People off the reservation are paranoid these days and many Navajos still aren’t aware of the changes brought about by the swine flu (H1N1). Oh yes, the fear is there, everywhere in the border towns, the cry of big stores like Home Depot, COSTCO, and Sam’s Club have hand sanitizers waiting for you at the front door. Off-the reservation schools have scuttled away “perfect attendance” award programs, co-workers are snitching on each other if a co-worker shows up at work with flu symptoms.
On October 23, 2009, renowned Hopi artist Michael Kabotie died at the Flagstaff Medical Center from H1N1. He was 67 years old. He died off the reservation. The reservation is unaware of his passing. The Navajo Nation is so disconnected from other happenings in the rest of the world.
The Navajo reservation has “National Health Care” that began in 1955 through Indian Health Services (IHS). Now Congress is in negotiations to unveil legislation to provide insurance to 36 million Americans who otherwise won’t have it. Naturally, this creates a long-term effect on federal deficits. The problem for the Navajo is that the IHS is funded entirely by the U.S. government. In the last decade, attempts have been made to collect from Navajos with personal insurance. In any case, the federal government literally passes the buck. Navajos who work for the IHS, BIA, NTUA, and Public Schools get medical services then the IHS simply charges another branch of government.
Medicine has learned quite a bit about the flu, as millions of people have died from it the world over since 1918. The Kayenta Health Service Unit recently handed out pamphlets about the “human flu”, the “bird flu”, and the “pandemic flu.” Now we’re extra cautious of a new strain called the “swine flu.” An average 18,000 people countrywide fall into a high risk category for death or serious complications from swine flu. The priority group to receive the H1N1 Swine Flu vaccine are Pregnant women, children 6 months to 4 years old, children between ages 5 to 18 with underlying health conditions such as neuromuscular disease diabetes, underlying heart or lung conditions, or a suppressed immune system. Anyone who lives with or cares for children less than 6 months, healthcare workers with direct patient contact are also at risk.
Because Navajo people would rather listen to KTNN radio, they are basically uninformed about this new strain of the swine flu. Public Schools and Boarding Schools are left with the task of immunizing their students. The Indian Health Service (IHS) is left with the task of getting enough H1N1 vaccine for Indian students which is in very short supply. Off the reservation, parents are responsible for the immunization of their children. Seasonal flu vaccinations for children aged 18 and under costs about $15.00. No one is denied service for inability to pay. In fact, people should bring their insurance cards. There is no out-of-pocket cost for the H1N1 (swine) flu vaccine. It’s the IHS that administers the H1N1 (swine) flu intranasal mist vaccine for healthy children age 2 to 4 years old while supplies last.
Navajo people who don’t know their history don’t realize how calamitous certain strains of the flu can be. The flu is a seasonal flu. The Navajo people were rocked and devastated once already by a deadly strain of flu almost 90 years ago. One does not hear any stories of this horrific deadly disease that visited the Navajo people in 1918. No tales know the exact numbers. It is likely two diseases in combination killed thousands of Navajo people: smallpox in 1917 followed immediately by the pandemic flu of 1918.
I decided to bring up some voices from the past, more specifically, voices from 1917 and voices from the winter of 1918 who can describe the pandemics that devastated the Navajo people ninety-six years ago.
The Dictionary defines “Pandemic” as: “Of a disease prevalent throughout an entire country, continent, or the whole world; epidemic over a large area”. The Smallpox epidemic of 1917 I believe was confined either to the southwest or at least to several states, but a smallpox vaccine was available at that time. I’m not certain the smallpox epidemic of 1917 qualifies as a pandemic. It was an epidemic. The second one, the flu pandemic of 1918 was worldwide. Over one hundred million people died. The Navajo Tribe, we’ll never know the number of Navajo people who died from this devastating flu pandemic.
The Smallpox Epidemic of 1917
The first account is from the book, Bread Upon The Sands, by Billie Williams Yost. Ms. Yost was the youngest daughter of William and Gertrude Williams, Indian traders of the Red Lake Trading Post at Tonalea, AZ from 1914 to 1929. During the fifteen years of Ms. Yost’s stay, the road to civilization was across the Little Colorado River at Benta Mesa and on to Winslow. The road to Tuba City in those days went through Blue Canyon, which eventually turned into Coal Mine Canyon. A flood wiped out the original Red Lake Trading Post in October 1929 near the bottom of a hill in Coal Mine Canyon. It was inundated by a flood and wiped out. Since then, the new Red Lake Trading Post was constructed near the top of a red sandy hillside ridge where it sits now along U.S. Highway 160 road from Tuba City to Kayenta, AZ She writes:
“In December (1917) a dreadful plague of smallpox spread with lighting-like rapidity over all the reservation. The chance of keeping such an epidemic under control, with living conditions as they were, was impossible. A family of eight or more would eat, sleep, and breed in one room no larger than twelve by fifteen feet. The ground was hard and cold. No ventilation relieved the smoky atmosphere, and germs ran rampant amid this perfect setting. …Every day, two or three Navajos would arrive at the post and beg Father to come help them in their misery. Father wanted desperately to aid them, but he knew it was hopeless. One man can’t fight a raging epidemic alone. …When his friend, Little Gambler, came and pleaded for assistance, he could not refuse. He went to the plague-infested Hogan of Lame Back. She was dead and so was White One’s little daughter who lay by her side. In the next Hogan, Big Ears, his squaw, and two sons were dead. Only Little Gambler and Tall Girl had survived (Pg 194)…As the only lumber available was two pine Arbuckle coffee boxes, (Father) used these. Mother lined the finished burial case with pale blue calico”. (Pg. 214). The Indian Trader, Mr. Williams and his two sons eventually got smallpox and fortunately, they all survived.
