NEH Funds Research on Collaboration of Indigenous, Western Medicine Ways

Scholar awarded $50,400 to complete work on cooperation between Southern California tribes, public health nurses to eradicate diseases in 20th century

Clifford Trafzer

Historian Clifford E. Trafzer has been awarded a $50,400 grant by the National Endowment for the Humanities to complete a book manuscript about the collaboration of indigenous and Western medicine among Southern California Indians.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Tuberculosis killed Native Americans in Southern California at far higher rates than the rest of the state in the first quarter of the 20th century. By mid-century the crude death rate for tuberculosis among Southern California Indians had decreased by more than 75 percent as tribal communities and white public health nurses and doctors worked together to curb deaths by infectious diseases.

The National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded Clifford E. Trafzer, UC Riverside distinguished professor of history and Rupert Costo Chair in American Indian Affairs, a $50,400 grant to finish research and complete a book manuscript about this collaboration of indigenous and Western medicine among 29 tribes in Southern California.

Although some authors have written about Indian medicine in Southern California, no scholar has conducted historical medical research that integrates tribal and white cultures in the region in the 20th century, Trafzer said.

“The book will be the first to examine the traditional medicine ways of 29 tribes of the Mission Indian Agency and the ways in which indigenous people worked cooperatively with public health nurses and doctors to curb infectious diseases during the 1930s and 1940s,” particularly tuberculosis, pneumonia, influenza and gastro-intestinal disorders, Trafzer explained.

“Humanities scholars typically examine the interactions of races, which often resulted in negative actions,” he said. “But my research demonstrates the positive ways indigenous peoples and white public health nurses worked together to fight pathogens causing illnesses and deaths.”

The one-year project, “Indigenous and Western Medicine Ways Among Southern California Indians, 1900-1955,” will begin July 1, and will enable Trafzer to wrap up a decade of research on the role of white public health nurses in particular in helping tribes eradicate infectious diseases in the 1930s and 1940s.

“Nurses traveled thousands of miles and entered many indigenous households on each reservation to teach and educate about communicable diseases,” Trafzer explained. “Based on my statistical analysis of death records from 1924 to 1948, Native Americans and Western health-care providers drove down crude death rates caused by every infectious disease. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Cahuilla, Serrano, Cupeño, Luiseño, Kumeyaay, Chemehuevi, and other tribes of the Mission Indian Agency, as well as tribes on the Pacific Coast and the Colorado River, continued their ancient medical arts.”

As a result of a national investigation in 1928 that produced the report “The Problems of Indian Administration,” the Medical Division of the Office of Indian Affairs contracted county public health nurses to serve the tribes overseen by the Mission Indian Agency, the historian said. These nurses visited homes, clinics and schools to teach germ theory and convinced Native people to follow new medical and public health practices.

“While Native Americans continued their medicine ways treating physical, mental and spiritual illnesses, they also began using Western medicine,” he said. “Working cooperatively with indigenous communities, nurses and doctors bridged the two cultures and treated Native patients, lowering the crude death rates between 1924 and 1948 of all infectious diseases, particularly tuberculosis, pneumonia, influenza and gastro-intestinal disorders. Western and Native medicine intersected positively, and people worked together to reduce infant mortality and all causes of deaths.

“This is a remarkable success story of people, especially Native American women and non-Native field nurses, working together to better human health,” Trafzer added. “Women are at the core of this success story.”

The grant will enable Trafzer to complete oral interviews and analyze thousands of pages of birth and death records needed to complete his book, which has its working title “Changing Medicine: Intersection of Native American and Western Medicine Ways in Southern California, 1900-1955.”

Trafzer is the author of several books, including “A Chemehuevi Song,” “Comanche Medicine Man: Kenneth Coosewoon’s Great Vision, Blue Medicine & Sweat Lodge Healings,” “Renegade Tribe: The Palouse Indians and the Invasion of the Inland Pacific Northwest” and “Death Stalks the Yakama: Epidemiological Transitions and Death on the Yakama Indian Reservation, 1888-1964,” and was co-editor of “The Indian School on Magnolia Avenue: Voices and Images from Sherman Institute.”

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Clifford E. Trafzer
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E-mail: clifford.trafzer@ucr.edu

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