The Empire of All Maladies

Colonial contagions and Indigenous resistance

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One of the most potent myths of mainstream U.S. historiography concerns what Indigenous archaeologist Michael V. Wilcox calls “terminal narratives”: an obsession with the death, disappearance, and absence of Indigenous people rather than their continued, visible presence and challenge to colonialism. The most obvious example of this tendency are historical models that assign blame for the mass killing of the Indigenous to invisible, chance forces—above all, the diseases colonizers unwittingly carried with them—rather than to calculated warfare and theft over centuries of relentless European invasion.

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.

Indigenous scholars have long contested the “virgin-soil epidemics” thesis—though few were paying attention to their rebuttals.

Crosby’s thesis soon gained wide traction in the academy. In his classic 1991 study The Middle Ground, the historian Richard White wrote that Indigenous people, cut off from European pathogens, “had not been selected over time for resistance to such diseases” and were therefore “doomed to die.” Indigenous people had “no opportunity to build up immunological resistance,” Colin Calloway similarly argued in his 1997 book New Worlds for All; they “were doomed to die in one of the greatest biological catastrophes in human history.” That same year, Jared Diamond published his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, in which he endorsed the “virgin-soil epidemics” thesis, thereby bringing it into the popular consciousness.

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.

Today, it is clear that the disease thesis simply doesn’t hold up. From where I write, in what is now New Mexico, recent archaeological evidence suggests that a population decline among the Pueblo nations of the Southwest didn’t occur until a century after Spanish invasion in the mid-sixteenth century. The Jemez people of New Mexico, for example, didn’t start abandoning their villages until after 1620. It was around this time that Spanish colonization took hold. Catholic missions began crowding the Pueblo people together, removing them from their lands and taking away their livelihoods, providing the critical conditions for the spread of disease. By 1680, the Pueblo of Jemez had lost an estimated 87 percent of their population: most to war, famine, and disease. This was no doubt a key inspiration of the Pueblo Revolt of the same year, which led to the successful expulsion of the Spanish.

A similar situation unfolded along the Upper Missouri River, where I was born and raised. When Lewis and Clark led a military expedition upriver, Missouri River Indigenous nations had already experienced several rounds of smallpox epidemics as a result of increased contact with British and French trappers. But none were as apocalyptic as the smallpox epidemic of 1837, by which time the United States dominated the river trade. U.S. trading led to the utter annihilation of furbearing animals through over-hunting, the ecological destruction of the river, and its increased militarization (the U.S. presence heightened conflict between Indigenous nations engaged in trading). Under these adverse conditions, the Mandans were nearly wiped out by smallpox. From 1780 to 1870, Indigenous river nations experienced an 80 percent population decline, with some experiencing rates higher than 90 percent, mostly due to disease.

The forced diet proved to be one of the deadliest diseases imposed by colonizers. Diabetes was almost non-existent among the Missouri River tribes, even during the reservation period. But after the Pick-Sloan plan dammed the Upper Missouri River with a series of five earthen-rolled dams in the mid-twentieth century for hydroelectricity and irrigation, 75 percent of wildlife and native plants on the area’s reservations disappeared, and hundreds of thousands of acres of Indigenous farms were destroyed. In total, 550 square miles of Native land were affected across nine different Indigenous reservations: Santee, Yankton, Crow Creek, Lower Brule, Cheyenne River, Standing Rock, Fort Berthold, and Fort Peck. What was once a subsistence economy based on wild harvesting and small-scale agriculture was transformed almost overnight into dependency on USDA commodities. White flour, milk, white sugar, and canned foods replaced formerly protein- and nutrient-rich diets. Diabetes rates skyrocketed, and its spread can be contact-traced to a single public works project.

Who CARES?

Fast forward half a century, and the situation remains eerily similar. On May 17, Trump’s health secretary Alex Azar told CNN that the high coronavirus death rate in the United States had less to do with government inaction than it did with certain people being unhealthier than others. “Unfortunately, the American population is very diverse,” Azar explained, noting that, “in particular,” Black people and “minority communities” have “significant underlying . . . health disparities and disease comorbidities.”

His statement was only a small part of the immense deceit and distortion surrounding the U.S. government’s shameful response to coronavirus, which has already claimed over one hundred thousand lives. The government has once again made clear that the lives of the poor—especially the Black and Indigenous poor—are less sacred than private property. White America has only driven this point home. 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.

For the Navajo people, the real pandemic is—and has always been—resource colonization.

Native nations have been hit the hardest by the virus. The Navajo Nation, whose lands helped make the United States the world’s largest oil producer, now faces some of the worst rates of infection and death—not only compared to other states, but to entire countries. About 30 percent of its reservation population lives without running water, and about 10 percent without electricity, while coal from its lands fuels power plants, and the water from its rivers soaks golf courses in Phoenix. The United States created the first nuclear bomb on a sacred Tewa mesa with uranium mined from Navajo lands, poisoning generations. For the Navajo people, the real pandemic is—and has always been—resource colonization.

