Things Have Always Been Terrible

A series in which I make you feel less lonely, realizing how many other pandemics humans have lived through.

Haaninin Smallpox Epidemic of 1869

A Haaninin curator, Joe Horse Capture, at a show at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. the exhibit included the pictured piece, which was made by his grandfather.

Let’s go to America.

This is our first entry about people indigenous to the Americas suffering a disease outbreak. Honestly, I’m afraid that people cared so little that most of this suffering went unrecorded.

So let’s remember the “Gros Ventre” Indian Smallpox Epidemic of 1869. I’m going to refer to them as the “Haaninin” people, as that is one of the ways we spell what they called themselves. (There are many spellings, I just picked one.)

The Haaninin people had lived near the Great Lakes for maybe 3,000 years.

They moved to Montana in the early 1700s, apparently after another tribe hassled them. East coast native people were already getting pushed west, and they pushed others.

In 1793, they attacked a Hudson Bay trading post because their enemies were trading for guns there.

Squaw Dance number 2 by New Bear, a Gros Ventre artist.

The Haaninin had been called “Gros Ventre” by French dummies. The native people were miming a waterfall, the way it goes over, and because their hands were near their bellies, the French guys thought they were miming a fat belly and Fat Belly they became (in French).

They called themselves “White Clay People,” which is, dare I say, a much better name for a group, unless your group is a new wave French dad band.

Their flag.

For who knows how long, the people of the Haaninin group had put their dead in trees. Why? I don’t know, why do we inject ours full of horrific toxins? It’s what they did. When you do this with your smallpox dead, it causes a problem.

And honestly, the way this particular story goes, I can’t slam white people as I’d like to. It is believed that this smallpox round was caused by one of the Haaninin digging up a white person’s body to get his clothes. That was a bad idea, but who could blame them? I would advise them to rob dead white people at every opportunity.

Mary, a Gros Ventre woman, almost a decade before the smallpox outbreak we’re discussing. She looks like she doesn’t suffer fools, but this could be due to the annoyingness of getting your photo taken in 1880.

The ship Utah, on the Milk River in Montana, had white people and smallpox aboard. They lost a few crew members, buried them by the river, and sailed on. Some Haaninin came upon the mound and were like, hmm. They got the guy uncovered and took his clothes and went on their way. Their way was back to their camp near Fort Bellknap.

Here’s where the tables turn: the Haaninin weren’t the only grave robbers around. White people would take the Haaninin’s clothes off of their bodies, and get those smallpox virus.

It was not a circle of life, but a circle of grave robbing.

Grave robbing is a bad idea in general, even though 99% of the corpses you might meet are perfectly safe, it’s that 1% that get you.

Warrior, early 1900s. He reminds me of Snoop Dogg.

Our encyclopedia notes that about 1,500 Haaninins (about half their number) were killed by smallpox. As with all smallpox cases, people who survived might be blind or disfigured.

In 1888, the U.S. government stole 17,500,000 acres from the Haaninin, and they’ve been making due in a smaller area, still in Montana, ever since.

A little more about the group we’re looking at today: though they’ve been abused by white people for many years, the Haaninin have maintained two of their sacred items, the Feathered Pipe and the Flat Pipe. And in 2012, 63 bison were released in their area. They were happy to have bison back.

Ms Lamebull.

Last fun fact about this group: their most famous member might be Theresa Elizabeth Chandler White Weasel Lamebull, a member of the Haaninin and the oldest native American to have their age noted in white people’s official history books. She helped teach her native language and preserve it, up until she was 109.

Her Indian name was “Kills At Night.”

She was thought to have been 111 years old when she died, in 2007. A building in their area was named in her honor. Do you want to go to classes at the Kills At Night Center? I really do.


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