The Empire of all Maladies by Nick Estes, published at The Baffler, lays bare yet another aspect of the history of America which has been shrouded in some toxic combination of myth and lies. Estes is examining the story that Indigenous people died from inability to withstand European diseases, instead of the truth that the vast numbers of people who died were killed by a combination of intentional destruction and a willingness to reap the benefits of reckless disregard for their lives. And yet, Indigenous people were not destroyed. They are living here, today, in reservations that should be their autonomous lands — and yet, when Donald Trump wants to hold a rally on the rez, the people who get arrested are the ones who own the land and protest the rally, not the invading colonizers.
The eye-opening aspects of this story are historical more than they are current.
Debates about the epidemiological vulnerability of Indigenous people first came to prominence in the 1970s as historians backed away from narratives of European cultural superiority in search of more scientific explanations. This biological turn identified microbes as a primary culprit in the mass death of the Indigenous, suggesting that the depopulation of the Americas was an inevitable result of Native communities’ contact with diseases from the old world. In a 1976 essay, the historian Alfred W. Crosby put forth the “virgin-soil epidemics” thesis, which posited that Europeans brought diseases—in particular, smallpox and measles—that wiped out 70 percent or more of Native people in the Western Hemisphere because they lacked immunity. In what was framed as the most extreme demographic disaster in human history, the most affected regions experienced a 90 percent depopulation rate, including deaths related to disease, which is estimated to have reduced the population of the Americas from one hundred million to ten million.
Estes describes this thesis as having “wide traction.” Certainly, we both learned it in school.
Indigenous scholars have long contested this thesis—though few were paying attention to their rebuttals. Disease as a result of colonial policy and actions “was rarely called genocide until the rise of Indigenous movements in the mid-twentieth century,” writes historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz in An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. For the Lenape historian Jack D. Forbes, it was not so much the Indigenous who were suffering affliction, but the Europeans who had been infected with what he called wétiko, the Algonquin word for a mind-virus associated with cannibalism. The overriding characteristic of wétiko, as he recounted in his 1979 book Columbus and Other Cannibals, is that “he consumes other human beings” for profit. This concept is nearly synonymous with the European psychosis of domination and plunder.
The metaphor of capitalism as disease is not new, but the connection between the disease of capitalism, the virus that consumes other beings, and the diseases Indigenous people are believed to have succumbed to, is illuminating–at least for the non-Indigenous reader.
Estes goes on to thoroughly debunk the “virgin-soil” theory, citing data revealing when tribes were decimated, destruction of Native land, and the effects of diets enforced by the colonizers,
Shifting his attention to the present day, Estes calls out not just the extremely high rate of COVID-19 disease and death among Indigenous people, but also the readiness of the federal government to blame this disparity on “underlying health conditions,” the causes of which we have just been shown. And the Native people are responding:
Since late April, after statistics revealed that the virus had a greater impact on Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities, so-called anti-lockdown protests surged. Men armed with assault rifles and donning military-grade body armor stormed state capitol buildings, demanding haircuts and the reopening of beaches and ice cream parlors. That is why the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and the Oglala Sioux Tribe have set up health checkpoints. “We will not apologize for being an island of safety in a sea of uncertainty and death,” Cheyenne River chairman Harold Frazier wrote to the governor of South Dakota, one of five states to issue no stay-at-home order in response to the pandemic.
After detailing the shameful and destructive failings of the government in responding to Indigenous needs during the pandemic, Estes widens his lens again to cover the willingness of colonialists to exterminate the people in their way by any means necessary.
Most historians have failed to draw what are obvious connections between heightened rates of infection and conditions of war, invasion, and colonialism. We need only look at the cholera outbreak in Yemen to see the relationship of disease to U.S. foreign policy. No one is disputing the fact that the infection of millions and the deaths of thousands there at the hands of this preventable disease are the result of a U.S.-backed, Saudi-led war, which has destroyed Yemen’s health care infrastructure.
One of his illustrations for the blindness of contemporary U.S. policy is the “space program” Trump touts whenever he finds an opportunity, and the glaring discrepancy between that and the needs of the people the man is theoretically responsible for “governing.”
Yet a new world is coming into existence, even as fires burn in the Amazon or on the streets of Minneapolis. It has always been here. It was present at Standing Rock, in the chants of “water is life”; it could be heard among the Wet’suwet’en calls to “heal the people, heal the land”; and it resounded once again as hundreds of thousands took to the street to demand that “Black lives matter.”’
Read the whole article; it’s important.