What “help” the government has provided Indigenous people so far has been unsatisfactory, if not downright harmful. On paper, it seems that the Department of Interior, which is charged with gifting U.S. freedom and democracy to the Indigenous (curiously, it also manages wildlife and natural resources), is currently in the process of allocating the $8 billion of CARES Act money reserved for tribal coronavirus relief. But a closer look at the department’s response reveals something more akin to a land-grab, graft, and slow-motion Indian massacre.

On May 20, five tribal organizations signed a letter to David Bernhardt, the secretary of the interior (and a former oil lobbyist), calling for the resignation of assistant secretary of Indian affairs Tara Sweeney, an Inupiaq Alaskan Native (also a former oil lobbyist) for what she had set into motion during the pandemic. In late February, as coronavirus swept through the country, a federal court denied the Mashpee Wampanoag the right to restore their homeland in Massachusetts, a process set into motion by Sweeney in 2018 that was overturned by a federal judge in June. Her office also failed to protect the Tohono O’odham Nation’s burial and sacred sites from being destroyed with explosives to build Trump’s border wall, the construction of which continued unabated as large sectors of the economy were shut down. Meanwhile, the Interior Department allowed for-profit Alaskan Native corporations, many of which have investments in the oil and gas industry, to seek payouts from the Covid-19 relief money reserved for tribal governments. It is still unclear how this determination was made. While pandering to for-profit Alaskan Native corporations, Sweeney’s office restricted Alaskan Natives from restoring their homelands through a fee-to-trust process.

The pandemic has also thrown into relief the way that mass incarceration affects Indigenous communities. According to a report compiled by the Lakota People’s Law Project, American Indian men are incarcerated at four times the rate of white men, and American Indian women are incarcerated at six times the rate of white women. Police kill American Indians and African Americans at the highest rates. On April 28, three weeks after giving birth while in custody, Andrea Circle Bear, a thirty-year-old citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, became the first woman to die of coronavirus in federal prison. She was five months pregnant when sentenced to twenty-six months for a minor drug charge. Prison officials said the new mother had “a pre-existing medical condition,” making her more susceptible to severe symptoms, such as shortness of breath. It’s not clear what that condition was, but her pregnancy was also noted as a risk factor. In truth, the “pre-existing condition” that removed Andrea Circle Bear from the “island of safety” her nation had created with health checkpoints, that exposed her to her a deadly virus, wasn’t just inequality. (Five years earlier, on July 6, Andrea’s twenty-four-year-old sister-in-law Sarah Lee Circle Bear, a mother of two whose family claimed she was pregnant at the time, died in jail after being picked up for a bond violation following a traffic accident.)

Last month was the three-year anniversary of the killing of Zachary Bearheels, a twenty-nine-year-old citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe. After suffering a mental breakdown and being kicked off a bus in Omaha while on his way back to Oklahoma City, police were filmed tasing Bearheels twelve times and punching him thirteen times in the head. “I can’t fucking breathe,” he told officers as he sat in the back of the cruiser. A coroner later found his cause of death to be “excited delirium,” a condition that supposedly leads to aggressiveness, incoherence, and “superhuman strength,” often after taking cocaine or methamphetamines. (Bearheels, however, had no drugs or alcohol in his system at the time of his death.) This diagnosis is controversial; it is frequently cited when people die in police custody. Three of the officers involved in Bearheels’s death were reinstated in April.

As it happens, the Minneapolis police officers who murdered George Floyd this Memorial Day also had “excited delirium” on their minds. As Floyd laid face down on the pavement with Derek Chauvin’s knee on his neck, one officer asked if they should turn their victim over onto his side. “I am worried about excited delirium or whatever,” he told Chauvin, according to a court statement. “That’s why we have him on his stomach,” Chauvin responded. “I can’t breathe,” Floyd told the police. “No physical findings support a diagnosis of traumatic asphyxia or strangulation,” a preliminary medical examiner’s report later claimed; it was “underlying health conditions” such as heart disease that got him.

The Humane Condition

The United States has a long history of sacrificing or killing off groups of people—through war or disease or both—in the name of its self-proclaimed destiny. This belief in the country’s violent superiority was already evident among the early Puritans, who attributed the mass die-off of Indigenous peoples to divine intervention. “God hath so pursued them” John Winthrop, the Puritan leader of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, wrote of the Indigenous to the King of England in 1634. “The greatest part of them are swept away by smallpox . . . God hath thereby cleared our title to this place.” Winthrop and his fellow colonists later consummated their possession by mixing blood and soil in the Pequot War of 1637, which set the stage for subsequent Indian campaigns that concluded in the total or near-total extermination of their enemies.

