Oregon’s smallpox legacy in a state celebrated for vaccination deniers

Smallpox remains the only human disease that has been successfully eradicated. Its scourge has been global, impacting nearly every great civilization from the time of the Pharaohs onward.

Smallpox helped the Spanish invaders conquer the Aztecs in the 1500s; nearly 3 million persons were killed.

In Europe, it reportedly claimed 60 million lives in the 1700s. In the 1500s, up to 3 million Aztecs died after being infected by the conquering Spanish, bringing about the collapse of their culture and civilization more effectively than the violent conquistadores could have ever dreamed. The last reported case occurred in the 1970s. Since that time, the virus has existed only in two highly guarded labs.

Smallpox is also tragically rooted in the meeting of European and Native American cultures, and its horrific impact on the continent’s first peoples underlies the nation’s historic narrative as much as political and economic developments from colonial expansion to industrialization to slavery.

The pilgrims, like the Spanish, brought the dreaded scourge, which immediately took a toll on Native tribes on the Eastern seaboard. The first outbreak claimed 20 of the white settlers’ lives. Founding Father Ben Franklin lost a son to smallpox in 1736. But smallpox more than any army, particularly in the Pacific Northwest in the Oregon territory, made it possible for the young American nation to conquer Native areas, many totally wiped clean of their Native inhabitants. I will talk more about the impacts in Oregon shortly, but first some background on the killer virus.

Smallpox’s enormous role in North American and Native American history

There are two smallpox variants, Variola major, the more severe form, and the less severe Variola minor. Its symptoms include fever and lethargy about two weeks after exposure, followed by a sore throat and vomiting. For those afflicted, a rash would then appear on the face and body, and sores in the mouth, throat, and nose. Infectious pustules would emerge and expand. By the third week, scabs formed and separated from the skin. The virus is spread by respiratory droplets, and also by contaminated bedding and clothes. This was how many historians suspect the disease may have been transmitted to Native Americans in North America.

French Jesuits in Canada in 1625, according to an account by Ian and Jennifer Glynn in The Life and Death of Smallpox, received great hostility from Natives because of the link made between the disease and contact with Europeans. The missionaries reported the local people “observed with some sort of reason that since our arrival in these lands those who had been the nearest to us had happened to be the most ruined by [smallpox], and that whole village of those who had receive us now appeared utterly exterminated.”

The first recorded use of smallpox as a weapon was during the siege of Fort Pitt in 1763, when Native tribes during Pontiac’s uprising during the French and Indian war were reportedly given infected blankets by a British general, possibly with the goal of infection, even though scientific knowledge at the time did not fully understand germ theory or microbial infections. However, there was an understanding of how the disease might be spread based on experiences.  Reports also exist of the British attempting to infect colonial areas during the Revolutionary War–all early cases of germ warfare.

Smallpox was reportedly used against the 10,000-man contingent of the Continental Army that invaded British-held Quebec. Of that force, half were stricken by smallpox, and it was theorized the British commander may have intentionally spread it by sending infected persons to Continental Army camps. That army’s commander died, and the force retreated in 1776, keeping the Canadian territories intact and thus giving birth to Canada. Noted John Adams, “Our misfortunes in Canada are enough to melt the heart of stone. The smallpox is 10 times more terrible than the British, Canadians and Indians together.”

Abraham Lincoln supposedly contracted it during the height of the Civil Ware in 1863—the outcome of which could have turned the course of U.S. and global history, had he died. (I for one am glad he survived this.)

The first vaccine, developed in 1770, was derived from cowpox by Edward Jenner. He had observed how a milk maid  was inoculated from the impacts of the more deadline Variola major and minor by a previous exposure to cowpox. It was not until 1947 when a frozen vaccine was introduced globally. After a costly global campaign, smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980.

The College of Physicians of Philadelphia has published an extremely useful illustration and timeline of the history of smallpox in the United states and globally.

A man who caught smallpox in Milwaukee is shown in this 1925 photo.
It was less than 100 years ago smallpox wreaked havoc. A photo provided by Dr. Bennet Lorbar shows a man with pox marks on his body, among the victims of the 1925 Milwaukee outbreak that claimed 87 lives.

