Opinion Columns & Blogs

Diseases ravaged tribes, and they take a toll today

Inspiration for this column comes from a phrase on a button that commemorated the 200th anniversary of Lewis and Clark's journey: "200 years to the future." What have we learned about the journey's effect on the Northwest?

From their expedition, Lewis and Clark took back east stories and maps of the Northwest. The maps and stories led many people to come west to find a future and maybe their fortune.

These traders and settlers brought diseases that were more lethal than weapons of mass destruction to the Native Americans. The death rate for Indians was estimated at 97 percent by Hudson's Bay Company Factor John McGlaughlin for the "intermittent fever" (malaria?) of the early 1830s. This was only one of what must seemed like an endless tide of terrible diseases that went on and on for more than 50 years.

The effect of these diseases on the Indians was best explained by an Indian agent's frustration in negotiating with a chief. The Indian agent was explaining how there would be an initial delivery of goods and there would be regular shipments to follow. The chief said he would not need any future shipments, because he would probably be dead by then.

My own Cowlitz Tribe went from a pre-contact population estimates as high as 30,000 to under 500 at the time treaties were signed in the 1850s.

Were Lewis and Clark solely responsible for this carnage?

I don't believe so. By the time of their expedition, Spanish, Russians and British explorers had been here. The Chinese were also early visitors and the Northwest was certainly well known before the Lewis and Clark expedition. Their reports and maps did accelerate American interest in the Northwest.

There were a few who took credit for a plague. An American sea captain boasted of releasing a plague and Englishman Duncan McDougal threatened to loose a contagion. Whether there was an intentional epidemic is uncertain, but there was certainly one epidemic after another.

Were all Europeans at fault? Of course not. Dr. William Tolmie developed a quinine substitute to treat intermittent fever and others gave local Indians quinine to treat their disease. That helped my ancestors survived that epidemic.

What were the human costs in these epidemics?

Many tribes lost their languages, because there was no one left to speak a specific dialect. Many Northwest Indians had the unique capability to speak five or six different languages. We married our neighbors, and so children would grow up in a household with at least two languages.

Our world was all about alliances for travel, trade and the harvest of food. Indians needed many languages to meet people.

Another victim of the epidemics was family connections.

There were times when settlers would wander into an Indian village and find everyone dead. On occasion a child would be found alone among the dead and rescued. Of course that child would not know his/her parents.

The continuing toll of these epidemics is still felt today. Tribes struggle to recover lost languages. Family trees still have gaps that might never be filled. Tribal histories have knowledge gaps that leave many questions unanswered. These losses deprive us of our sense of who we are.

Mike Iyall, an Olympia resident, is vice chair of the tribal council and director of Natural Resources Department of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe. He can be reached at mikenjoan@comcast.net.