The fall of 1780 brought the first widespread Curse on the Northwest Coast. It was called a curse because they couldn’t see it. They couldn’t fight it or protect their families from it. Blisters appeared in their mouths, faces, all over their bodies. The blisters inside their mouths began to rupture. The strength they had taken for granted left them stumbling and crying wrecks. People fell in their tracks and gagged on the pus choking them to death. It was the Native’s introduction to smallpox and it killed about a third of them over hundreds of square miles. They did not have a word for suicide, but it began to happen.
Perhaps the Chinook, at the great trading villages near the mouth of Big River (Columbia River), were hit the hardest because that was, as far as the scant facts of the time can be ascertained, the beginning place of the Curse on the Northwest Coast, at the home of the best traders. There were sicknesses before 1780 brought by the Russians and Spanish, but records are sparse and too often conflicting to pinpoint the real beginning. It probably wasn’t given to Natives on purpose, but the result was the same as if it had been.
What I think most people today do not understand was the total emotional devastation this caused for a completely communal society to suffer.
The Chinook and other coastal people were in an upward stage of recovering from this holocaust when the second wave of deaths by smallpox came in the winter of 1801. When it was over, at least 70% of the Chinook people from the families that were complete in 1779 were gone. We don’t know the total loss among all the tribes in the region that suffered the same fate. In the next several decades various other diseases took their toll. The people of the Northwest Coast were changed forever, like indigenous people to the east.
Some pioneers and profiteers wanted to kill them all. Others tried to help them. But the damage to their psyche only deepened.
They’ve been slow to recover. Now many of the young ones are doing what is necessary. They’re becoming educators, lawyers, politicians, tradesmen, and in many places the old ones are teaching them the old crafts and the spiritual ways of communal living. It’s a long way from done. Some good things from the past may be lost forever. They can be hard to do business with, but not always. Some of the Natives I’ve met are among the nicest people I’ve known.
To paraphrase a famous comedian, I don’t think they should still be so pissed at us. But I can understand it.