Indigenous Communities

How did the Flu affect Indigenous communities? 

Indigenous peoples are the often forgotten victims of the Spanish Flu epidemic. The death rate amongst Indigenous peoples was nine times higher than that of Euro-Canadian settler communities: approximately 46 deaths per 1000 people in Indigenous populations versus 6.1 per 1000 amongst non-Indigenous. According to historian Mary-Ellen Kelm, the Spanish Flu is believed to have killed at least 1,100 Indigenous people in British Columbia. This number is a low estimate due to the poor data collection of the time. 

The flu also affected Indigenous populations differently. Whereas amongst most populations around the world it was the young and healthy who succumbed to the flu, amongst Indigenous people in BC, children and elders were most likely to die. Kelm attributes this difference to the prevalence of pre-existing medical conditions, such as tuberculosis, which greatly affected Indigenous peoples living on reserves. Overcrowding, poor sanitation, and barriers to medical care access all served to worsen the situation. Tuberculosis and bronchial pneumonias were also rampant in residential schools, also contributing to the death of children in those institutions who contracted the Flu.

How did the Flu affect the Witsuwit'en?

Formal records on how the Spanish Flu outbreak affected the Witsuwit’en and other local Indigenous communities is essentially non-existent. The Interior News and Omineca Herald newspapers were focused on the effects of the outbreak within the settler communities, and other than a few brief mentions that the flu was spreading through Gitxsan communities at Kispiox and Glen Vowell near Hazelton, little to no information is available. In fact, the Interior News and Omineca Herald specifically noted that information on the number of Indigenous people infected was not accounted for in their reporting.

While the impact of the flu on the Witsuwit’en was not well-documented by contemporary sources, the outbreak did affect the Witsuwit’en community of Witset (Moricetown), as well as Witsuwit’en and Gitxsan peoples living at Hagwilget and Hazelton. At least 15 Gitxsan died from the flu in 1918, and Witsuwit'en farmer Jean Baptiste's wife Sarah Alexander may have been a victim of a later 'wave'. The Spanish Flu was just one of a series of deadly outbreaks of diseases such as smallpox, measles, influenza and tuberculosis that had devastated Indigenous communities in British Columbia since the 1800s.

Casbit “One Eye” William, Witsuwit'en healer

Casbit "One Eye" William was a Witsuwit'en medicine man and C’ilhts’ëkhyu wing chief from Yihk Ts’iwit’an (Thin House). He is pictured here in Hazelton about 1920. The work of healers like him, while respected amongst Indigenous communities, was discredited and stifled by colonial authorities. (P0755, BVM Visual Record Collection)

Who were the Witsuwit'en healers? 

The Spanish Flu epidemic came at a time when Indigenous healing traditions were often in conflict with “modern” Euro-Canadian medicine and Christian religion. Traditionally, Witsuwit’en people who became sick turned to diyinï (medicine people) and the Ggilulhëm (Healing Society) to cure both physical and spiritual ailments. For Witsuwit’en, the physical and the spiritual affected each other, and healing could require a combination of herbal medicines for the physical, as well as rituals for the spiritual.

Diyinï were herbalists and spiritual healers who worked alone. Their treatments could be observed by the family of the afflicted. The Ggilulhëm were an initiated group who focused more exclusively on the spiritual realm. Ceremonies performed by the Ggilulhëm were private events, and were often restricted to the most serious cases of illness that diyinï could not heal.

How did Indigenous and Euro-Canadian health care methods come into conflict?

From the 1880s onward, missionaries such as Father Morice (who worked amongst the Witsuwit’en) and other Euro-Canadian colonial officials had sought to undermine traditional Indigenous medicines and healing through fear, ridicule, and outright bans on practices. Traditional healing, including the work of the Witsutiw’en diyinï (medicine people) and Ggilulhëm (Healing Society) was seen as a barrier to conversion to Christianity and to the assimilation of Indigenous people into Euro-Canadian society.

While great efforts were made to force Indigenous peoples in British Columbia to give up traditional healing, there were few concerted efforts to improve their access to Euro-Canadian medical care, particularly in rural and northern areas. In the case of the Spanish Flu, medical efforts often focused mostly on the settler communities. Little work was done to improve general health and wellness within Indigenous communities. In fact, colonial control made matters worse. Populations which had once moved seasonally throughout the territory were now crowded onto reserves. With the government limiting and even criminalizing traditional hunting and fishing methods, nutritious wild game was replaced with less healthy commercially-produced foods. Malnutrition, unsanitary conditions, and lack of healthcare were a deadly combination. 

The outbreak of the Spanish Flu and the lack of cure or assistance offered by Euro-Canadian medicine and medical practitioners undermined arguments that it was superior to traditional methods. Traditional healing was never entirely abandoned, and the Witsuwit’en and other Indigenous peoples continue to this day to turn to the healing that has safeguarded their communities since time immemorial.

For further reading: “British Columbia First Nations and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19” by Mary-Ellen Kelm. BC Studies, no. 122, Summer 1999. Available as a back issue through www.bcstudies.com

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Indigenous Communities