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Chesie's Journal: Smallpox, Diabetes and Thanksgiving

I was asked what the Riverton Peace Mission is doing for Native American Heritage Month. My initial reaction was that for RPM, every month is Native American Heritage Month. But with November associated with Thanksgiving, I ask you to consider another perspective. What did the colonizers bring the original people belonging to this land?


When Europeans arrived, we brought the Indigenous people smallpox, measles, and flu. The diseases quickly spread. An estimated 90% died because they lacked immunity. Evidence exists that military strategies included giving American Indians blankets intentionally laced with smallpox.


Before colonizers arrived, diabetes was nonexistent in North America. We took away their land and killed their buffalo, leaving them without healthy food to eat. We gave them sugar and alcohol. They gave us immigrant settlers corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, sunflowers, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, peanuts and more.


Today the consequences continue in Fremont County. The average age of death for Natives is 55 years old compared to 71 for the white settlers. Diabetes is 4.6 times greater for tribal people and chronic liver disease is 6.6 times greater. Of the first 20 deaths in Wyoming from COVID-19, 9 were Northern Arapaho living on the Wind River Indian Reservation.


There are no food pantries on the reservation. Food scarcity is real, especially for fresh produce. I received information that some children came to school in the snow this past week without coats. People are without heat and shelter.


People respond generously with one-time donations of food, blankets, and other emergency assistance for the victims of colonization. While good, these actions are band aides where major surgery is needed.


RPM seeks to address the root causes of disease and poverty here. De-colonization is hard work. It takes time, strategy, and resources. It takes determination against the resistance by those who benefit from the status quo.


For Thanksgiving this year, visit with your friends and family to contemplate not just what Native Americans gave to us, but how immigrant settlers harmed those who belong to this land. Then consider what you can do. RPM can help make a meaningful difference.


Fear not. Be humble. Have faith. Be bold. Build relationships. Do justice.

Chesie Lee


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