Today, many people in the United States, particularly those born after routine smallpox vaccinations were ended in 1972, have no memory of how awful such a disease can be. (The CDC has a plan to vaccinate the entire country should the virus ever break free from its labs.)

This may be a contributing factor to the rise of the anti-vaccination movement. It should noted opposition to smallpox vaccination in the United States dates to the 1920s, and opposition even as far back as the first vaccine of Jenners.

Ex-Playmate McCarthy and the vaccination deniers

The most famous case of modern day vaccination denialism is linked to controversies surrounding the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, and its alleged link to autism and autism spectrum disorder. This bogus claim was completely based on a widely discredited study published by the British medical journal the Lancet in 2004, and then formally retracted in 2010. It was further debunked by extensive population based studies.

Facts, of course, have still not stopped former 1994 Playmate of the year Jenny McCarthy, and the “Green our Vaccines” campaign, from claiming toxins in vaccines cause autism.

Would anyone care what Jenny McCarthy has ever said if she did not have large breasts and have been a Playmate of the Year in 1994?
Would anyone care what Jenny McCarthy has ever said if she did not have large breasts and was not the Playmate of the Year in 1994?

Her campaign of disinformation just got a boost when she was given a national stage by Walt Disney Co.-owned ABC News, which hired the vaccination extremist to its show called The View in mid-July 2013. She begins her post in September.

As expected a chorus of worried public health advocates and policy wonks decried ABC’s crass capitalistic gesture. This made no impact whatsoever on the parent corporation, Disney—all of which might lead a rational person to ask when the Disney-owned ABC News might hire a blond, big-boobed Holocaust denier to co-host a lively, unscripted talk show, so long as she boosted ratings.

Smallpox wiped out Native Americans in state that now has the highest rates of vaccination exemptions

It seems particularly and painfully ironic that the state with the highest rate of parents opting out of childhood vaccinations is Oregon. This is a major public health concern, because when there are fewer people receiving vaccinations, herd immunity is reduced, making it easier for a disease to spread.

Oregon currently has the highest rate of unvaccinated children in the nation, well above the national average of 1.2%.

As of 2013, Oregon schools had the highest rate of non-medical–meaning religious–immunization exemptions for kindergarten age children. An all time high of 6.4% were exempt. That same year the state also recorded the highest rates for pertussis (whooping cough) cases in the United States, for the past 50 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

According to the newsletter called the Lund Report: “In 2013, rates also showed that 17 counties have now surpassed the common 6 percent threshold whereby herd immunity may be compromised for some vaccine-preventable diseases such as pertussis and measles. In 2012, 13 counties were above 6 percent.”

Thanks to a new law signed in July 2013 by Gov. John Kitzhaber (D), himself a doctor, it will now be harder for Oregon parents to get exemptions from mandatory immunizations for children enrolling in schools.

Now, flash back more than two centuries, when the scourge of smallpox was first recorded in the Northwest due to trade with Europeans. A smallpox epidemic, starting in the upper Missouri River country, swept through current day Oregon to the Pacific Ocean in 1781–82 with horrific effects. Another scourge of “fever and ague,” likely malaria, ravaged Oregon in 1830–31. Other diseases as tuberculosis, measles, and venereal infections also took a huge toll. Epidemics in fact took an estimated nine of 10 lives of the lower Columbia Indian population between 1830 and 1834.

A rest stop on the Columbia River Gorge provide historic background on the dessimation of Native residents in Oregon due to disease in the 1800s.
A rest stop on the Columbia River Gorge provides historic background on the dessimation of Native residents in Oregon due to disease in the 1800s.

In 1834, Dr. John Townsend, in the area that would become the Oregon Territory, wrote of a mass extermination of Native residents, similar in scope to what one today only knows through zombie or science fiction films of recent years like World War Z and I am Legend.

