Epidemics and Empires: Historicizing Covid-19 in Native Communities
Since April 2020, Navajo Nation has experienced possibly the worst local outbreak of COVID-19 anywhere in the United States. While journalists covering the outbreak often discuss the relationship between the pandemic and poverty, they fail to adequately treat the relationship between empire and epidemic disease that is operational in Navajo Nation today. Surrounded by states and municipalities responsible for their own COVID-19 responses and subject to the authority of the federal government, tribal nations have only limited recourse against this transient virus.
This essay uses newspaper articles to investigate a smallpox epidemic that hit Indian Territory in 1898, illustrating how epidemic disease exposes existing vulnerabilities to disaster that arise from the protraction of tribal sovereignty. A century ago, journalists failed to recognize the relationship between white settlement and smallpox, which contributed to the epidemic’s extended presence in the region. Then as now, Native people experienced disproportionately severe outbreaks of disease as threats to their self-determination. These parallels encourage students to reflect on the historical relationship between disease, empire, and colonization, and pushes them to consider how history can inform public health policy today.