To blind themselves to the destruction they wrought, colonizers wove cultural fictions about the “vastness” of a continent devoid of human civilization—terra nullius—and thus open for white European settlement. (This was an early ideological ancestor of the Zionist phrase, “a land without a people for a people without a land,” that has come to justify the expulsion and colonization of Palestinians.) General Henry Knox, the revolutionary war hero and the United States’ first secretary of war, was less confused about how the land was emptied. He recalled “the utter extirpation of all the Indians in the most populous parts of the Union” by measures “more destructive to the Indian natives than the conduct of the conquerors of Mexico and Peru.” No small feat.

Most historians have failed to draw what are obvious connections between heightened rates of infection and conditions of war, invasion, and colonialism.

The imperial project wasn’t confined to what became the continental United States. It soon turned outward, as the settler state exported the horrors it had committed against the Indigenous to the rest of the planet. 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. It shouldn’t surprise us to learn that one in four surgical amputations conducted at Red Cross centers in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen are the result of diabetes. These three countries have been the staging ground for U.S.-backed military interventions and invasions that have disrupted critical food and medical supply chains.

Economic sanctions, frequently hailed by politicians of all stripes as a “humane” alternative to war, are simply war by another means. U.S. sanctions currently hit hard in thirty-nine countries—one-third of humanity—causing currency inflation and devaluation and upsetting the distribution of medicine, food, power, water treatment, and other human needs. A 2019 report by the Center for Economic and Policy Studies found that U.S. sanctions on Venezuela accounted for an estimated forty thousand deaths and a loss of $6 billion in oil revenue between 2017 and 2018. As Iran began to experience increased rates of coronavirus infection, the country faced medical supply shortages because of sanctions. While countries like China and Cuba, themselves both sanctioned by the United States, provided international aid to other countries suffering from the pandemic, Trump actively prevented other countries from adequately responding to the crisis. To top things off, this May, he withdrew from the WHO in protest, shifting the blame to China for his own country’s failure to stop the virus’s spread.

The Tribe They Cannot See

“The United States operates on incredibly stupid premises,” the Standing Rock intellectual Vine Deloria Jr. wrote half a century ago in Custer Died for Your Sins. “It always fails to understand the nature of the world and so does not develop policies that can hold the allegiance of people.” Put simply, the United States only knows violence. It convinces through force. It is numb to suffering and indifferent to the welfare of people.

When confronted with science and hard facts that deny its mythology, the United States chooses hallucination. It sees Indigenous genocide unfold before its very eyes and blames “pre-existing conditions.” It sees police murdering and torturing Black people every day and describes that as law and order. It sees global warming coming and does nothing. (In fact, it speeds it up, renaming fossil fuels “freedom molecules” and natural gas “freedom gas,” emitted to liberate the atmosphere.) It sees a pandemic approaching months in advance and chooses not to act.

Perhaps the starkest illustration of the intoxicating power of Manifest Destiny is America’s latest flirtation with space. In February 2019, President Trump issued an executive order to begin the process of creating the sixth branch of the military, the Space Force, “to organize, train, and equip military space forces . . . to ensure unfettered access to, and freedom to operate in, space.” (By December it was formally established.) “America has always been a frontier nation,” he remarked in his most recent State of the Union address. “Now we must embrace the next frontier, America’s manifest destiny in the stars.” Two months later, amid the chaos of the surging pandemic, the president signed an executive order granting the United States the preemptive right—the first monopoly of claims—to start mining the moon and asteroids. And as more than thirty U.S. cities erupted in open rebellion over racist police terror, Trump and Vice President Mike Pence went to Florida to watch Elon Musk’s SpaceX launch an astronaut. Trump has elevated U.S. belligerence to the cosmos.

When confronted with science and hard facts that deny its mythology, the United States chooses hallucination.

If he trained his eyes back on earth, he would realize that after living through two economic recessions, endless war, and cascading ecological destruction, Americans still act like antibodies to the virus called capitalism. 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.”

Yes, this world has been here all along, but as the late Dakota poet John Trudell once said, “We are the tribe they cannot see.” His message was clear: colonialism is not only a contest over territory, but over the meaning of life itself. The sonic vibrations of the words “Indian” or “Native American”—make-believe vocabularies—never penetrated the airwaves of the lands now called America until European invasion. “We have been called many names,” Trudell remarked, listing other labels—hostile, Pagan, militant—that have become synonymous with Indigenous in the grammar of colonialism. “The callers of names cannot see us but we can see them,” he says. “We are the Halluci Nation.”

Nick Estes is a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe. He is an assistant professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico and is the author of Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance.

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