By Richard McDonough
“Another type of dwelling in Virginia City,” reads the description of an “Indian dwelling” in rural Nevada in 1918. “In this shack I found four people lying on the dirt floor wrapped in rags apparently all suffering from influenza. I was told they had refused medicine from the white doctor and Dick Mauwee, a Paiute enrolled at Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation, was the doctor. The small four-light window admitted the only light. It was nailed tight, the only door was kept shut tight and no ventilation was attempted or possible. The stench which greeted us when we entered was most horrible and could be endured but a short time. An Indian had just been taken from this structure for burial. The father of the family was the Indian alluded on another page as a ‘walking case’.” (“Photo of Indian dwelling and description of conditions at Reno Indian Agency, Nevada Bureau of Indian Affairs” was provided courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.)
The spread of viral infections is now a daily news story for many residents in the Inland Empire. According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the “regular” seasonal flu can continue to infect people through the early Spring: “Most of the time flu activity peaks between December and February, although activity can last as late as May.” Each year, many Americans get sick and a number die annually from the flu.
But today, there is another looming virus that may or may not have substantial impact in the Inland Empire and throughout the United States. As of today, there are no definitive statistics on key facets of Covid-19, the new coronavirus. Scientists do not yet have firm details on the extent of the spread of this virus as well as its mortality rate. Leaders have confirmed that someone could have Covid-19, show no symptons of the disease, and be contagious to others.
In years past, Americans – including communities of Native Americans – had to deal with influenza that caused devastation within the United States as well as throughout the world during 1918 and 1919.
It was a time when government officials from New Mexico to Pennsylvania suspended Constitutional rights that most Americans thought could not be disregarded.
Lives were in jeopardy.
The government determined it had to act swiftly to save people.
Most Americans understood the need for public safety was a reasonable exercise of governmental power in face of an invisible threat that knew no boundaries.
Governmental agencies, businesses, and individuals tried a variety of ways to fight this pandemic.
On October 1, 1918, The Bulletin of Pomona included a report in its newspaper from Dr. W. H. Kellogg, Secretary of the California Board of Health, that the local city’s health officer “has received instructions from the state board of health to quarantine all cases of Spanish influenza discovered in this city…The gravity of the situation on the eastern sea-board prompts us to adopt all the measures that are at our command for its control on this coast.”
(Please note that the “Spanish Flu” or the “Spanish Influenza” did not actually begin in Spain, but Spain was one of the first countries where the news media could report on the disease. Due to military censorship rules in effect during World War I, most members of the news media could not report on or did not know of the extent of the disease in other locales where it was spreading. Thus, people used “Spanish” in the name of the disease as shorthand when referring to the pandemic of 1918-1919.)
The San Bernardino Daily Sun included a report from Dr. J. H. Evans, Health Officer, and three others in its newspaper dated October 15, 1918, that “schools of Highland and East Highlands to be closed. No church services or Sunday school. No public or private gatherings of any kind. People are asked to remain in their own homes as much as possible leaving for business purposes only.”
The flu did not just affect Californians and Americans in small towns and cities in 1918-1919.
The impact of this influenza on the Native American population was especially devastating throughout the United States.
According to a report by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, statistics from the Federal government highlight the impact of the pandemic in a number of states. A graph showed that between October of 1918 and June of 1919, 4,398 Native Americans in California contracted the influenza. That number represented about 27% of all Native Americans in California at that time.
Of the Native Americans that contracted the influenza in California, 5.8% died.
Two hundred and fifty-six Native Americans died from this pandemic in California at that time.
The mortality levels were even higher among Native Americans in other states. It was almost triple – the death rate was almost triple – in Florida (15.9%) and Utah (15.1%).
While the mortality rates were lower in Arizona and New Mexico (in both states, it was 11.3% – about double the level in California) compared to Florida and Utah, the actual number of Native Americans who died from influenza during this time period was highest in those two states.
In Arizona, 1,948 Native Americans died from influenza. In New Mexico, 1,245 Native Americans died from this flu at that time.
The death rate among all Americans was 2.5%, according to the report from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.
