[News] The Empire of All Maladies

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Tue Jul 7 19:00:28 EDT 2020



 Nick Estes - July 2020 

One of the most potent myths of mainstream U.S. historiography concerns
what Indigenous archaeologist Michael V. Wilcox calls "terminal
narratives": an obsession with the death, disappearance, and absence of
Indigenous people rather than their continued, visible presence and
challenge to colonialism. The most obvious example of this tendency are
historical models that assign blame for the mass killing of the
Indigenous to invisible, chance forces--above all, the diseases
colonizers unwittingly carried with them--rather than to calculated
warfare and theft over centuries of relentless European invasion. 

Debates about the epidemiological vulnerability of Indigenous people
first came to prominence in the 1970s as historians backed away from
narratives of European cultural superiority in search of more scientific
explanations. This biological turn identified microbes as a primary
culprit in the mass death of the Indigenous, suggesting that the
depopulation of the Americas was an inevitable result of Native
communities' contact with diseases from the old world. In a 1976 essay,
the historian Alfred W. Crosby put forth the "virgin-soil epidemics"
thesis, which posited that Europeans brought diseases--in particular,
smallpox and measles--that wiped out 70 percent or more of Native people
in the Western Hemisphere because they lacked immunity. In what was
framed as the most extreme demographic disaster in human history, the
most affected regions experienced a 90 percent depopulation rate,
including deaths related to disease, which is estimated to have reduced
the population of the Americas from one hundred million to ten million. 

Indigenous scholars have long contested the "virgin-soil epidemics"
thesis--though few were paying attention to their rebuttals. 

Crosby's thesis soon gained wide traction in the academy. In his classic
1991 study _The Middle Ground_, the historian Richard White wrote that
Indigenous people, cut off from European pathogens, "had not been
selected over time for resistance to such diseases" and were therefore
"doomed to die." Indigenous people had "no opportunity to build up
immunological resistance," Colin Calloway similarly argued in his 1997
book _New Worlds for All_; they "were doomed to die in one of the
greatest biological catastrophes in human history." That same year,
Jared Diamond published his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, _Guns, Germs,
and Steel_, in which he endorsed the "virgin-soil epidemics" thesis,
thereby bringing it into the popular consciousness. 

Indigenous scholars have long contested this thesis--though few were
paying attention to their rebuttals. Disease as a result of colonial
policy and actions "was rarely called genocide until the rise of
Indigenous movements in the mid-twentieth century," writes historian
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz in _An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United
States_. For the Lenape historian Jack D. Forbes, it was not so much the
Indigenous who were suffering affliction, but the Europeans who had been
infected with what he called _wétiko_, the Algonquin word for a
mind-virus associated with cannibalism. The overriding characteristic of
_wétiko_, as he recounted in his 1979 book _Columbus and Other
Cannibals_, is that "he consumes other human beings" for profit. This
concept is nearly synonymous with the European psychosis of domination
and plunder. 

Today, it is clear that the disease thesis simply doesn't hold up. From
where I write, in what is now New Mexico, recent archaeological evidence
suggests that a population decline among the Pueblo nations of the
Southwest didn't occur until a century after Spanish invasion in the
mid-sixteenth century. The Jemez people of New Mexico, for example,
didn't start abandoning their villages until after 1620. It was around
this time that Spanish colonization took hold. Catholic missions began
crowding the Pueblo people together, removing them from their lands and
taking away their livelihoods, providing the critical conditions for the
spread of disease. By 1680, the Pueblo of Jemez had lost an estimated 87
percent of their population: most to war, famine, and disease. This was
no doubt a key inspiration of the Pueblo Revolt of the same year, which
led to the successful expulsion of the Spanish. 

A similar situation unfolded along the Upper Missouri River, where I was
born and raised. When Lewis and Clark led a military expedition upriver,
Missouri River Indigenous nations had already experienced several rounds
of smallpox epidemics as a result of increased contact with British and
French trappers. But none were as apocalyptic as the smallpox epidemic
of 1837, by which time the United States dominated the river trade. U.S.
trading led to the utter annihilation of furbearing animals through
over-hunting, the ecological destruction of the river, and its increased
militarization (the U.S. presence heightened conflict between Indigenous
nations engaged in trading). Under these adverse conditions, the Mandans
were nearly wiped out by smallpox. From 1780 to 1870, Indigenous river
nations experienced an 80 percent population decline, with some
experiencing rates higher than 90 percent, mostly due to disease. 