Townsend wrote: “The Indians of the Columbia were once a numerous and powerful people; the shore of the river, for scores of miles, was lined with their villages; the council fire was frequently lighted, the pipe passed round, and the destinies of the nation deliberated upon . . . Now alas! where is he? –gone; —gathered to his fathers and to his happy hunting grounds; his place knows him no more. The spot where once stood the thickly peopled village, the smoke curling and wreathing above the closely packed lodges, the lively children playing in the front, and their indolent parents lounging on their mats, is now only indicated by a heap of undistinguishable ruins. The depopulation here has been truly fearful. A gentleman told me, that only four years ago, as he wandered near what had formerly been a thickly peopled village, he counted no less than sixteen dead, men and women, lying unburied and festering in the sun in front of their habitations. Within the houses all were sick; not one had escaped the contagion; upwards of a hundred individuals, men, women, and children, were writhing in agony on the floors of the houses, with no one to render them any assistance. Some were in the dying struggle, and clenching with the convulsive grasp of death their disease-worn companions, shrieked and howled in the last sharp agony.”

An image the young then-U.S. officer Ulysses S. Grant, during his tour of duty on the Pacific Coast, where he saw the devastation of smallpox firsthand.
An image shows the young then-U.S. officer Ulysses S. Grant, during his tour of duty on the Pacific Coast, where he saw the devastation of smallpox firsthand.

While stationed in Fort Vancouver on the banks of the Columbia River in 1852 and 1853, future Union General and President Ulysses S. Grant recorded similar devastation: “The Indians, along the lower Columbia as far as the Cascades and on the lower Willamette, died off very fast during the year I spent in that section; for besides acquiring the vices of the white people they had acquired also their diseases. The measles and the small-pox were both amazingly fatal. … During my year on the Columbia River, the smallpox exterminated one small remnant of a band of Indians entirely, and reduced others materially. I do not think there was a case of recovery among them, until the doctor with the Hudson Bay Company took the matter in hand and established a hospital. Nearly every case he treated recovered. I never, myself, saw the treatment described in the preceding paragraph, but have heard it described by persons who have witnessed it. The decimation among the Indians I knew of personally, and the hospital, established for their benefit, was a Hudson’s Bay building not a stone’s throw from my own quarters.”

(For those interested in this topic, they may wish to buy, download, or borrow a study of smallpox’s impact on Native North Americans called Rotting Face: Smallpox and the American Indian. One reviewer wrote that smallpox “claimed more lives from the Northern Plains tribes in one year than all the military expeditions ever sent against American Indians.”)

Where is the statue or monument pointing out this critical event in Oregon’s history?

Yet, I could find no record of any statue or memorial in Oregon today that notes this historic tragedy, which depopulated a region and left it wide open for white settlers to inhabit in the mid-1800s. Perhaps if such physical reminders were present, and educational programs to accompany them, there might be a more lively debate in Oregon. But as of now, it is state celebrated for its vaccination deniers and for denying the benefits of community water fluoridation for residents of its major urban center, Portland, for a fourth time since the 1950s.

Maybe a statue honoring ghost villages, dead tribes, and forgotten cultures on the banks of scenic Multnomah River in downtown Portland, could kick off with a special celebrity ceremony. The organizers could host a live broadcast of The View with Jenny McCarthy, in a revealing dress, describing why the state’s residents should keep their children from getting vaccinated from diseases such as pertussis.

I would be sure this event included representatives of the remaining tribal groups who managed to survive the wholesale disease-driven extermination of their brethren not many decades ago, many due to illnesses now controlled through childhood immunizations. Now that would be an attention-grabbing event that might just propel the discussion in a new direction.

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Two milestones put the Oglala Sioux back on the global stage

This 2002 file photo by the Denver Post shows alcohol being sold in Whiteclay, Neb., adjacent to the Pine Ridge Reservation.

October was a huge month for the Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota. The Lakotan band made the national spotlight, perhaps in ways not seen since the historic and bloody siege at Wounded Knee in 1973.

On Oct. 1, 2012, the tribe lost a $500 million lawsuit it filed against a group of multinational beer manufacturers and four stores in neighboring Nebraska that the tribe claimed were liable for bootlegging and the widespread destruction of alcoholism that has plagued the Pine Ridge Reservation for decades. The 3.5 million-acre reservation, about the size of Connecticut, is officially dry. However, 5 million 12-ounce beers were sold in 2010 at the Nebraskan stores immediately adjacent to Pine Ridge. That means about 13,000 cans a day were purchased for consumption at a reservation with just 45,000 residents—a simply staggering figure.