Sometimes, statistics overwhelm us. We lose sight of the humanity represented by those statistics.
For Native Americans – and for others throughout the world – the statistics were far more than simply numbers charting the horror.
Imagine two mothers in Arizona and Washington State receiving word about their daughters. Children at schools in California and Oregon – far from their homes.
At that time, Native American families were not always able to be with their loved ones as they died. The policies of the Federal government at that time encouraged – and in some cases, forced – parents to send their children to schools far away from their homes.
Imagine being the mother in a home not far from Pendleton, Oregon. Across the border in Washington State. Receiving a letter from the Federal government about her daughter.
In a situation detailed by the Yakima Indian Agency, a mother in a small community in what is today known as the “Yakama Nation,” was offered condolences by the superintendent of this governmental entity.
The mother’s daughter, Cecilia, was a student at Chemawa Indian School in Oregon. In a letter dated October 29, 1918, the superintendent explained that “…out of the 250 cases we lost a comparatively few. Among the number was your daughter. Absolutely everything possible was done in the way of medical care and nursing.” He ended the letter with “Trusting that Cecilia’s body reached you in good shape and sympathizing with you…”
The Sherman Institute, another boarding school for Native American children, also had a number of cases of the pandemic flu in the Fall of 1918. It’s important to realize the environment of the times in the United States. “The primary purpose of the Sherman Institute was to assimilate Indians into the dominant culture,” according to a report from the National Park Service in 2004. “In the early days, therefore, students were not allowed to speak their own language at school, and men and women were not allowed to speak to one another.”
Two news articles from October of 1918 provide a perspective of the situation in Riverside among Native Americans: In the first week of that month, there were about five times the number of cases of influenza at this one school for Native American children in Riverside than in either of the state’s largest cities; Los Angeles and San Francisco each had more than 500,000 residents at that time. In another week in October of 1918, there were more than twice the number of Americans with influenza at the Sherman Institute than among all of the people living at that time in the cities of Riverside and San Bernardino – combined.
A few sentences from those two news articles:
On October 8, 1918, the Stockton Daily Evening Record reported that there were 36 cases in influenza in San Francisco and 31 cases of influenza in Los Angeles. “The Sherman Institute, an Indian school in Riverside County, has 160 cases.”
The California Board of Health announced, according to a news article dated October 19, 1918, in The San Bernardino Daily Sun, that “there were 108 cases of influenza in Riverside city and 460 in the Sherman Institute, also Riverside, during the week ending October 12. In San Bernardino city, says the state board of health, there were 92 cases during the same period.”
As noted above, sometimes, statistics appear to be just numbers. It may seem difficult to imagine – prior to the COVID-19 Pandemic – for one institution to have 5 times the number of influenza cases as a city like Los Angeles.
So rather than focus on all of the cases at one school in Riverside, this news column highlights just one case of one child in Riverside.
A telegram was sent on October 17, 1918, from the Sherman Institute to the Pima Indian Agency in Arizona with news about one of the children at this school. The message to the local superintendent was that “Lucy Antone ill with pneumonia following influenza seems serious Please advise her mother Catherine Antone at Santan.”
It is difficult to lose a child. Imagine not being able to be with your child to comfort them in their last moments of life among us.
These two mothers – one in Arizona, one in Washington State – were not alone in dealing with this tragedy.
Native Americans were not alone in facing this pandemic.
To put the times in further perspective, the United States National Archives and Records Administration reported that “The influenza epidemic of 1918 killed more people than died in World War I.” This Federal agency estimated that 16 million people died during World War I; about 50 million people throughout the world died from the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919.
One sentence from the National Archives sums up the impact on our country:
“In one year, the average life expectancy in the United States dropped by 12 years.”
The CDC reported that the virus that caused the pandemic of 1918-1919 continued “to circulate seasonally for 38 years.”
Let us remember Cecilia and Lucy. Let us remember their mothers, their families, and loved ones.
As we remember, let us provide comfort to those today facing a new pandemic.
Do you have questions about communities in the Inland Empire?Your questions may be used in a future news column. Contact Richard McDonough at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2020 Richard McDonough