20th century, with Indigenous communities being hit hard by the 1918 influenza pandemic.  At the time, it was believed that isolated communities would be safe from the pandemic, but naval ships travelling to Alaska brought passengers and crew members who asymptomatically carried the virus. Some of these crew members delivered mail to remote areas of Western Alaska, like the Inupiat village of Wales, the population of which was then decimated. The 1918 pandemic hit Alaska the hardest in all of the US, with an estimated 2000-3000 people dead and 8 percent of the total Alaskan Indigenous population killed. Subsequent flu pandemics in 1957 and 2009 raised similar fears for Indigenous communities and produced similar effects.

Memories of the Past, Carried into the Present 

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Today, in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Indigenous people continue to be disproportionately affected. Competition for funding, delayed funding, and expedited timelines to spend funding once it is received have made it difficult for communities to respond to the situation as it unfolds on their reserves. Combined with existing factors like lack of clean, running water and protective equipment and limited access to health services, the pandemic has been devastating. The Navajo Nation in the southwestern US has been held up by the media as an example of how badly things can go wrong—in May, the Nation passed New York City for the highest per-capita rate of COVID-19 in the US. 

Underlying the current situation with Indigenous communities and pandemic response is a long history of issues with government funding for Indigenous health care, where Indigenous patients are often delayed or denied care due to jurisdictional discrepancies over which government (provincial or federal, in Canada) is responsible for covering costs. As detailed in a special brief by the Yellowhead Institute on COVID-19 and the Numbered Treaties in Canada, the current situation sheds light on the differing interpretations of treaty language around health care and the resulting implications for communities during the pandemic.  

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Even in places where COVID-19 has been contained, it has been a struggle for Indigenous leadership to assert their rights to control who can and cannot enter their territories. As lockdown restrictions have lifted (or as people have grown tired of staying at home), tourists are attempting to flock to Indigenous territories for their vacations in spite of the wishes of these communities to stay closed. In the US, this is happening in places like Glacier National Park in the territory of the Blackfeet Nation, which has chosen to stay in lockdown to protect members and is now dealing with Park tourists putting their community at risk. In Canada, First Nations on the coast of BC have clearly stated since the beginning of the pandemic that they are closed to outsiders, but non-Indigenous tourist operations have been ignoring these wishes and trying to open for business, leading to situations like the Haida Hereditary Chiefs deeming the Queen Charlotte Lodge sportfishing operation no longer welcome in Duu Guusd, the North Coast and the waters of Haida Gwaii.

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During Times of Crisis, We Need to Listen to Communities

Both the history of pandemics and the present situation across Canada and the US show that the broader approaches taken by federal and provincial/state governments are not working for Indigenous communities. Many long-existing problems with health care access, funding, and reliable infrastructure for things like clean water—which Indigenous people have been asking for decades to be remedied—have exacerbated an already dire situation. Indigenous leaders are attempting to protect their people by instating checkpoints and deeming their territories closed to outsiders, but the public frequently ignores their authority. While there is no easy fix to any of these issues, it is clear that the place to begin is listening to Indigenous communities about what they need and how they want to manage their territories, whether during a time of crisis or not.