Historical Events

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Stefansson describes how tuberculosis was made worse by modern houses, and would be made better by returning to open air living in tents.

May 1, 1906

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My Life with the Eskimos - Chapter 2

Vilhjalmur Stefansson

Christianization
Tuberculosis
Pre-civilization races
Eskimo

On my first visit to Hay River, in 1906, the mission was in charge of Rev. Mr. Marsh, an excellent man in many ways, and remarkable as one of the first missionaries in the North to realize the deadliness to the Indian of the white man's house. Few things are more common in missionary conferences than to have those who have just returned from work in distant fields show with pride the photo graphs of the native communities at the time of the coming of the missionaries, and again a few years later. Typically the first picture shows a group of tents or wigwams, while twenty years later the missionary is able to point with pride to how, year by year, the number of cabins increased until now the last tipi has gone and a village of huts has replaced them. They do these things and we listen and applaud, in spite of the fact that we ourselves have come to realize that the way to deal with tuberculosis, which is deadly among us but far more deadly among the primitive peoples, is to drive the affected out of the house and into tents in the open air ; and while charitable organizations in New York are gathering money to send the invalids of the city into the open air, there are also in New York missionary organizations gathering money to be used in herding the open air people into houses. While the missionary shows on the one hand a series of pictures indicating the growth of his village of civilized looking dwellings, it would be interesting to ask him if he happens to have also a series of photographs illustrating the growth of the graveyard during the same period. No dwelling could be more sanitary and more likely to forestall tuberculosis than the tipi of the Indians of the Mackenzie Valley. It is not only always filled with fresh air, but it never becomes filthy, because it is moved from place to place before it has time to become so ; but when a house is built it cannot be moved . The housekeeping methods which are satisfactory in a lodge that is destined to stand in one place only two or three weeks at a time, are entirely unsuited for the log cabin , which soon becomes filthy and remains so. Eventually the germs of tuberculosis get into the house and obtain lodging in it. The members of the same family catch the disease, one from the other, and when the family has been nearly or quite exterminated by the scourge, another family moves in, for the building of a house is hard work and it is a convenient thing to find one ready for your occupancy ; and so it is not only the family that built the house that suffers but there is also through the house a procession of other families moving from the wigwam to the graveyard. 


Mr. Marsh saw these conditions and attempted to remedy them , but the Indians had become used to the warmth of the house and refused to go back to their old tenting habits. One family in particular had a daughter grown to womanhood who showed in the spring the symptoms of tuberculosis. In the fall when they wanted to move back from their summer camp into their filthy cabin, Mr. Marsh gave the father a lecture on the unsanitariness of the house and on the necessity of their living in a tent that winter if they wanted to save their daughter's life. But the arguments did not appeal to the Indian. He could not see the germs that the missionary talked about, and did not believe that the cabin had anything to do with it . He announced that he knew better than to freeze in a tent if he could be comfortable in a house and therefore he would stay in the house. But it happened that Mr. Marsh had been a heavyweight prize fighter before he became a missionary, and so he walked into the Indian's house one day and threw him and his family bodily outdoors and their gear after them, nailed up their doors and windows, and told them that he did not want to see them around the village until the next spring. There was some loud talk among the Indians and several threats of shooting and other vio lence, but eventually the family moved out into the woods and stayed away all winter as directed. In the spring they came back with their daughter apparently cured, and when I saw her she looked as well as any woman there. Mr. Vale and Mr. Johnson have since taken up Mr. Marsh's work along lines he had set for them and apparently with good results. In some other places, however, tuber culosis has made a nearly clean sweep of the population. This is noticeably true at Fort Wrigley, where we were told that only nineteen hunters are left in all the territory belonging to that post.