The forced diet proved to be one of the deadliest diseases imposed by
colonizers. Diabetes was almost non-existent among the Missouri River
tribes, even during the reservation period. But after the Pick-Sloan
plan dammed the Upper Missouri River with a series of five
earthen-rolled dams in the mid-twentieth century for hydroelectricity
and irrigation, 75 percent of wildlife and native plants on the area's
reservations disappeared, and hundreds of thousands of acres of
Indigenous farms were destroyed. In total, 550 square miles of Native
land were affected across nine different Indigenous reservations:
Santee, Yankton, Crow Creek, Lower Brule, Cheyenne River, Standing Rock,
Fort Berthold, and Fort Peck. What was once a subsistence economy based
on wild harvesting and small-scale agriculture was transformed almost
overnight into dependency on USDA commodities. White flour, milk, white
sugar, and canned foods replaced formerly protein- and nutrient-rich
diets. Diabetes rates skyrocketed, and its spread can be contact-traced
to a single public works project. 


Fast forward half a century, and the situation remains eerily similar.
On May 17, Trump's health secretary Alex Azar told CNN that the high
coronavirus death rate in the United States had less to do with
government inaction than it did with certain people being unhealthier
than others. "Unfortunately, the American population is very diverse,"
Azar explained, noting that, "in particular," Black people and "minority
communities" have "significant underlying . . . health disparities and
disease comorbidities." 

His statement was only a small part of the immense deceit and distortion
surrounding the U.S. government's shameful response to coronavirus,
which has already claimed over one hundred thousand lives. The
government has once again made clear that the lives of the
poor--especially the Black and Indigenous poor--are less sacred than
private property. White America has only driven this point home. Since
late April, after statistics revealed that the virus had a greater
impact on Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities, so-called
anti-lockdown protests surged. Men armed with assault rifles and donning
military-grade body armor stormed state capitol buildings, demanding
haircuts and the reopening of beaches and ice cream parlors. That is why
the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and the Oglala Sioux Tribe have set up
health checkpoints. "We will not apologize for being an island of safety
in a sea of uncertainty and death," Cheyenne River chairman Harold
Frazier wrote to the governor of South Dakota, one of five states to
issue no stay-at-home order in response to the pandemic. 

For the Navajo people, the real pandemic is--and has always
been--resource colonization. 

Native nations have been hit the hardest by the virus. The Navajo
Nation, whose lands helped make the United States the world's largest
oil producer, now faces some of the worst rates of infection and
death--not only compared to other states, but to entire countries. About
30 percent of its reservation population lives without running water,
and about 10 percent without electricity, while coal from its lands
fuels power plants, and the water from its rivers soaks golf courses in
Phoenix. The United States created the first nuclear bomb on a sacred
Tewa mesa with uranium mined from Navajo lands, poisoning generations.
For the Navajo people, the real pandemic is--and has always
been--resource colonization. 

What "help" the government has provided Indigenous people so far has
been unsatisfactory, if not downright harmful. On paper, it seems that
the Department of Interior, which is charged with gifting U.S. freedom
and democracy to the Indigenous (curiously, it also manages wildlife and
natural resources), is currently in the process of allocating the $8
billion of CARES Act money reserved for tribal coronavirus relief. But a
closer look at the department's response reveals something more akin to
a land-grab, graft, and slow-motion Indian massacre. 

On May 20, five tribal organizations signed a letter to David Bernhardt,
the secretary of the interior (and a former oil lobbyist), calling for
the resignation of assistant secretary of Indian affairs Tara Sweeney,
an Inupiaq Alaskan Native (also a former oil lobbyist) for what she had
set into motion during the pandemic. In late February, as coronavirus
swept through the country, a federal court denied the Mashpee Wampanoag
the right to restore their homeland in Massachusetts, a process set into
motion by Sweeney in 2018 that was overturned by a federal judge in
June. Her office also failed to protect the Tohono O'odham Nation's
burial and sacred sites from being destroyed with explosives to build
Trump's border wall, the construction of which continued unabated as
large sectors of the economy were shut down. Meanwhile, the Interior
Department allowed for-profit Alaskan Native corporations, many of which
have investments in the oil and gas industry, to seek payouts from the
Covid-19 relief money reserved for tribal governments. It is still
unclear how this determination was made. While pandering to for-profit
Alaskan Native corporations, Sweeney's office restricted Alaskan Natives
from restoring their homelands through a fee-to-trust process. 