The litigation represents a legal and public health strategy that seeks to hold the companies and retailers/distributors culpable for downstream effects of the health hazard for a legal drug, in this case, alcohol. It also demonstrates the tribe’s proven ability to use symbolic and media tactics that capture global interest, in order to highlight glaring, historic, and shocking injustices that are not tolerated elsewhere in the United States. I actually first heard about this story not from U.S. news sources, but while listening to the BBC World Service in February this year.

Oglala Sioux tribal attorney Tom White holds a press conference after filing the tribe’s lawsuit in Lincoln, Neb.

The second major but not disconnected story last month was the death on Oct. 22, 2012, of famous Oglala Sioux activist Russell Means, a major figure in the American Indian Movement (AIM). The so-called “radical” group galvanized Native Americans and many tribes in the early 1970s by first occupying Alcatraz Island in 1969. The New York Times, in a fit of what can best be called sanctimonious arrogance and historic ignorance, was dismissive of Means’ lasting significance to Native activism of the 20th and 21st century.

The obituary/editorial referenced Mean’s alleged proclivity to guns and brawls. However, the editorial noted Means galvanized global attention of the plight of Native Americans during the  siege at Wounded Knee, at the height of the Vietnam War and amidst President Nixon’s growing Watergate scandal. The Gray Lady begrudgingly states in its judgmental obituary: “Pine Ridge and other reservations have not escaped plagues of poverty and alcohol. Governmental neglect remains a scandal.” Today, Shannon County, S.D., where the reservation is located, is the nation’s third poorest, where more than half of all residents live in poverty.

Oglala Sioux tribal member Russell Means died on Oct. 22, 2012.

By comparison, the Oglala Sioux Tribe, which itself was divided violently before and after the 71-day siege at Wounded Knee, immediately proclaimed Means’ birthday (June 26) as Russell Means Day on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The tribe acknowledges his contributions to helping improve his impoverished tribe’s status. A web site paying tribute to Means’ lasting role to Native Americans called him the most important Native American since Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.

Means seemed to capture the Oglala’s Sioux defiance and resilience. National Geographic’s August 2012 profile of that resilience  highlighted 60-year-old activist Alex White Plume.  He summed up the injustices brought upon his people by the federal government and others. The tribe is one of seven Sioux bands whose once far-ranging ancestral lands of the Northern Plains and Inner Mountain West were literally taken by the expanding U.S. nation in the mid- and late 1800s. “They tried extermination, they tried assimilation, they broke every single treaty they ever made with us. They took away our horses. They outlawed our language. Our ceremonies were forbidden.”

The most egregious crime was the U.S. Calvary’s massacre in 1890 at Wounded Knee of 146 Sioux members, of whom 44 were women and 18 children. The mass murder was a fearful reaction to the Ghost Dance that was sweeping the Sioux people, a deeply spiritual religious revival that promised a rebirth and paradise on earth. Another 200 Native Americans were killed in related incidents shortly after.

Nearly a century later, starting in February 1973, the AIM movement again focused the attention of the globe on the impoverished Pine Ridge Reservation in what became known as the siege at Wounded Knee.

About 200 AIM members occupied the site of the Wounded Knee massacre. They protested broken treaties and the corrupt tribal governance of then tribal head Dick Wilson. At the time, the tribal government ran its own private militia called Guardians of the Oglala Nation, or GOONS, who were made infamous in the 1992 film Thunder Heart, which was based loosely on the Pine Ridge incidents. The GOONS, National Guard troops, and FBI agents surrounded the activists.

During the siege, 130,000 rounds were fired, two FBA agents were killed, and 1,200 arrests had been made. Ian Frazier, who writes about the incident in his 2000 travelogue and profile of the Oglala Sioux called On the Rez, interviewed Le War Lance, a participant in the siege. Le claims to have snuck in out of the siege 18 times and to have observed the presence of U.S. military forces (82nd Airborne), armored personnel carriers, and helicopter and reconnaissance flights. (A summary of the FBI’s files is here.)

The problems at Pine Ridge did not end with the siege. AIM activists and their sympathizers note that between March 1, 1973, and March 1, 1976, the murder rate on the Pine Ridge Reservation was more than 17 times the national average. Activists attempting to free Leonard Peltier, who was sentenced to life in prison for the killing of two FBI agents during the siege, have counted 61 unsolved homicides during that time. Some of those killings are now being re-investigated.

