COVID-19

An Indigenous Warning: Never Underestimate the Power of a Virus

Just like the smallpox that repeatedly tore through Coastal First Nations, COVID-19 is uniquely deadly because it came out of the blue

By Meaghie Champion
April 4, 2020
COVID-19

An Indigenous Warning: Never Underestimate the Power of a Virus

Just like the smallpox that repeatedly tore through Coastal First Nations, COVID-19 is uniquely deadly because it came out of the blue

Abandoned poles in the Haida Gwaii village of Ninstints, which was abandoned in the 1860s smallpox outbreak (British Columbia Archives, G-06209)
COVID-19

An Indigenous Warning: Never Underestimate the Power of a Virus

Just like the smallpox that repeatedly tore through Coastal First Nations, COVID-19 is uniquely deadly because it came out of the blue

By Meaghie Champion
April 4, 2020
An Indigenous Warning: Never Underestimate the Power of a Virus
Abandoned poles in the Haida Gwaii village of Ninstints, which was abandoned in the 1860s smallpox outbreak (British Columbia Archives, G-06209)

On Vancouver Island, First Nations have proved to be among the communities most aggressive at battling COVID-19. Many remote reserves have completely sealed themselves off from the outside world, instituting roadblocks, patrols and even pass systems to ensure that only community members are allowed in. Below, Meaghie Champion writes on why the destructiveness of infectious diseases is particularly resonant with First Nations.

My family is part of the Somena Nation, one of the Cowichan Tribes that are native to this island. We were here in 1918 when the Spanish Flu came through. In British Columbia about 4,000 people died from that. That was with a much lower population. Today, the same death rate would kill 37,000 people in BC.

That was bad enough, but our people also tell stories of an earlier epidemic, one that was much worse. The late Willie Seymour, also known by the name Kwalthutstun, an elder of the Stz'uminus First Nation (Chemainus), told a story passed down to him from generations before about the smallpox epidemic that struck Vancouver Island in 1862.

"The people would go to the ocean to soak in the water. It was all they could do to relieve the pain of the pox on their skin. Many of them did not live to get out of the water. They died and just floated away and were never seen again."

A 1909 photo from the collection of Library and Archives Canada showing a woman with smallpox (Source).

That epidemic in 1862 is estimated to have killed about half the native population of coastal BC. I have also heard stories told in Cowichan about how so many people died so fast that it was impossible to bury them all. Instead, people put the dead into the river and let it carry the bodies away to the sea.

When a significant portion of the population is suddenly gone, it changes things. In the Cowichan Valley and many places in BC, the situation changed as a result of the 1862 epidemic. Before the epidemic, the government had been asking the natives to sign a treaty giving up most of their lands so settlers could live there. The natives in Cowichan and elsewhere had been saying no for years. They had no intention of ever saying yes and the Cowichans never did. 

In May and June of 1862, the colonial government forced all natives to leave Victoria. This spread the disease all up and down the coast and to Nanaimo and Cowichan. About two months later, on August 18, 1862, right after the disease had killed about half our people, a British warship named HMS Hecate showed up in Cowichan Bay with the first shipload of settlers for the Cowichan Valley. Suddenly, the government was sending in settlers without a treaty.

They used the chaos and death of the pandemic to take over our lands in violation of their own law (the Royal Proclamation of 1763) that said they could only do it if we agreed to a treaty first. It was actually worse than that. When the smallpox came to Victoria from San Francisco in 1862, all or almost all of the white people in Victoria were vaccinated against it. Very few of the natives were vaccinated. When the natives who had come to live in Victoria got sick, they were not quarantined. Instead, the colonial government forced them at gunpoint to go back home to their own tribes. 

A naval gunboat named the Forward towed 26 canoes full of natives up the coast via Nanaimo all the way to the Tlingit and Tsimshian territories in the far north. At Nanaimo and all along the coast, they dropped off sick people and spread the disease. They said they were doing it to remove the natives from Victoria to protect the white people who lived there. But they certainly knew what it would do to our people. The Daily Colonist ran an article warning that it would spread the disease to all the native nations along the coast. That's exactly what happened. It also hit the interior nations.

An 1857 painting of the Songhees village across from Victoria Harbour, just before the smallpox (Library and Archives Canada).

As the Forward passed Ganges Harbour on Salt Spring Island, Cowichans shot at them with guns. It is unclear if this was to try to stop infected people from entering Cowichan territory or because of the hostility and warfare caused by previous Haida attacks on Cowichan.

Either way, the vessel carried on and brought people from Victoria where the epidemic was raging out of control and forced them to go ashore at Nanaimo. This was part of their effort to remove natives from Victoria and send them back to their tribes. The smallpox immediately started slaughtering native people in Nanaimo, too. From there it spread to Cowichan and to our people. That's when our family members, grandparents, children, brothers and sisters became covered with the sores of the pox and soon were just corpses drifting in the river and the sea, too many to bury. Nothing was ever the same again.

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If someone had said, "It's just a disease. Most people will survive," like they are saying now about COVID-19, they might have been technically right. The estimate is that about half the people died. If it was a little less than half, then technically, most of the people survived. That's a far cry from going back to normal life the way it was before. Not when half your family is dead. Not when many of the survivors were left permanently blind by the smallpox. The grief our people had to live with from that is hard to imagine. The consequences of the settlers coming and taking over our land are obvious even now; before 1862, there was only one non-native person, a missionary priest named Peter Rondeault, living in the Cowichan Valley. Now, the population is majority non-Indigenous. 

After smallpox, the colonial government treated us like we were not a nation anymore, colonized our lands and told us we had to obey their laws instead of our own.

When an epidemic comes, beware not only of the disease, but of the consequences of it. Do not treat it lightly. Do not just hope it passes. If there is anything you can do to protect yourself, do it, even if it seems like an overreaction. Before the worst of the epidemic hits, precautions always seem like they are too much. After it it's over, even the most extreme precautions always seem like they were not nearly enough.

It is said that the Songhees people obtained some vaccine, left Victoria and removed themselves to a small island to isolate themselves from the smallpox. It is also said that the Esquimalt people died in such great numbers from the smallpox in 1862 that there was a mass grave for them near the Esquimalt side of where the blue bridge stands today. I don't know if this is why there are so many more Songhees people than Esquimalt people today, but it might be.

Songhees canoes near Victoria's Inner Harbour in the 1860s, just around the time of the epidemic (Source).

Our family and other native families who experienced this were already a small remnant that survived an earlier, much worse epidemic. Less than a hundred years before the 1862 smallpox epidemic, around 1782, a previous smallpox epidemic killed a huge number of people. By some estimates, as much as 95% of the population. Approximately 100,000 people, nearly the entire population of the Salish Sea coast (Georgia Straits) area at the time.

That time, so many people died there were not enough survivors to even put the bodies in the river. Entire villages were just abandoned, the dead left where they lay.

Smallpox had hit Indigenous people so hard because they were a whole population that had never been exposed to it before. Unlike Europeans, whose populations were peppered with those who had evolved a natural resilience to the disease over centuries of outbreaks, Indigenous people had no immunity to what was a completely new disease to them.

An alder mask held in the collection of the Museum of Vancouver depicting smallpox (Source).

And so it is with COVID-19: A disease for which the entire human species has no familiarity or immunity. COVID-19, like many recent pandemics including SARS and swine flu, was passed suddenly to humans from an animal. It is as new to the human race as smallpox was to the Cowichan people when we first encountered it.

In that sense, we've gotten lucky, because COVID-19 still has a much lower fatality rate than smallpox at its worst. There’s no reason to believe the next virus couldn’t be very different. 

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