What’s new about the “novel” coronavirus? In the United States, alas, not much. At most, COVID-19 puts a new chapter into the nation’s oldest story: the intersection of racial prejudice and epidemic disease. That deadly intersection is in fact the foundation of the United States, where Indigenous peoples are still widely assumed to have been “naturally” removed or diminished.
After Europeans invaded the Americas, Indigenous populations shrank, often dramatically. From the 1500s onward, starting with smallpox outbreaks in the Caribbean, Native people were described as dying from contagious disease at rates now estimated at between 30 and 90 percent. (Europe’s worst epidemic, the Black Death, had at most a 50-60 percent mortality rate.) From a pre-contact population of perhaps 5 million or more, the number of Indians within the continental United States and its colonial antecedents fell to around 240,000 by 1880–1900. Explanations of the phenomenon were equally virulent. In what would become the United States, colonists interpreted Indigenous mortality in racist terms, assuming an innate difference between white and Indian bodies. Settlers described Indians as unable to thrive in their ostensibly native land; they fashioned an “extinction narrative” in which Indians were destined to be replaced by themselves. Twentieth-century analyses shifted the emphasis slightly, suggesting that Native deaths resulted from “virgin soil epidemics,” which could happen to any population without previous experience of certain contagions—tragic, but biologically inevitable.
Scholars in Native American and Indigenous Studies have refused to interpret Indigenous history as fundamentally defined by epidemics. In 1999, Gerald Vizenor (Minnesota Chippewa, White Earth Reservation) repurposed the legal concept of survivance to reject entirely the extinction narrative. NAIS also questions how Native bodies have been presented as metrics for supposedly scientific descriptions of disease. Kim TallBear (Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate), warns against analyses that take the white European body as the entity against which other human experiences acquire meaning. And historians of medicine (including myself) have denied that the American epidemics were “natural” disasters in which Indigenous bodies and European bodies can be compared to understand rates of infection and mortality objectively. New world epidemics were embedded in warfare, enslavement, exploitation, competition for resources, and violent displacement. Indigenous mortality is not a scientific measure of what happens when bodies are exposed to smallpox or measles. It’s about people who had to fight for life in multiple ways, and unjustly. We are only beginning to acknowledge, in our own pandemic, that current social injustices—many of them the results of what began in the 1500s—are critical to rates of infection and death. As of May 18th, the Navajo Nation surpassed New York State in rates of coronavirus infection. And yet these and other Indigenous medical statistics are not included with those of the United States—they are classified as “other.” We need definitions of contagion and mortality that no longer participate in the prejudiced terms of analysis we’ve inherited from the past.