Another voice from the past is that of Hilda Faunce (Wetherill), her book is entitled Desert Wife. In her book, she recalls both the smallpox epidemic of 1917 and the flu pandemic of 1918. Ms. Faunce and her husband, whom she refers too as Ken in the book, is actually – Winslow Wetherill, the youngest of the five Wetherill brothers, she writes:
“Ken purchased a decrepit two-room shack, an abandoned trading post near Black Mountain in 1914. Black Mountain Trading Post has been abandoned for years now, but was located twenty miles west of Chinle and fifteen miles northeast of the Salina Springs Trading Post. Mr. and Mrs. Ken Faunce re-establish the Trading Post in 1914 and three years later were hit with the smallpox epidemic.”
“I never should have supposed I could be calm in a smallpox epidemic. It came upon us suddenly and almost immediately dozens of our friends and customers were dead. The Indians came to the post with their bodies covered with sores; they lay down on the floor besides the stove, sick as could be, unable to climb on their ponies again and go home.“
…“After our floor, the camp Hogan was the next resting place. From there some relative would help the sick person into a wagon or onto his pony and get him home to die. It was not the least use for Ken and me to be careful; the disease was everywhere. Of course when a medicine man treated anyone, a crowd came to the ceremony and the disease was spread more effectually. Such things were of daily occurrence. Vaccination had been explained to the Indians years ago by government agents and the outbreaks of smallpox among the Mexicans had spread to the reservation before. Many of the Navajos hurried to the agencies to be vaccinated, but the sickness spread so quickly that hundreds did not have time to get there before they or their families were down” (Pgs 242 – 243). ….Ken sent word to the Utcity (Etcitty) “Hogan’s, urging them to bring every one, in wagons if necessary, for vaccination, and in a few days they came in wagons, in buggy and on horseback. My apparatus and technique for vaccination consisted of soap and water to wash a clean spot on the arm, then the scraping of a small area and the rubbing in of a small drop of vaccine.” (pg 245). “Gradually the plague passed and we heard of no more deaths or new cases. It was like waking from a nightmare to find that the worst of it had really happened. Ken was tired and more than ever silent; he stayed at the post more and rode less. We were grateful for the work that kept us too busy to think always of those who no longer came to the store”. (pg 250).
Back in the years 1917 and 1918, the Navajo reservation was completely different than it is today. The Trading Post was the hub of all community activity, news, announcements, and the US mail. Basically there were no clusters of homes or houses like today. There was only a Trading Post and a visitor’s Hogan for customers who planned to stay overnight. The Navajos lived miles away from the Trading Post and miles away from each other. Just as the Navajos were very important to the Trader as customers, so too, was the Trader important to the Navajos. The Navajos fully expected white people (Traders and missionaries) to bury their dead.
The Traders also left other influences. Ms. Mildred Heflin for example, introduced me to books and told me stories and happenings as she saw them many years before I was even born. Although she was only five years old during the great flu pandemic of 1918, she remembered the stories her father (Stokes Carson) and mother (Jessie Carson) told her of burying bodies and seeing so much death at Huerfano, New Mexico. Presently we have Navajo children “trick or treating” at various stores and home clusters; the Missionaries introduced Christmas presents; and, Navajo children are hunting easter eggs laid by Easter Bunnies on Easter morning. Navajo people and white people now pay an under-taker to bury their loved-ones in a cemetery; from a simple pine box to a luxury copper or tin casket depending upon how much love or money you have.
Cheryl Alcott holding a small and large wooden Arbuckle Coffee box.
Since the Indian Traders were called upon to bury some of the Indian dead, they did not want to get involved in having to make coffins. There were simply too many dead. For an adult burial, two large Arbuckle Coffee boxes were fastened together. One box could be used to bury a child. When whole families were found dead in their Hogan’s, it was simpler to burn down the entire Hogan with the bodies left inside.