A century ago ... so much like now

Joe Ironpipe and his son posed for Bureau of Indian Affairs superintendent Fred Campbell as he conducted a survey of Indians and their land allotments on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. The family cabin is just visible in the valley. (National Archives)

Mark Trahant

American Indians suffered severely from epidemic influ­enza in the early months of 1920, much as they had in the previous deadly wave of the disease

Mark Trahant

Indian Country Today

A century ago it wasn't toilet paper. It was lemons.

As one grocery store owner told The New York Times in 1920: “When a person begins to feel a cold coming, he immediately thinks he is going to have the 'flu.' The first thing he does is to buy lemons with which to make a hot lemonade before going to bed. The demand for lemons was doubled at the start of the influenza epidemic, and at present it has quadrupled. The result has been a scarcity of lemons in the market.”

Human nature has not changed much.

A century ago in 1920, the influenza pandemic had been raging for two years. The COVID-19 pandemic could run a similar course. A team of pandemic experts at Harvard last week predicted that the epidemic is likely to keep spreading for another 18 to 24 months in the U.S. They urged officials to stop telling people that the pandemic is on the wane, and instead to prepare for a long period of intense effort to quell upcoming waves of disease.

Two years was a tall order then, too. The country was tired of social distancing and the rules that enforced the public health orders. People wanted to look forward to brighter days. After all by the fall of 1919, the flu had all but disappeared, and the news of the day shifted from the pandemic to strikes and riots in Omaha, Nebraska, and in Youngstown, Ohio.

“Unemployment, the high cost of living, riots and strikes, prolonged illnesses, and the death of loved ones had made 1919 an unpleasant memory,” wrote Dorthy Ann Pettit in a 1976 doctoral dissertation, “A Cruel Wind: America Experiences Pandemic Influenza, 1918-1920 A social history.” She wrote as The New York Times observed on Jan. 1, 1920: "There were times during 1919 when the era leading up to the war seemed, in the casual retrospect, like some far off golden age.”

There was a growing suspicion in 1920 about the nature of government. The Red Cross was essentially the public health system before the pandemic. Today there are new questions about the role of government. As The New York Times reported Saturday: "In 2019, just 17 percent of Americans said they trusted the federal government to do the right thing. The pandemic appears to be eroding their faith even more."

The first month of 1920 was rough. Washington, D.C., reported a surge in new cases. Pettit wrote that the assistant secretary of the Navy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was scheduled to speak to the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce at a luncheon on Jan. 10, had to postpone his appearance before the group because of a "severe cold."

Indeed the common refrain from government officials was to only report a “cold” instead of the flu, a line repeated by public health officials at the time. By February the pandemic had clearly returned. Interior Secretary Franklin Lane wrote to a friend that “all my force is sick.” Pettit wrote that “Lane himself evidently escaped the virus, other Cabinet members did not.” At least three cabinet officials were home with "colds."

Then, like now, people disputed the collection of data about the flu. In addition to officials dismissing the illness as a cold, others dismissed the illness as La Grippe or “the grip.” Some doctors said it was a pneumonia epidemic.

“But the course of the disease in 1920 was as erratic as it had been in the fall of 1918,” Pettit wrote. “Some communities had high morbidity and mortality rates; other areas were only moderately affected. New York City suffered severely in 1920. Indeed, more cases of influenza were reported on a single day in New York City in early 1920 than on any day during the autumn wave of the disease in 1918.”

Indian Country was hit hard in 1920, too.

“American Indians suffered severely from epidemic influ­enza in the early months of 1920, much as they had in the previous deadly wave of the disease,” wrote Pettit. “In one small Paiute village in Inyo County, California, the rural mail carrier found every inhabitant stricken with the disease in the latter part of February. More than one hundred victims had died, and none in the village had received medical attention.”

Then, like now, there was a race for a cure or a vaccine. The Denver Post even offered $25,000 for a cure.

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Seattle conductor requiring a mask before bordering the trolly. (National Archives)

There was confusion and rebellion over the use of masks. Some cities such as San Francisco had stiff fines. In Denver, an order to wear masks was rejected by many. One woman working at a shop said flatly, “The masks make my nose go to sleep.” Streetcar conductors said they had no method of enforcing compliance from transit riders  so they were given an exemption. But in Seattle, conductors took a stand and refused boarding to those without masks.

All told, the influenza pandemic killed some 50 million people worldwide, with about 675,000 of those deaths in the United States, according to figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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National Archives

By 1920 it had started to change society in dramatic ways.

Doctors Simon Flexner and Royal S. Copeland — the prominent public health officials of their time — said they supported Congress appropriating $500,000 to study influenza. “But I see no reason why, instead, $5,000,000 should not be appropriated,” Dr. Flexner told the New York Sun and World Herald. Flexner was head of the Rockefeller Institute, and Copeland was New York City’s health commissioner.

