The 1918 flu hit Native American tribes hard, just as coronavirus has done

The letter from the school was dated Oct. 29, 1918. It read:

During the scourge of Spanish Influenza from which your daughter Cecilia died I was so extremely busy that it was impossible for me to tell you the particulars in connection with the death of Cecilia.

This plague attacked this school on the 15th of October. It was brought here at first by new students coming in and it spread rapidly until we had about 250 cases. The entire school stopped its regular activities and devoted itself absolutely to the care and nursing of the sick. Out of the 250 cases we lost a comparatively few. Among the number was your daughter.

Cecilia was one of thousands of American Indians who died of the 1918 flu, which swept the world and killed upward of 50 million people. Like the coronavirus, which has devastated Native American reservations and people, the 1918 pandemic was deadly. But no one is sure how deadly.

One National Institutes of Health study said at least 3,200 American Indians died of the 1918 flu. Another count puts it at more than 6,600. And one Navajo scholar said just her tribe alone lost roughly 3,400 tribal members — about 12 percent of its population at that time.

Alaska tribal villages were hit especially hard.

At the Inupiat village of the Brevig Mission, 72 of 80 residents died, according to NIH. One schoolteacher went to 10 remote Alaskan Native villages and wrote of how he found “three wiped out entirely; others average 85 percent deaths. … Total number of deaths reported 750, probably 25 percent this number frozen to death before help arrived.”

The teacher’s post, went on, “Over 300 children to be cared for, majority of whom are orphans.”

“Virtually all of the factors that made Native Americans extremely vulnerable to the Spanish flu are still in place today,” said Benjamin R. Brady, a public health professor at the University of Arizona who has studied the 1918 flu’s impact on American Indian communities. He cited poor housing, underlying health issues and lack of access to doctors and hospitals.

Even before the 1918 flu, American Indians had already suffered near decimation from the collapse of the buffalo in the West and widespread outbreaks of smallpox, yellow fever, tuberculosis and trachoma — a highly contagious eye infection that leads to blindness — plus horrific wars and being forcibly removed from their homelands.

The population of American Indians in the United States had already plunged from 10 million to about 320,000 in 1918, according to Mikaëla Adams, an associate professor of history at the University of Mississippi in Oxford who specializes in Native American research.

“They were in a period of crisis and then you’ve got a pandemic happening on top of it,” said Brenda Child, an Ojibwe from the Red Lake reservation in northern Minnesota who has studied the impact of the 1918 flu on her tribe.

The flu spared almost no tribe, spreading from the Pacific Northwest to the Southwest, Midwest and Southeast.

One report from a federal commission on Indian affairs estimated that roughly 39,200 Native Americans were infected with the flu in an eight-month period from the fall of 1918 to the summer of 1919.

Men joining the military sometimes brought it back to their reservations. American Indians working on building railroads in the Southwest got sick. Ships and mail carriers brought the flu to very remote Alaskan villages.

Sometimes, a tribe’s “medicine man” tending to the sick on a reservation spread the disease. And kids attending underfunded and overcrowded boarding schools caught the flu.

At the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kan., one of the largest federal Indian boarding schools in the country, more than a third of the student body was hospitalized at one point in 1918 and 17 students died.

The Potawatomi brothers ran away from Haskell during the outbreak. Their father, Jesse Wapp, wrote to Haskell’s school officials and reported that one of the boys died of pneumonia. His father wrote, “I ain’t gone send Leo until he is well and the disease is over.

“I lost one boy and I hate to loose another.”

At the Chemawa Indian School, where Cecilia went, Daisy Codding — a head nurse there — recorded 150 cases and 13 deaths.

The letter to Cecilia’s mother told of the conditions at the Chemawa school:

Absolutely everything possible was done in the way of medical care and nursing. The sick was never left alone for one minute, someone was administering to their needs and looking after them and I want you to feel that in this sickness that your daughter has had as good attention as she possibly could have had in any hospital or home.

I have spared neither expense nor time nor trouble. Although I feel that we have done just as well as could be done. This disease which has taken thousands upon thousands throughout the country was no worse here than elsewhere. It was not due to Chemawa or its location. It was a general disease everywhere.

There were grim tales of loss and illness on many reservations.

Charles Dog with Horns, who was a Lakota and went to Rapid City Indian School, recalled in a 1971 oral history how he skipped going to school in 1918 because so many in his family were “in bed,” sick with the flu.

At one point, two boys from his tribe were “so bad” with fever and headache and “just about to die” that he went 15 miles from their home to a post office to call a village doctor. The doctor, he recalled, came “over in the sled” across a river and gave them medicine. He wasn’t sure what it was, but they lived.

In the Southwest, the Navajo reservation was hit particularly hard, much like it has been with the coronavirus pandemic.

“Small children and old people were the first victims,” one trader with the Navajo wrote, “but the flu played no favorites and soon the death rate was just as high among the strong men and women.”

In his book “White Man’s Medicine,” Robert Trennert described the conditions at Pueblo Bonito on the Navajo reservation, where “corpses were left where they lay and the unopened Shiprock hospital became a morgue.”

Tall Woman, a Navajo who caught the flu but survived, recalled how her father helped care for others in the tribe, gathering plants and making medicines to be taken. He “butchered horses during the epidemic so the meat could be boiled and used as broth; the fat was mixed in a healing paste,” according to a paper written by Brady.

Tall Woman’s father told her how “this kind of sickness, this epidemic, had nothing to do with any of our ceremonies, not even the small ones.” The best thing people could do, her father said, was to pray.

Navajo leaders said that 100 years ago, the tribe didn’t have enough resources to deal with such a widespread pandemic. But it has worked hard to try to get a handle on the high number of coronavirus cases that hit in early spring at the reservation, which spans three states. In the past week, the tribe has reported some days with no deaths.

“This is a monster that has plagued our people,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said of the coronavirus. “There have been monsters that have come to the Navajo Nation. This is one of those modern day monsters we’re fighting against. We do have the weapons to combat those and armor to help us get through this.

“That’s the mind-set we have here on Navajo,” Nez said. “We’re overcomers. We’re resilient.”

In 1918, at the Chemawa Indian School where Cecilia had contracted the flu and died, the letter ended this way, telling her grieving mother of how the school had recovered from the flu’s outbreak.

Now that the plague is over we have resumed our regular school work. All the students we have now are well and strong and getting along all right.

Trusting that Cecilia’s body reached you in good shape and sympathizing with you, I am.

Harwood Hall – superintendent

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