While AIM may not have created lasting change on the Pine Ridge Reservation, it did demonstrate what Frazier called a real flair “for the defiant gesture in the face of authority.” Frazier says that, along with AIM’s strong historic self-identity, made it both conservative and radical all at once. That same flair and sense of historic injustice is clearly visible in the unsuccessful lawsuit that was brought in February 2012 by the Oglala Sioux in Nebraska’s U.S. district court.

The suit alleged that one in four children born on the reservation has fetal alcohol syndrome or fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. The tribe’s average life expectancy ranges from 45 and 52 years, shorter than anywhere else in the Northern Hemisphere outside for Haiti. By comparison, the average life expectancy in the United States is 77.5 years. The suit sought rewards to cover cost of health care, social services, law enforcement, and child rehabilitation that it claims are caused by chronic alcoholism on the reservation. “The devastating and horrible effects of alcohol on the (Oglala Sioux Tribe) and the Lakota people cannot be overstated,” the lawsuit stated.

In terms of negative health outcomes, Native Americans and Alaskan Natives (AI/AN) fare much poorer than their fellow countrymen by all standard public health measures. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that “rural and urban AI/AN alike experience greater poverty, lower levels of education, and poorer housing conditions than does the general U.S. population.” And, of course, such conditions lead to a range of health issues, including the alcoholism and the despair prevalent on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

The CDC, while trying to present unfiltered data, bizarrely and disparagingly states, “Geographic isolation, economic factors, and suspicion toward traditional spiritual beliefs are some of the reasons why health among AI/ANs is poorer than other groups.” Remarkably, the CDC summary of health data, at least in this source, does not account for the systemic and historic racism, political persecution, coordinated and clearly documented efforts to destroy Native American cultures and languages, and economic exploitation as potential contributors to current health disparities. While the top two killers of AI/NA are heart disease and cancer (both greatly influenced by the social determinants of health), the No. 3 killer is “unintentional injuries,” which can include car accidents, and the No. 8 killer is suicides. For those not familiar with the social determinants of health, these two types of deaths are easier to link to the deep socioeconomic disparities experienced throughout Indian country.

Today, Pine Ridge is the only reservation in South Dakota that bans alcohol. The booze is supplied by nearby Whiteclay, Neb., population 12. For its part, the state of Nebraska split hairs and postured it could do nothing to ban alcohol sales that tribal leaders alleged were tantamount to genocide. The Denver Post reported that Nebraska’s  Attorney General, Jon Bruning, said he “despised” Whiteclay’s beer sellers, “but feared shutting down Whiteclay would cause patrons to travel to other Nebraska towns.” Such statements almost defy logic and demonstrate that state’s leaders still willfully ignore staggering data  that show the state has a legal and moral obligation to solve a public health crisis originating inside its state borders.

The major beer makers singled out by the lawsuit were Anheuser-Busch, Molson Coors Brewing Company, MIllerCoors LLC, and Pabst Brewing Company. Given the historic settlement by 46 states attorney generals against tobacco manufacturers in 1998, it is all but certain that these titans of American suds have mapped out a legal strategy to stem all future efforts to hold them liable for downstream impacts of alcohol consumption. Fetal alcohol syndrome and DUI-related fatalities are two of the more well-known and symbolically rich health impacts of alcohol that capture the media’s interest and harness the public’s collective disgust with the harmful impacts of the drug.

Tribal leaders are now discussing whether to legalize the sale of alcohol on the reservation. A previous effort failed in 2004. Though the tribe lost, the lawsuit may spark future public-health framed legal challenges to the sellers and manufacturers of alcoholic beverages. It should be noted that trial attorneys repeatedly failed over 50 years to hold tobacco companies liable for the deaths and illnesses of former cigarette smokers. That does not mean other tribes and trial attorneys will not continue to explore legal challenges to the commercial reality of alcohol “on the rez.”

