Today is Indigenous Peoples Day, which is a reimagination of Columbus Day that "changes a celebration of colonialism into an opportunity to reveal historical truths about the genocide and oppression of indigenous peoples in the Americas, to organize against current injustices, and to celebrate indigenous resistance" (from the UUA). In honor of the holiday, we interviewed author Kim E. Nielsen, author of A Disability History of the United States, about the history of disability in North American Indigenous culture.
I think that there were two reasons. One was that, as a historian, I'm used to dealing with traditional historical evidence, like letters and court records and maps and tombstones—the tangible things. And they don't really exist for the period prior to European arrival. So the evidence was all the kind of stuff I'm not used to dealing with. I had to look to archaeologists, linguists, contemporary oral culture, elder memory, elder knowledge. It was so different from the types of material I am used to that I didn't even know how to do the research at the beginning. So that was hard, but I also think it was the hardest because it was the furthest away from the reality we live in in 2012. If I argue that disability is impacted by culture—experiences, definitions, are impacted by culture. Of course, it's logical that it will be different in different time periods and different cultures, but the period prior to European arrival is so different from what I am accustomed to that I think it was both really important but also harder for me to understand.
In the first chapter, you say that there's a history of disability among Native Americans but that disability also really doesn't have a history among North American indigenous peoples before European arrival.
I thought it was really funny to do a history of something that in some ways didn't exist because the cultural understandings were so different. If you had no concept of disability as we understand it, how are you going to do that in a history? But I also think it's important in that we're showing that it does change over time, radically. I think that we consider disability to be a certain set of bodily, intellectual, emotional differences, and we think we know what that means. "I know it when I hear it, or see it, or whatever." And people have always had bodily differences, we've always had different skill sets. Some of those we don't pay any attention to, some are highly stigmatized, some are sort of "charming" and "cute." But how we understand disability today didn't exist. I'm coming to the conclusion that disability in most of those indigenous contexts meant someone who was lacking social connections and relationships of reciprocity, that was considered the difference that was most stigmatized. That was most remarked upon, that most put you outside of the larger community.
So people who were born without the full use of a limb, or somebody that was born with what we might now consider a psychological impairment to their fully functioning in our society might not necessarily be set aside as being different or as not being part of their community.
I think they would have been integrated far more into the community, and there would have been efforts to figure out what they could do, how they fit in. But also, simply, there was so much greater bodily differences and intellectual differences that were expected and simply part of the community and what people were. Part of that was simply medical and terrain differences and what it meant to live then. I live in Ohio and I have heating and air conditioning and that has an impact on my skin. And I have antibiotics to help me when I fell down yesterday and scraped my knee. When you live in cultures where that doesn't exist, it impacts your body. So there would simply be greater bodily differences—that would be the norm, that would be expected.
Can you talk about the ideas of integration of body, mind, and spirit? Do you think that affected how people affected these bodily differences.
The words that I kept running across were words like "unwell" or "unbalanced." In many indigenous cultures, they didn't separate out mind, body, spirit the way that Western cultures have, and so the idea was to have an overall wellness. But I could have significant bodily differences and cognitive differences and still be considered balanced and well. And the ideal goal would be to reach a state where one was balanced and well. My bodily differences or mental differences still could exist and be significant, but we would want to return to the wellness or achieve the wellness that may have been upset by a conflict or going near a tree that had been hit by lightning—something that was considered stigmatized or a sign of evil or a sign of an evil spirit or violating a taboo.
The members of the community would be more concerned, then, with helping someone achieve that balance than with "fixing" this thing that happened to them.
Yes—the ill health or the unease was not grounded in the body in the way that we tend to do this in Western medicine, but instead was dependent upon relationships with other people and with the world—the general overall balance of using my gifts, respecting others' gifts.
We have these ideas—these weird ideas of what Native Americas are and were like—that are shaped by popular culture. And I remember watching movies with offensive and unrealistic portrayals of Native Americans where they would speak with their hands. But people really did speak with their hands! And that was a real advantage, wasn't it?