The pandemic has also thrown into relief the way that mass incarceration
affects Indigenous communities. According to a report compiled by the
Lakota People's Law Project, American Indian men are incarcerated at
four times the rate of white men, and American Indian women are
incarcerated at six times the rate of white women. Police kill American
Indians and African Americans at the highest rates. On April 28, three
weeks after giving birth while in custody, Andrea Circle Bear, a
thirty-year-old citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, became the
first woman to die of coronavirus in federal prison. She was five months
pregnant when sentenced to twenty-six months for a minor drug charge.
Prison officials said the new mother had "a pre-existing medical
condition," making her more susceptible to severe symptoms, such as
shortness of breath. It's not clear what that condition was, but her
pregnancy was also noted as a risk factor. In truth, the "pre-existing
condition" that removed Andrea Circle Bear from the "island of safety"
her nation had created with health checkpoints, that exposed her to her
a deadly virus, wasn't just inequality. (Five years earlier, on July 6,
Andrea's twenty-four-year-old sister-in-law Sarah Lee Circle Bear, a
mother of two whose family claimed she was pregnant at the time, died in
jail after being picked up for a bond violation following a traffic

Last month was the three-year anniversary of the killing of Zachary
Bearheels, a twenty-nine-year-old citizen of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe.
After suffering a mental breakdown and being kicked off a bus in Omaha
while on his way back to Oklahoma City, police were filmed tasing
Bearheels twelve times and punching him thirteen times in the head. "I
can't fucking breathe," he told officers as he sat in the back of the
cruiser. A coroner later found his cause of death to be "excited
delirium," a condition that supposedly leads to aggressiveness,
incoherence, and "superhuman strength," often after taking cocaine or
methamphetamines. (Bearheels, however, had no drugs or alcohol in his
system at the time of his death.) This diagnosis is controversial; it is
frequently cited when people die in police custody. Three of the
officers involved in Bearheels's death were reinstated in April. 

As it happens, the Minneapolis police officers who murdered George Floyd
this Memorial Day also had "excited delirium" on their minds. As Floyd
laid face down on the pavement with Derek Chauvin's knee on his neck,
one officer asked if they should turn their victim over onto his side.
"I am worried about excited delirium or whatever," he told Chauvin,
according to a court statement. "That's why we have him on his stomach,"
Chauvin responded. "I can't breathe," Floyd told the police. "No
physical findings support a diagnosis of traumatic asphyxia or
strangulation," a preliminary medical examiner's report later claimed;
it was "underlying health conditions" such as heart disease that got

The Humane Condition 

The United States has a long history of sacrificing or killing off
groups of people--through war or disease or both--in the name of its
self-proclaimed destiny. This belief in the country's violent
superiority was already evident among the early Puritans, who attributed
the mass die-off of Indigenous peoples to divine intervention. "God hath
so pursued them" John Winthrop, the Puritan leader of the Massachusetts
Bay Colony, wrote of the Indigenous to the King of England in 1634. "The
greatest part of them are swept away by smallpox . . . God hath thereby
cleared our title to this place." Winthrop and his fellow colonists
later consummated their possession by mixing blood and soil in the
Pequot War of 1637, which set the stage for subsequent Indian campaigns
that concluded in the total or near-total extermination of their

To blind themselves to the destruction they wrought, colonizers wove
cultural fictions about the "vastness" of a continent devoid of human
civilization--_terra nullius_--and thus open for white European
settlement. (This was an early ideological ancestor of the Zionist
phrase, "a land without a people for a people without a land," that has
come to justify the expulsion and colonization of Palestinians.) General
Henry Knox, the revolutionary war hero and the United States' first
secretary of war, was less confused about how the land was emptied. He
recalled "the utter extirpation of all the Indians in the most populous
parts of the Union" by measures "more destructive to the Indian natives
than the conduct of the conquerors of Mexico and Peru." No small feat.

> Most historians have failed to draw what are obvious connections between heightened rates of infection and conditions of war, invasion, and colonialism.

