Category Archives: Coronavirus

Epidemic, Onondaga, 1918.

How did the “Spanish Flu” epidemic that hit the United States in 1918 affect the Onondaga Nation? I cannot tell for sure, but going through the census records kept by the Interior Department and the State of New York has given me some ideas.

We know that the epidemic did great damage in Native American communities. One scholar estimated that more than 6200 Native peoples died from influenza in 1918, 2% of the total Native American population. The Seneca Jesse Cornplanter returned home from his service overseas during the first World War to learn that his parents, sister, brother-in-law, and two children had died. Joaqlin Estus’s piece in Indian Country Today from last February highlights some of the massive desolation, with a particular focus on Alaska Native communities. Estus mentions Harold Napoleon’s Yuuyaraq, one of the most powerful and important indigenous assessments of what the epidemic meant. I have assigned it to my students, and I encourage you to consider it as well.

In 1918 418 Onondagas lived on the Nation Territory located a bit to the south of Syracuse, New York. Another 128 Oneidas lived on the reservation. Between July 1, 1918 and June 30, 1919, nine Onondagas and seven Oneidas died. Some, like Mary Jones, were elderly, and some were very young, like Eliza Homer’s baby boy. Two had attended Carlisle. Jerry Homer I have written about on this blog in the past when I knew less about him. Eva Waterman was a popular rebel at the Boarding School, expelled for her behavior. She was a talented student, but O. H. Lipps, the school’s superintendent, wrote to Eva’s mother in 1913 to tell her that “because of continued misconduct your daughter Eva Waterman, will be returned to you tomorrow. Her influence for the bad,” Lipps continued, “is so great that I deem it advisable to separate her from the rest of our girls.” He said he was sorry that he had to do this. She was, according to one report of her outing, “impudent at times.” She had a smart mouth, and she made the other students laugh. She had influence. In a letter from “Behind the Bars” to “Dearest,” undated, Eva wrote from one of her outings to a friend back at Carlisle. She missed her friend, and she missed the school. She said that it was good to receive a loving letter from her because “the only kind I hear is these coarse, hoggish, indigestible commands.” A Carlisle investigator, looking into Eva’s complaints about one of her outing situations, found that she spent her time lying around in the hammock, playing croquet, and reading. She was impudent. She had little interest in farm work and she ran away. To me, she sounds like a teenager, a kid, who refused to take the adults around her seriously. But she needed to be broken. One of the matrons at Carlisle suggested that for Eva “all privileges might be taken away and work all day in the laundry might be required for a certain length of time and if possible she should be prevented from communicating with the girls and making herself a heroine instead of a failure.” It did not work and she was sent home. She spent some time living in Syracuse, and at other times she lived on the Nation Territory. She was still a young woman when she died.

The census records do not tell us the causes of death for these individuals. It is worthy of note that during this twelve-month period which contained the peaks of the influenza epidemic fewer people died than during the previous year. From July of 1917 until June 30 1918, twelve Onondagas and 9 Oneidas died. From July of 1916 to the end of June in 1917 thirteen Onondagas and three Oneidas died.

The evidence suggests that a fourth wave of the Spanish Flu hit New York City and other locations around the country early in 1920. And between July 1 1919 and June 30 1920, nineteen Onondagas and four Oneidas died. Some of the relatively large number of Onondagas who died had lived long lives. Joshua Pierce was in his mid-90s. Mary BigBear and Abner Printup both had been born in 1836. Others were struck down in middle age. Nine of the Onondagas who died were under thirty years old. Lavina Hill and Lena Jacobs both were around five years old. David George and the “Baby Isaacs” were just one. Bernice Jacobs, George Archie Logan, and Florence Tallchief all were teenagers.

Other diseases, or accidents, could have killed people. Life could be fragile in the early twentieth century. Death could strike suddenly. Tuberculosis was a steady enemy of Indigenous peoples’ health. There is much we cannot know, but the leap in the number of Onondaga deaths between 1918-19 and 1919-20 is striking. Nearly twenty people dying in a community of a bit more than 400 would have been felt acutely, especially with the deaths of so many young people who should have had so many more years to live. These deaths, however, did not draw the attention of local journalist or the legions of judgmental observers who criticized the Onondagas for their backwardness and continued embrace of “paganism.” And they would have gone unnoticed by me had I not devoted the past month to reading through these figures. This is the sort of work we must do, even if it is only a start. Each death, in a community where there were no strangers, would have been a blow, with waves of grief that must have swept throughout the small community from the very young to the very old.

