Blaming bacteria for the genocide of the American Indians

Recent research has given a more nuanced picture of the decline of the American Indian.  Two facts—and they are facts—seem to have captured the imagination of the reading public and the media:

  1. That many American Indian societies in North America were already in decline when the Europeans arrived.
  2. That the diseases the Europeans brought with them killed millions of Indians (as opposed to the Indian Wars, economic warfare and the depredations that follow the uprooting of whole nations from their long-time homes).

My evidence is only anecdotal, but my sense is that these two facts are used to the exclusion of all other facts in current discussions in the news media of the decline of Native American civilization.  And while both of these facts are true, writers of all persuasions cite them in a wide variety of contexts nowadays, far more than we hear about racial genocide and property expropriation as causes for the decline of Indian civilization.  By reporting these relatively recent discoveries of historians, the intelligentsia is in a sense saying, “It’s not our fault about what happened to Native Americans.”

The latest example is in Steven Stoll’s otherwise fine piece that opens the November 2009 issue of Harper’s in which he discusses at length William Ruddiman’s demonstration that the Little Ice Age supports the view that man has had an impact on global warming and cooling for about the last 10,000 years. 

Stoll reports that about the time of the Little Ice Age, which took place roughly from 1300-1700 C.E., there was an enormous increase in pandemics throughout the world.  About North America, he says:

“When Hernan Cortes invaded the Valley of Mexico in 1519, his armies brought smallpox, influenza and mumps, setting off among never-before-exposed people a series of devastating infections, that, as the diseases moved north and south, killed between 50 and 60 million over the following two hundred years.  The destruction of life cut so deeply into Indian societies that many never recovered their earlier populations.” 

Note the subtext of the statement, which silently absolves the Europeans of guilt in the decline of the Native Americans and their civilizations.  Afterall, we can’t be blamed for the germs we carry.  (Except of course, for General Lord Jeffrey Amherst, who knowingly gave Indian tribes blankets infected with small pox.)

Interestingly enough, Stoll’s discusses the decline of other nations, e.g., France and Italy, from disease during the Little Ice Age, but reports that all eventually regained their former population.  The reason for the difference in the fates of the French and the Native North American nations is so painfully clear that it makes one wonder why Stoll ever writes the sentence: “The destruction of life cut so deeply into Indian societies that many never recovered their earlier populations.”  The article would have been better without this extraneous explanation, but then it would have been without the important ideological subtext that we’re not to blame for what happened to Native Americans.

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