The imperial project wasn't confined to what became the continental
United States. It soon turned outward, as the settler state exported the
horrors it had committed against the Indigenous to the rest of the
planet. Most historians have failed to draw what are obvious connections
between heightened rates of infection and conditions of war, invasion,
and colonialism. We need only look at the cholera outbreak in Yemen to
see the relationship of disease to U.S. foreign policy. No one is
disputing the fact that the infection of millions and the deaths of
thousands there at the hands of this preventable disease are the result
of a U.S.-backed, Saudi-led war, which has destroyed Yemen's health care
infrastructure. It shouldn't surprise us to learn that one in four
surgical amputations conducted at Red Cross centers in Iraq, Syria, and
Yemen are the result of diabetes. These three countries have been the
staging ground for U.S.-backed military interventions and invasions that
have disrupted critical food and medical supply chains. 

Economic sanctions, frequently hailed by politicians of all stripes as a
"humane" alternative to war, are simply war by another means. U.S.
sanctions currently hit hard in thirty-nine countries--one-third of
humanity--causing currency inflation and devaluation and upsetting the
distribution of medicine, food, power, water treatment, and other human
needs. A 2019 report by the Center for Economic and Policy Studies found
that U.S. sanctions on Venezuela accounted for an estimated forty
thousand deaths and a loss of $6 billion in oil revenue between 2017 and
2018. As Iran began to experience increased rates of coronavirus
infection, the country faced medical supply shortages because of
sanctions. While countries like China and Cuba, themselves both
sanctioned by the United States, provided international aid to other
countries suffering from the pandemic, Trump actively prevented other
countries from adequately responding to the crisis. To top things off,
this May, he withdrew from the WHO in protest, shifting the blame to
China for his own country's failure to stop the virus's spread. 

The Tribe They Cannot See 

"The United States operates on incredibly stupid premises," the Standing
Rock intellectual Vine Deloria Jr. wrote half a century ago in _Custer
Died for Your Sins_. "It always fails to understand the nature of the
world and so does not develop policies that can hold the allegiance of
people." Put simply, the United States only knows violence. It convinces
through force. It is numb to suffering and indifferent to the welfare of

When confronted with science and hard facts that deny its mythology, the
United States chooses hallucination. It sees Indigenous genocide unfold
before its very eyes and blames "pre-existing conditions." It sees
police murdering and torturing Black people every day and describes that
as law and order. It sees global warming coming and does nothing. (In
fact, it speeds it up, renaming fossil fuels "freedom molecules" and
natural gas "freedom gas," emitted to liberate the atmosphere.) It sees
a pandemic approaching months in advance and chooses not to act. 

Perhaps the starkest illustration of the intoxicating power of Manifest
Destiny is America's latest flirtation with space. In February 2019,
President Trump issued an executive order to begin the process of
creating the sixth branch of the military, the Space Force, "to
organize, train, and equip military space forces . . . to ensure
unfettered access to, and freedom to operate in, space." (By December it
was formally established.) "America has always been a frontier nation,"
he remarked in his most recent State of the Union address. "Now we must
embrace the next frontier, America's manifest destiny in the stars." Two
months later, amid the chaos of the surging pandemic, the president
signed an executive order granting the United States the preemptive
right--the first monopoly of claims--to start mining the moon and
asteroids. And as more than thirty U.S. cities erupted in open rebellion
over racist police terror, Trump and Vice President Mike Pence went to
Florida to watch Elon Musk's SpaceX launch an astronaut. Trump has
elevated U.S. belligerence to the cosmos.

> When confronted with science and hard facts that deny its mythology, the United States chooses hallucination.

If he trained his eyes back on earth, he would realize that after living
through two economic recessions, endless war, and cascading ecological
destruction, Americans still act like antibodies to the virus called
capitalism. Yet a new world is coming into existence, even as fires burn
in the Amazon or on the streets of Minneapolis. It has always been here.
It was present at Standing Rock, in the chants of "water is life"; it
could be heard among the Wet'suwet'en calls to "heal the people, heal
the land"; and it resounded once again as hundreds of thousands took to
the street to demand that "Black lives matter." 

Yes, this world has been here all along, but as the late Dakota poet
John Trudell once said, "We are the tribe they cannot see." His message
was clear: colonialism is not only a contest over territory, but over
the meaning of life itself. The sonic vibrations of the words "Indian"
or "Native American"--make-believe vocabularies--never penetrated the
airwaves of the lands now called America until European invasion. "We
have been called many names," Trudell remarked, listing other
labels--hostile, Pagan, militant--that have become synonymous with
Indigenous in the grammar of colonialism. "The callers of names cannot
see us but we can see them," he says. "We are the Halluci Nation." 

Nick Estes is a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe. He is an
assistant professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico
and is the author of _Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus
the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous
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