What’s it like to live in a community in which every single person in it feels the same grief at the same time? I have thought about this question a lot as I looked through these records. I have thought about it as well when I read the Jesuits’ 17th century descriptions of the epidemics that swept through Iroquoia, cutting jagged holes in the fabric of everyday life. Whether Spanish Flu, consumption, suicide or accident, or in our own time killer cops, the coronavirus, or colon cancer, these historical moments may lead some of us towards greater empathy. It is a difficult journey, and one we need to make.

A Lot of People Writing About Higher Education Know Nothing About Higher Education

Like many professors, I have learned a lot this past Pandemic Spring teaching at my small, under-funded, public liberal arts college in Western New York State.  Most of all, I have learned much about the strength and resilience of my battered students.  I have been amazed by their ability to complete their work in the face of significant disruptions in their lives and, in a few cases, horrifying stories of personal tragedy and grief.  I have had students email me their papers from their cars, sitting outside a McDonald’s with its free wi-fi.

            I have also learned that so many “thought leaders” and “change agents” writing about the future of higher education seem to have very little sense of what it is that we college professors do in the classroom. Many of them seem to write from the Ivy League.  They appear to have no familiarity with the sorts of colleges and universities most American college students attend.

            Whether we are talking about Purdue President Mitch Daniels’ suggestion that professors wall themselves off from their classes with a prophylactic plexiglass shield, or others’ suggestions that our Zoom lectures can be packaged, marketed, and reused to create economies of scale in academia, the fact of the matter is that few of us lecture any longer.  The “sage on the stage” model is old and less effective than other methods in reaching today’s students.  This is not a lament about “kids these days.”  It is, rather, exciting, a development that brings a vibrancy to the classroom that makes the learning experience more rewarding and impactful for all.

Mitch Daniels has proposed placing professors behind plastic, plexiglass shields.

            We are neither talking heads nor orators bound to a lectern. Our classes are not one-way streets, with faculty speaking and students listening. We move around the room. Our students do, too.  In my history and humanities courses, I try to talk with, rather than at, students.  True, some instructors lecture very effectively and engagingly with their students, but too often this mode of instruction renders students passive.  They absorb “course content” which is often supplemented by massive, expensive textbooks (True Story: No college professor reads a textbook for enjoyment or out of interest, yet too many of us expect our students to do so). Students in these courses take notes, periodically regurgitate what they think is important, but otherwise play little active role in their own education. It is rote and it is terribly dull, but a lot of people think it is what we do.

            It is not.  College classrooms look much different today than they did when I was an undergraduate student in the 1980s.

            We know it is better to have students learn by doing.  Students in the liberal arts and humanities learn by asking questions, and by listening, conversing, and engaging in discussion and debate.  They collect evidence, read critically, and analyze.  We work hard to create critical thinkers and writers. In my classes, we discuss the sources to assess their strengths and weaknesses, their biases and prejudices, and to see what sorts of information this source might yield. We urge students to consider their own preconceptions that might color how they interpret the past.  And together we engage in urgent Socratic dialogue which exposes the weaknesses in our reasoning and forces us to confront long-held assumptions.  Or job is to help students learn, and that is something so much more than merely distributing to them over video selected course content.

            The content of our courses, after all, can change dramatically over time. History is not a static collection of names, dates, and places.  Rather, it is the study of continuity and change, measured across time and space, in peoples, institutions and cultures.  History is not a science, but it is a discipline, as we set out to answer the questions that present themselves to us in a deliberate, systematic, and rigorous manner.  The questions we seek to answer can change with the world around us.  Not only does new scholarship force us to rethink old assumptions, but the world itself insistently raises questions about the way things are and the way things ought to be. 

            There are of course many different ways to teach effectively. Different academic disciplines lend themselves better to some teaching methodologies than to others. But we must dispense with the outdated notion that college professors provide rote course content by lecturing in ways that can be packaged and replicated semester after semester.  So much student learning takes place in libraries and in the archives, in faculty offices and in the hallways outside the room before and after class.  Students learn through internships and through working closely with faculty mentors on research projects.

