Quebec History Marianopolis College

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L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Health and Diseases of Indians



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North-West Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]

[Further indormation may be gathered at the Encyclopedia of North American Indians on the subject of health of the North American Natives and diseases of the same.]


There is little evidence to show what diseases prevailed among the Indians N. of Mexico prior to the advent of white people. The traditions of the Indians, the existence among them of elaborate healing rites of undoubtedly ancient origin, their plant-lore, in which curative properties are attributed to many vegetal substances, and the presence among them of a numerous class of professed healers, honoured, feared, and usually well paid, would seem to indicate that diseases were not rare, but actual knowledge and even tradition as to their nature are wanting The condition of the skeletal remains, the testimony of early observers, and the present state of some of the tribes in this regard, warrant the conclusion that on the whole the Indian race was a comparatively healthy one. It was probably spared at least some of the epidemics and diseases of the Old World , such as smallpox and rachitis, while other scourges, such as tuberculosis, syphilis (pre-Columbian), typhus, cholera, scarlet fever, cancer, etc., were rare, if occurring at all. Taking into consideration the warlike nature of many of the tribes and the evidence presented by their bones (especially the skulls), injuries, etc., particularly those received by offensive weapons, must have been common, although fractures are less frequent than among white people.


At the time of the discovery the Indians on the whole were probably slowly increasing in numbers. Frequent wars, however, had a marked effect in limiting this increase. Since their contact with whites most of the tribes have gradually diminished in strength, while some of the smaller tribes have disappeared entirely. Very few tribes have shown an increase or even maintained their former numbers. The most remarkable example of steady gain is the Navaho tribe. The causes of decrease were the introduction of diseases (particularly smallpox), the spread of alcoholism, syphilis, and especially tuberculosis, destructive wars with the whites, and increased mortality due to changes in the habits of the people through the encroachment of civilization. During recent years a slow augmentation in population has been noticed among a number of tribes, and as more attention is paid to the hygienic conditions of the Indians, an increase comparable to that in whites may be expected in many sections. The least hopeful conditions in this respect prevail among the Dakota and other tribes of the colder northern regions, where pulmonary tuberculosis and scrofula are very common.


While preserving much of their robust constitution, the Indians - particularly those of mixed blood - are at present subject to many disorders and diseases known to the whites, although the pure bloods are still free from most of the serious morbid conditions and tendencies due to defective inheritance. They suffer little from insanity, idiocy, and rachitis. Cretinism is exceedingly rare, and general paresis, with a large number of serious nervous affections, has not yet been recorded among them. Diseases of the heart, arteries, and veins, serious affection of the liver and kidneys, as well as typhoid and scarlet fever are infrequent. Congenital malformations are very rare, although it is commonly heard among the Indians themselves that they do sometimes occur but that the afflicted infants are not allowed to live. Fractures, and diseases of the bones in general, as well as dental caries, are less frequent than among the whites. There is considerable doubt whether cancer occurs in any form. Venereal diseases, while predominant among the more degraded Indians, are more or less effectually guarded against by others.


The most common disorders of health now experienced among Indians generally are those of the gastro-intestinal tract, which in infancy are due to improper feeding and particularly to the universal consumption of raw, unripe fruit and vegetables, and in later life to the lack of, or over indulgence in, food, irregular meals, the preference for fat, crudely prepared food, and, recently, the misuse of inferior baking powders and excessive use of coffee. While most of the disorders thus introduced are of a minor character, others, particularly in infants, are frequently fatal. Other more common diseases are various forms of malaria, bronchitis, pneumonia, pleurisy, and measles in the young. Whooping cough is also met with. Inflammation of the conjunctivae is common and often leads to ulceration, opacity, and defect in or even total loss of vision. Defective hearing is occasionally found in the aged, and there are rare instances of deaf mutes. Eczema, favus, and acnae are among the more ordinary affections of the skin. Tuberculosis of the lungs, and glandular tuberculosis, or scrofula, are frequent in many localities and are especially common among the reservation Indians in the colder parts of the United States , particularly in North Dakota , South Dakota , and Montana , due to their present mode of life. They live in small, unsanitary hovels, which in cold weather are ill ventilated, and often overheated and crowded, while their dress is heavier than formerly, their daily life less active, their food changed, and, what is most important, there is complete ignorance of the contagious nature of consumption. Some of these conditions, however, are being gradually bettered.


Goitre is widely distributed, though seldom prevalent; it is found particularly among some bands of the Sioux, and it occurs also with some frequency among the Menominee, Oneida , Crows, and White Mountain Apache. Albinism occurs among a number of the tribes; the cases, however; are quite isolated, except among the Hopi and, to a lesser degree, the Zuñi. In 1903 there were 12 cases of albinism in the former and 4 in the latter tribe, all of the complete variety. Vitiligo is much more scattered but the cases are few. Diseases and functional disturbances peculiar to women, including those of the puerperium, are much less common among Indians than among the white women of this country. Of diseases peculiar to old age, senile arthritis, which affects partic­ularly the spine, and occasional dementia, are found. Senility proceeds slowly in the pure­blood Indian, and the number of individuals above 80 years of age, according to census returns (which, however, should be regarded with caution), is relatively greater than among the whites.


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada, Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada , Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 195-197.



© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College