As for the continuing omnipresence of alcohol on the Pine Ridge Reservation, or any of the other more than 560 reservations in the United States, that is nearly certain. The socioeconomic conditions that have made reservations fertile ground for America’s No. 1 drug of choice remain unchanged. As the most famous contemporary Native American writer, Sherman Alexie, writes, “Well, I mean, I’m an alcoholic, that’s what, you know, my family is filled with alcoholics. My tribe is filled with alcoholics. The whole race is filled with alcoholics. For those Indians who try to pretend it’s a stereotype, they’re in deep, deep denial.“

A trip to Indian country and the Omak Stampede

So what is “Indian country”?

Drummers gather to perform at the Indian encampment at Omak’s Stampede, in August 2012.

A now-deceased doctor friend of mine who dedicated his life to serving the Native community in the Indian Health Service used the expression a lot describing where he worked in New Mexico and Alaska. It is a legal term, codified in treaty rights, federal regulations, and court decisions. Indian country can be a physical place, associated with customs and cultures of the continent’s first peoples. It is also a state of mind. You literally know you are in Indian country when you go there. There are place names and of course the people. I grew up in St. Louis, Mo., which sits on the mighty Mississippi River (Ojibwe for “great river”), and I felt connected to Indian country there because of the great muddy and the phenomenal Cahokia Mounds just east of the city in Illinois. I knew I was living on historic Indian land even as a kid.

The largest Native mound in the United States is located at the historic Cahokia Mounds, just east of St. Louis.

I have lived the last 16 years of my life in what I definitely consider to be Indian Country, Alaska and Washington State. Alaska felt much more like Indian country to me. Anchorage, my home for six years, is very much a Native city in terms of population (about 16 percent). I rarely feel that connection in modern, congested, urban Seattle.  But I recently took a four-day trip to the hot, upper plateau of central Washington, from the Methow Valley to Omak, and indeed felt I had landed four-square in Indian country again.

According to a section of federal legislation pertaining to Native Americans, “Indian country” refers to three specific criteria:

-All land within the limits of any Indian reservation under the jurisdiction of the United States government, notwithstanding the issuance of any patent, and including rights-of-way running through the reservation;

-All dependent Indian communities within the borders of the United States whether within the original or subsequently acquired territory thereof, and whether within or without the limits of a State; and

-All Indian allotments, the Indian titles to which have not been extinguished, including rights-of-way running through the same.

Indian country also implies U.S. federal recognition of tribal bands as sovereign on their lands and capable of enjoying rights that are government to government. As one source notes, recognized tribes “possess absolute sovereignty [that] are completely independent of any other political power,” but also which is shared with other jurisdictions (local, state, and federal).

In Washington state, federal definitions of “Indian country” apply to state law, in addition to provisions acknowledging tribes non-taxable status in some commerce, such as the sale of tobacco products to tribal members on their reservation. In Seattle, there is still a band, the sparsely populated Duwamish, who have lost their sovereign status  and failed to win legal recognition in the city’s limits, on some of the choicest real-estate on the West Coast. Another nearby tribe, the Snoqualmie, regained their status in 1999 and promptly built a casino and became an economic and political player.

The decades-long fight over treaty-protected fishing and subsistence rights by the tribes culminated in the historic 1974 ruling in the landmark U.S. v. Washington case (the Boldt Decision) that unequivocally affirmed 19 federally-recognized tribes’ fishing rights to salmon and steelhead runs in western Washington. That decision gave the tribes rights to half of the salmon, steelhead, and shellfish harvests in the Puget Sound. It was a major game changer, and its impacts are still felt today–particularly legal squabbles if the decision should still be applied to land-use decisions impacting salmon habitat.

Yet, even as I gaze out on the beautiful Puget Sound, I am hard-pressed to think that I am on historic Indian lands, that I live in Indian country, where there are 29 federally-recognized tribes, in all corners of the state (see tribes and locations here).  But this is very much Indian country in a historic and cultural sense.

In fact, more than half of the state was outright taken by military force, illegal land seizures, and treaties (which also provided fishing and resource rights to tribal members) from the 1850s to the 1890s. Many stories of the exploitation of Native tribes come to mind, notably the hanging of Yakima warrrior Qualchan (also called Qualchew) by the reportedly violent Col. George Wright, in his campaign that defeated five tribes in Washington in the eastern half of what is now is the state. 

