Monday, October 11, 2010

Columbus, colonization, and biological reductionism

Today is Columbus Day, which marks 518 years since Europeans colonized the indigenous people of the Americas. The record of Christopher Columbus is covered well here can hardly be disputed. But biological reductionist theories have emerged to rationalize the genocide against First Nations, reducing mass epidemics to immunology, and explaining persisting health gaps with genetics. By ignoring the conditions that shape infectious and metabolic diseases, these theories provide a cover for colonization that blames indigenous people for illnesses imposed on them and detracts from basic demands for self-determination.

     The dominant theory to explain why so many indigenous people died of infections after the Europeans arrived is because Europeans brought new diseases. This theory is called “virgin soil epidemics”, or a more critical term of “biological imperialism”, both reducing mass epidemics to exposure to new microbes. While lack of immunity from prior exposure certainly plays a role in infections, reducing the epidemics to microbes and immunity is problematic.
     It plays on the notion of the “noble savage” and presents a romanticized version of First Nations as being free from illnesses. But infections were spread both ways: while the Europeans brought smallpox and plague they encountered syphilis, yet it was not the Europeans who were wiped out. Many deaths were also from hemorrhagic fever and tuberculosis, which were endemic to the Americas before contact but produced a much higher death toll after Columbus.
     Clearly it was not only microbes but also the unhealthy conditions imposed by colonialism: state violence, poverty, poor housing, malnutrition, lack of clean water, and the denial of self-determination. These factors, sustained for centuries, paved for the way for continual epidemics, but it was very convenient to ignore them. Instead, tuberculosis and its high mortality rates were dismissed as “racial traits” (see Maureen' Lux's Medicine that walks: disease, medicine, and the Canadian planins native people, 1880-1940 for an overview of how the Canadian state imposed conditions that led to epidemics, then blamed First Nations for being biologically inferior, and then quarantined them for being biological threats.)
     This deliberate denial of colonization and its impact of health persists today, resulting in further scapegoating for epidemics. While Health Canada notes there are 117 First Nations communities with boil water advisories, it blames the situation on “community decisions to lower or turn off the chlorinator”. This was clearly not the case during the huge E Coli outbreak in Kashchewan a few years ago. As others have noted with regards to clean water that
"With the federal government‘s responsibility of this community under the Indian Act, Environment Canada‘s responsibility under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act and Health Canada‘s knowledge of the horrible water quality and severe health problems, it can be argued that its refusal to take responsibility of ensuring safe, clean potable water and proper wastewater systems is environmental racism. There is further argument that this is environmental racism when the federal government refused to act on its fiduciary responsibility and refusal to evacuate the First Nations‘ people in this community."

     First Nations also get blamed for epidemic rates of diabetes, and biological reductionist theories have emerged to not only deny colonization but glorify it. The “racial trait” argument to explain tuberculosis has become the “thrifty gene” theory to explain diabetes. Since the biomedical model is ahistorical and oriented to the individual, it reduces illnesses to genetic factors and individual lifestyle choices, but how then to explain the high rates of diabetes amongst First Nations?
     According to the “thrifty gene” theory, indigenous people before Columbus had little food and adapted a gene to convert every spare nutrient to fat, but now this same gene in the context of a widely available “Western diet” leads to epidemic diabetes. This theory, also rooted in the idea of the “noble savage”, perpetuates without evidence the notion that First Nations had no stable food supplies before “western civilization”, and are now being killed with kindness.

     Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper claimed last year that “we have no history of colonialism”, and has refused to sign the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People. The declaration states “Indigenous peoples have suffered from historic injustices as a result of their colonization and dispossession”. These injustices and their persistence have produced, and continue to produce, severe health impacts for indigenous people. Let’s follow the lead of those asking that Columbus Day be re-named Indigenous Rights Day, and support for self-determination that forms the pillar of a healthy society.


  1. There's an excellent discussion about the "virgin soil" theories and other possibilities in the book 1491, by Charles Mann. You make several connections I hadn't thought of before.

  2. Thanks L-girl

    I just saw a photo posted on facebook in response to Columbus Day: "Party like it's 1491".
    Humour and politics go well together...