Congress did appropriate funds in 1920 for the expansion of nurses and doctors. A report by Flexner’s Rockefeller Institute showed an 83 percent increase in professional nurses from 1910 to 1920, and nearly 10 percent of those nurses worked in public health.

And that, too, is a legacy that reached Indian Country. There was a pipeline beginning for women to go from Haskell and Hampton schools into further education or into basic nursing. One Haskell graduate, Lutiant, wrote her friend Louise in 1918 from her new station in Washington, D.C.: “As many as 90 people die every day with the ‘Flu’. Soldiers are dying by the dozens. So far, Felicity, C. Zane, and I are the only Indian girls who have not had it. We certainly consider ourselves lucky.”

She said the work was hard. “Believe me,” she wrote her friend. “We were always glad when night came because we sure did get tired. We had the actual Practical nursing to do — just like the other nurses had, and were given a certain number of wards with three or four patients in each of them to look after.”

In addition to her romantic adventures, the nurse told her friend about living in Washington: “It is certainly a beautiful place.” She wrote that she walked by the Capitol, Union Station, the War Department and Lincoln Park on her way to work. “But the place is closed on account of the ‘Flu.'” She later added: “All the schools, churches, theaters, dancing halls, etc., are closed here.”

A decade later the first nursing school was established for American Indians at Sage Memorial School of Nursing in the Navajo Nation in Ganado, Arizona. Ruth Henderson and Charlotte Adele Slivers became the first graduates from the school, which went on to graduate American Indian nurses from more than 50 tribes. (Flu wasn't the only epidemic facing Indian Country. There was also tuberculosis and trachoma.)

Swat-the-Flu
Warren G. Harding's campaign for president stressed a return to normal. (National Archives)

One difference between the influenza epidemic of 1918 to 1920 and COVID-19 is time and patience. After two years, Americans were exasperated with the pandemic and ready to move on. A century later, folks are impatient and are demanding normalcy after just five months.

There were debates even then about the damage to the economy (but was the culprit social distancing or the pandemic itself?) and 1920 and 1921 resulted in a Depression.

As Thomas Woods Jr. wrote in the Intercollegiate Review in 2009: “The economic situation in 1920 was grim. By that year unemployment had jumped from 4 percent to nearly 12 percent, and GNP declined 17 percent. No wonder, then, that Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover — falsely characterized as a supporter of laissez-faire economics — urged President Harding to consider an array of interventions to turn the economy around. Hoover was ignored. Instead of "fiscal stimulus," Harding cut the government's budget nearly in half between 1920 and 1922. The rest of Harding's approach was equally laissez-faire. Tax rates were slashed for all income groups.”

But by late summer of 1921 the economy was beginning to revive, leading to the Roaring Twenties.

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Instructions to agency superintendents for Industrial Survey. (National Archives)

The federal government started to think differently about Indian Country too.

In 1921 the Blackfeet Agency superintendent sent a survey to Washington that was well received by higher ups.

One of the stories was about Joseph Ironpipe, Blackfeet, a widower who had lost three wives and two children to tuberculosis. His son, Paul, was the only child remaining. He was buying additional land and had 10 horses, 20 head of cattle, 10 acres of wheat and a garden planned. The agency reported his younger brother, John, helped on the farm, living in a tent near Joe’s cabin and, when pressed by the superintendent, admitted to having no future plans. Joe’s son, Paul, was said to be “very bright” and in “very good physical condition.”

The BIA wanted that “industrial survey” to go national. On March 23, 1922, Bureau of Indian Affairs Commissioner Charles Burke issued Circular 1774 that set a tight time frame for such reports and said excuses would not be tolerated, especially the “stock excuse” of not enough time.

The “economic” surveys are classics of colonialism. Indeed the very notion of this survey was to measure “progress.”

Burke wrote to the agency superintendents: “It is important for Indians to do better every year. They cannot stand still. If they do not move forward they go backward. All Indians who do not respond will ultimately be left behind in the march of progress … We want every Indian to take account of his situation. If now farming, induce him to farm more and better; if not farming or engaged in some other occupation, get them busy at something that will add to their comfort and welfare.”

The year 1920  like 2020  was a presidential election year. And the winner, Warren Harding, ran against the incumbent government promising normalcy. “Normal men and back to normalcy will steady a civilization which has been fevered by the supreme upheaval of all the world,” he told supporters. “Back to normalcy” and “return to normalcy” were quickly adopted as Harding campaign slogans (along with another one, “America First.”)

Then the famed newspaper editor William Allen White of the Emporia Gazette in Kansas had a different take on 1920. He wrote: "What a God-damned world this is! I trust you will realize that I am not swearing; merely trying to express in the mildest terms what I think of the conditions that exist. What a God-damned world! Starvation on the one hand, and indifference on the other, pessimism rampant, faith quiescent, murder met with indifference, the lowered standard of civilization faced with universal complaisance, and the whole story so sad that nobody can tell it. If anyone had told me ten years ago that our country would be what it is today, and that the world would be what it is today, I should have questioned his reason."

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Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, is editor of Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter - @TrahantReports

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