On Sept. 25, 1858, Qualchan had surrendered with a white flag and was hung within 15 minutes. That was followed with the hanging of six Palouse warriors the next day. Such incidents typified the period of conquest in my home state. Exploitation of tribal rights followed the signing of treaties. The Colville Tribes, for instance, had their lands stolen without their consent, setting off decades of legal battles that continued to the 1930s and ended in historic settlements returning hundreds of thousands of stolen acres of land.  Salmon and steelhead runs in the state were decimated by commercial fishing interests that harmed tribal groups in the upper and lower Columbia River basin. The runs were further extinguished by the dams built on the Columbia River. Only with the Boldt Decision in 1974 did the tide turn, but with numbers that no where near compared to the great runs of 100 years earlier.

Again, all of this is very academic and abstract to me and most Western Washington residents. Only when I traveled to the “World Famous Omak Stampede” rodeo and suicide race, with Native riders who charge down a 200 foot hill on horseback every second weekend of August, did I again realize I was truly in Indian country. Omak, in north central Washington, lies partially in the 1.4 million-acre Colville Reservation, in sparsely populated Okanogan and Ferry counties. The Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation number less than 10,000. I found the area to be amazingly beautiful. It’s hot in the summer, and bitterly cold in the winter. During my visit to Omak for the Stampede, the mercury hit 100 F.

Outside of agriculture (on non-tribal lands), there is little industry in this part of the state, but there is gold mining, forestry, and a limited personal use salmon fishery for tribal members.  Forestry is the mainstay for generating tribal revenues. Gaming is also a big moneymaker at the tribes’ three casinos. If you can believe it, the casinos are attracting acts like blues legend Buddy Guy and rock has-beens like Foreigner and Joe Walsh in the next few weeks. I think it’s a bit sad that even stalwart Canadians are driving south from British Columbia to spend their loonies at the tribal gaming tables, but come they do.

Despite the flow of revenues, health issues remain a problem, as they do throughout Indian country. A June 9, 2012, story republished in the New York Daily News about Tribal Councilman Andy Joseph, Jr., profiles his efforts to address Native health funding issues. The story notes his tribal members and others nationally “are dying of cancer, diabetes, suicide and alcoholism. They are dying of many diseases at higher rates than the rest of the population. And instead of those rates getting better, they’re getting worse.” Joseph is the tribes’ representative to the Northwest Portland Area Health Board, which serves 41 tribes in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, and is that group’s delegate to the National Indian Health Board, which speaks for all 566 federally-recognized tribes in the country. The story notes that, nationally, tribal members die an average of five years earlier than the rest of the U.S. population and are six times more likely to die of tuberculosis or alcoholism, three times more likely to die of diabetes, and also twice as likely to be killed in an accident. What’s more, they are also twice as likely to die from homicide or suicide. Pretty grim data indeed.

According to Joseph, the major health issues associated with diet and nutrition have occurred as a result of conquest and cultural assimilation: “‘Joseph holds up a jar of canned salmon sitting on his desk. ‘Our people crave this,’ he said. ‘It was taken away from us when they put Grand Coulee Dam in.’ He reaches for a string of dried camas root. ‘It’s what our bodies were raised with for thousands of years. Now, we have Safeway and Albertsons and Walmart.'”

In Omak, I got a taste of Native pride during the Omak Stampede Parade, which mainly featured local businesses, rodeo princesses, groups like firefighters, Republican office holders or candidates, and less than half a dozen Indian floats. (I saw no Latino groups in the parade, despite their large presence picking fruit and in agriculture–they “officially” number about 15 percent of Omak’s residents.)

A Native float at the Omak Stampede parade.
Some of the many teepees at the Native encampment at the Stampede.

The Stampede features a tribal encampment with teepees and a performance area where tribal members perform traditional dances and song in gorgeous costumes.  It reminded me a lot of Alaska, particularly the many gatherings I saw there, including the largest conference called the Alaska Federation of Natives Annual Convention. Yup, I was definitely in Indian country.

My only real, true regret was that I missed the Suicide Race, which features some of the state’s finest Native horseman who charge down the steep hill and swim across the Okanogan River on their way to the finish inside the Omak Stampede stadium. You can watch it on YouTube, and note some times, yes, horses have died in this race.