Historical Events

Bishop Reeve thinks Athapaskans were healthiest people in the world on native diet - would likely die from old age instead of disease, but became sickly from epidemics and Diseases of Europeanization

Cancer: Disease of Civilization?

"Before Europeans came, Bishop Reeve thought, his Athapaskans must have been among the healthiest peoples in the world. But many of them died young nevertheless. At childbirth the mortality was high, especially for babies but also for mothers. Accidents were many in childhood and youth, indeed throughout life. Though famines came seldom, the wiping out of small groups by starvation was frequent. Murders occurred, but not as often as among whites. Women who survived the childbirth period, and their male contemporaries, would more likely die from old age than from disease.

The problem of whether old age descended upon Indians sooner or later than upon whites, the bishop thought, could be discussed only with regard to probabilities, since undisputed facts were hard to come by. He had read in the books of some explorers, and in some Hudson's Bay Company reports from early traders, that old age was supposed to afflict the native prematurely. But himself he was unable to see how those writers could have found this out, even if their interpreters were of the best. For the very idea of counting years, to keep track of a person's age, was foreign to native thinking and had been brought into the Athapaska country by these same Europeans. The only fact that a Mackenzie River Indian could know about anybody's age, and the only thing he could have told anybody, was which of his neighbors were older than others.

By the time he discoursed with us in 1906, Bishop Reeve had been pondering matters of northern Canadian native health and longevity for thirty-seven years, starting in 1869. During the scores of hours in which the bishop shared his knowledge and thinking with us, I gradually came to understand how he classified the diseases and derangements which he believed were derived from Europe and which he chiefly blamed for changing the Athapaskans from healthy to sickly, and for reducing the population of the northern third of our continent from several millions to fewer than one hundred thousand. His grouping of these presumed imports seemed to be:

1. Cataclysmic germ afflictions that swept away the robust and the weak indiscriminately.

2. Insidious germ infections to which the strong were resistant.

3. Sicknesses which probably were not due to a germ freshly introduced by Europeans but which likely were caused by a deleterious way of life introduced from Europe.

Diseases of Europeanization. These included a dozen maladies such as cancer, rickets, scurvy, and tooth decay. Their recent appearance among the Athapaskans was charged by the bishop to the introduction of such foods as bread and sugar, and to such new food-handling methods as the preservation of meats with salt and the overcooking of fresh foods."


Bishop Reeve seemed a little doubtful about the heroic Marsh technique when it was used against a germ disease like tuberculosis. But against another group of ills he felt sure the native life was a panacea, preventing those derangements which he believed to be caused by eating the wrong foods or by not eating the right ones. This baker’s dozen or so of diseases he thought nutritional. I consider his full list farther on, along with some additions contributed by Alaskan and Canadian medical missionaries. I shall now select three from this lot, because in 1906 everybody along the Mackenzie River system was talking about them, as part of what they had to say about the Klondike Gold Rush.

Stefansson 1960

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