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Racism in the History of Medicine and the Pandemic: Native Edition

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Nurse Harriet Curley takes the pulse of a Navajo patient waiting in the dispensary of the Sage Memorial Hospital, an ultra-modern institution at the Ganado Mission, Arizona, a Presbyterian enterprise deep in the Navajo Indian reservation, Dec. 14, 1949. (AP Photo)

Once again, a long, long, long history of racism in science, technology, and medicine has real-life implications in dealing with the COVID pandemic. The tribes have had horrifying levels of COVID deaths. But the memory of the connections between smallpox vaccination and clearing Native people off the land as part of the genocidal project that is the centerpiece of American history is very real. And it matters today.

In 1832, Congress passed legislation — the Indian Vaccination Act — that allowed the federal government to use about $17,000 to hire doctors to vaccinate Native Americans who were living near White frontier settlements. Many White settlers feared that Indians would spread the disease to them.

The act was intended to vaccinate Indians against smallpoxbut for entirely mercenary reasons, according to Regis Pecos, a member of the Pueblo de Cochiti tribe in New Mexico.

“It wasn’t in the interest of Indian people,” said Pecos, who is also co-director of the Leadership Institute at the Santa Fe Indian School. “It was a way of vaccinating them to move them so White Americans could move them into Western lands.”

Fast forward to the 21st century, when the coronavirus pandemic has swept through the more than 500 federally recognized tribes in the United States and devastated some tribal communities. Native Americans have among the worst infection rates in the country — nearly three times higher than the overall U.S. population.

Tribes across the country are racing to get vaccine doses to their members and launching messaging campaigns to try to persuade Native Americans who may be reluctant to take them. The level of reluctance to take a vaccine stems from decades of mistrust between sovereign nations and the federal government, according to Native American medical experts, including over medical and scientific studies that were conducted in unethical ways.

“Historical trauma over these past wrongs is embedded in the DNA for some of our people,” said Dakotah Lane, a doctor and member of the Lummi Nation, recently told Indian Country Today.

“We need to remember that our communities have survived TB and smallpox, and a long history of lies and wrongdoing by the federal government,” said Lane, who is also the Lummi’s health director.

Again, when you have a racist society, the creation and implementation of science and technology is racist. These things are not somehow “pure” and above racism or society. They are part and parcel of the society that creates them from the questions that researchers ask all the way through where the waste from these products gets dumped. Moreover, in a racist nation such as the United States that combines a huge minority group brought into the nation for forced labor, another minority group that was the victim of genocide that was part and parcel of the entire nation’s reason for being, plus a third large minority group that has moved to the nation in recent decades, much of which lives on lands stolen from their nation in an unjust war to expand slavery, you are going to have overlapping problems that are not simple to solve. But they are real. And if they aren’t taken seriously, we aren’t going to get through this pandemic easily.

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