Tag Archives: Native Americans

Smallpox Blankets

Over the years,  I have come across numerous references to an insidious  form of germ warfare that some Europeans  employed to defeat Native Americans:  smallpox blankets.  Historians suggest that the practice may have begun as early as the 1530s,  when  Spanish conquistador Francesco Pizarro handed out bedding of smallpox victims to the Inca inhabitants of Peru,  believing that the “miasma”  that caused the disease still clung to the fabric.

One of the most clearly documented conspiracies to employ this weapon comes from the letters and papers of Lord Jeffery Amherst,  the British commander-in-chief for America in 1763.  His hardliner policies against Native Americans in the Great Lakes region had sparked  Pontiac, the chief  of the Ottawa tribe,  to rise up against the British troops.   Amherst wanted victory at any cost.  To defeat the tribes,  he approved the use of smallpox blankets to,  as he said,  “Extirpate this Execrable Race.”

Some historians have questioned whether smallpox can indeed be spread from blankets. But some studies clearly suggest that it can.  In Vectors of Death: The Archaeology of European Contact,  University of New Mexico anthropologist Ann Ramenofsky notes that “although the virus is most frequently transmitted through droplet infection, it can survive a number of years outside human hosts in a dried state.”

All this comes to mind thanks to a fascinating recent post on the Northwest Coast Archaeology blog.  There you will find a partial transcript of an interview that CBC radio interviewer Imbert Orchard conducted in 1969 with Solomon Wilson,  a Haida elder from Maude Island Village on Haida Gwaii  in northern British Columbia.   In this interview,  Mr. Wilson recounts a story he had heard from an elder about smallpox blankets and the spread of disease on the Northwest Coast.   It’s definitely worth checking out.

Dogs for the Dead

Six years ago,  the  Department of Transportation in Washington State stumbled upon a huge, unforeseen problem on the Port Angeles waterfront.  The department was in the midst of constructing a major new dry dock in the city when its workers suddenly began turning up ancient human bone.  Subsequent  investigations by archaeologists, historians, and elders of the Lower Elwha tribe revealed that a Klallam village known as Tse-whit-zen once stood on part of the prop0sed dry-dock site.

But here was the real sticking point.  The site also contained a major burial ground brimming with Klallam  graves:  nearly 335 people had been laid to rest there.   Moreover,  some had clearly perished between A.D. 1780 and 1800,  when diseases such as smallpox,  measles and influenza carried by Spanish mariners  swept through the region for the first time,  decimating Native American villages.  As David Rice,  a senior archaeologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,  later told The Seattle Times,  a number of the graves contained more than one skeleton and bore signs of  rare forms of ritual treatment, “which would be a spiritual attempt at trying to stop this event.”

In the end,  the Department of Transportation did the right thing.  It decided to abandon construction of the dry dock,  after sinking nearly $60 million into the project.  But the department clearly learned a crucial lesson from the disaster,  and now it’s trying out a very new approach to its archaeological surveys of proposed development sites along the Port Angeles waterfront.  It has brought in dogs–not just the garden-variety Fido, but four animals trained at the Institute for  Canine Forensics in Woodside,  California.  These are corpse-sniffing dogs.

This was the first I had heard of such canines being used to detect human remains in archaeological sites.  But I think they could potentially save developers,  archaeologists and Native Americans  a whole world of grief.  According to the staff at the Institute for Canine Forensics, dogs can smell human remains that are buried as much as nine feet below the surface.  And they can detect remains as old as 2000 years.  “Human remains have a scent that never,  ever goes away,  especially a bone,  even after it dries out,” one of the institute’s staff members told The Peninsula Daily News.

As the owner of a Labrador retriever,  I’ve witnessed time and again the astonishing olfactory prowess of dogs,  and I don’t doubt they could be trained to sniff out very ancient remains.   If the Port Angeles project pans out–and I can’t imagine why it won’t– I  think bringing in such trained dogs should become a standard procedure when North American archaeologists are surveying proposed development sites for possible ancient Native American cemeteries.

Virtual Museums and Repatriation

I would like to applaud Google this morning for the  important new project that it is undertaking in Iraq.  As the New York Times reported yesterday,  Google will be creating a new virtual Iraq National Museum,  by imaging the museum’s crucial collections and placing them online.  In a press conference yesterday in Baghdad,  Google CEO Eric Schmidt told Iraq officials and journalists,  “I can think of no better use of our time and our resources  than to make the images and ideas of your civilization available to all the people of the world.”

Like many,  I am a little skeptical about what use Google might eventually put these images to. The megacorporation has already digitized vast numbers of books (including two of mine) without obtaining permission to do so,  and the company is now trying to purchase sweeping digital rights to these books in a lawsuit hardly anyone understands.

But leaving that aside,  I’d like to point out that Google is far from alone in its interest in creating virtual museums.   Indeed,  some research teams are already way ahead of Google.   At the Unversity of Arkansas,  for example,  a team at the Center for Advanced Spatial Technology led by Angie Payne has already scanned some 350 artifacts from the collection of the Hampson Archaeological Museum State Park in Wilson, Arkansas.   The result is the Virtual Hampson Museum.

The Hampson Archaeological Museum State Park holds an absolutely superb collection of Native American pottery,  particularly from the Mississipian era.  Now with the Virtual Hampson Museum,  researchers can perform basic measurements on the artifacts and gather data for analyses,  without scraping together grants for traveling.  This will be very important for struggling graduate students in years to come.

Moreover, as more and more museums repatriate key artifacts from their collections–either to Native American tribes or to  countries of origin– 3-D images of the artifacts can be still be preserved online,  providing access to all.  I’d call this the best possible solution right now to a very sticky issue.