            There has been so much loss over the course of the past three months.  The inconvenience and financial blows colleges and universities are experiencing may pale in comparison to the needless suffering of so many families across the country.  If, however, higher education is deemed in need of reform, I would urge these advocates to reflect upon the best learning experiences they had themselves in college.  It likely was not something that took place as they sat in a massive lecture hall, or watched a video, or labored through a chunky textbook.  To help higher education, let’s look towards adequately funding public colleges and universities, reversing the long-standing trend towards a highly continent teaching faculty. It is a smart, long-term, investment.  Let’s equip faculty to provide students with the resources to provide students with the high-impact learning experiences that can awaken in them a new sense of the possible and that can change their lives.   

COVID-19 in Native American Communities–Daily Digest for 27 April 2020

We are in our seventh week of shut-down, I think. It feels like we have been indoors for a long time. On a walk in a state park Saturday on a beautiful spring day, I saw too many hikers choosing not to keep their distance from others, choosing not to wear masks. It may be a burden, but please, help flatten the curve and stop the spread of Coronavirus. There are so many stories of grief and mourning. Let’s not add to them.

To get a sense of the human cost of this epidemic on the Navajo Nation, I encourage you to follow Arlyssa Becenti, a journalist working this story. She is posting on her Twitter feed GoFundMe calls for funeral expenses for Indigenous peoples felled by the pandemic. Yesterday Becenti reported in the Navajo Times that “the total number of positive COVID-19 cases for the Navajo Nation has reached 1716,” and the “total deaths remain at 59.” She is a fantastic reporter who you need to follow if you want to understand this story. An essay by Heather Covich in the New England Journal of Medicine is also useful for giving some perspective on this devastating crisis. Meanwhile, Face shields manufactured in Massachusetts are being carried by private plane to the Navajo Nation, to help address the desperate need for personal protective equipment. Calls for donations and assistance are being answered from many sectors, but more help is needed still.

Much of the media attention has focused on Navajo Nation, but other Native American communities are suffering from the pandemic, and in these states, many have complaints about how their governors are choosing to address the crisis. I wrote about affairs in Nebraska last week. In South Dakota, Julian Bear Runner, President of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, called upon the state’s governor Kristi Noem to take more decisive action. “It makes no sense to put people at risk because you feel most people have common sense. That is an oversimplification of this disease.” Bear Runner pointed out that “things could not be more urgent for South Dakota’s tribal nations.” Case Iron Eye, from the Lakota People’s Law Project, has written in an email campaign that Governor Noem’s “refusal to act is governmental negligence,” and that “for our communities, the elderly, and the immunocompromised,” the Governor is costing lives. “We need as many people as possible, right now,” Iron Eye wrote, “to help us wake her up.”

In Canada, the Gull Bay First Nation will open a COVID19 facility to help the community contend with the outbreak. In Australia the national government is planning to roll out remote testing for COVID-19 for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in remote areas. The 83 testing sites should be operating by the middle of next month.

There is a great deal of news on when and how to reopen and restore the American economy. On the ongoing saga of the $8 billion in funding designated for Native American communities recently by Congress, a federal judge is expected to issue a decision in the case today. In other news related to the economic fallout from the coronavirus-induced shutdown, the Small Business Administration “on Friday confirmed that small Indian gaming operations qualify for loans through the Paycheck Protection Program.” The announcement resulted from bipartisan pressure on the Trump Administration to clarify program guidelines. As for reopening, the Governor of Acoma Pueblo, Brian Vallo, urged the governor of New Mexico to take any measures necessary to prevent small businesses in Grants, New Mexico, from reopening. The town’s mayor. “Modey” Hicks, “has encouraged small businesses to reopen next week and has implored fellow mayors to do the same.” He is doing so in the face of opposition from the governor and the Pueblos.

Of course this is a global pandemic, affecting indigenous peoples around the globe. According to a story carried by Reuters, “Indigenous tribes in Peru’s Amazon say the government has left them to fend for themselves against the coronavirus, risking ‘ethnocide by inaction,’ according to a letter from natives to the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.” The Saturday Paper carried a story by Amy McQuire showing how, “despite being chronically underfunded, the Aboriginal community-controlled health sector has reacted swiftly and effectively to the Covid-19 outbreak, underscoring the importance of their services.”

Stay safe, everyone. And please feel free to share this information with your friends and colleagues.