It was! Not in the awkward gestures of old Hollywood movies by any means. But with a relatively sophisticated language. When we think of Indians with a capital "I" as one group, but there were something like 2,500 languages in North America. North America is a big place. And there were lots of different communities and they spoke different languages, and thus it was to their economic advantage, their social advantage, flirting advantage, to have a kind of shared signed language. Linguists have figured out that there was a commonly shared signed language across much of North America that people who spoke different verbal languages could use in trading, or whatever they needed to do. That meant that for anyone who had hearing loss or became deaf, people in their communities knew how to sign. Hearing loss or being deaf did not set you apart as it has historically in Western cultures.
Speaking to those differences between groups... Did you encounter differences that made you think that in certain groups people would have had it easier to integrate with differences in physical abilities?
Yes. I think in cultures that emphasize the warrior role, I think it would have been harder to have certain physical differences. Or cultures that may have been highly mobile, it would have been harder. In some ways, it varied from impairment to impairment, and then it varied by community. In cultures due to the terrain or due to spiritual expression—it's fascinating how many cultures there are.
In the book you discuss the Hopi, and how if you were living according to the Hopi way of life, then you should be perfect. You should have perfect health.
And there's a recognition that no one can do that, and that our bodies change over time, and that's simply the way it is. But yet, one should try to seek the ideal.
I really struggled in this chapter about not wanting to romanticize indigenous cultures too much, and to think about what ideas were versus the reality, and I think that fits in with the understandings of balance. Trying to recognize ideals, trying to recognize people's daily efforts to live up to those ideals. I think that there is in most indigenous cultures an effort to recognize people's skills. I may not be able to speak well, but if I can make baskets that hold water, that is something that can be of immense use to the community. In some ways disability was defined as lacking or still seeking out what those skills were.
European contact obviously disrupted life in numerous ways. Can you talk about how this might have created problems for people living with bodily differences?
I think it's impossible to exaggerate how much of an impact European diseases had. For one, the astronomically high death rate. In some places, a sixty to one hundred percent death rate. If you're left with ten percent, five percent, thirty percent of your community alive, you've disrupted all of those social relationships, those relationships of reciprocity and skill sets. So, I think that what we consider disability today had much more impact after European contact because of the limited communities, but also because people who survived things like small pox, chicken pox, some of the influenza waves, they were more likely to have significantly weakened bodies, to have a loss of sight that was not there before. And they wouldn't have had the community there to rely on that they had before.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the stigmatization of mental illness and an increased governmental push to assimilate Native Americans into white culture combined harrowingly into the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians. Can you talk about this institution?
The U.S. created a lot of institutions at the turn of the twentieth century. Native boarding schools were one, but then there was also a federal asylum for the "insane Indians," as it was called, in Canton, South Dakota. And just as at Indian boarding schools, people were highly discouraged from speaking their indigenous languages, "insanity" was defined in a way that was pretty complicated. That is, historians are beginning to figure out that people who steadfastly maintained their own traditional religious practices were more likely to be institutionalized as insane. People who resisted the authority of the Bureau of Indian Affairs agents, who frustrated the agents, were more likely to be interred as insane. People who maintained traditional gender roles within indigenous cultures were more likely to be determined insane. And institutionalization was a way to threaten and push people into European modes of thinking.
The Hiawatha Asylum was just a horrendous place to be as well, away from family, sometimes with few people who spoke your language. There was not good traditional food, it was a very unpleasant place. The cemetery was right near the asylum, as it was at other institutions and asylums across the United States, but for many indigenous cultures, being so close to one's dead was very taboo, and it was also taboo to not provide them with the proper burial practices so that they could go on their way in their lives happily. So being so close to that and not being able to do death properly was profoundly disturbing to the people institutionalized there.
There are records of European community members considering them to make "insane" noises that proved their insanity. Well, we look back at that and that may have been death mourning practices. They were trying to say goodbye to people properly.