January 5, 1928
The diseases of the white men can be blamed for the general ill health of the Indians, but adopting a life of flour has even worse consequences for chronic disease according to Ingstad.
The Land of Feast and Famine - The Barren Ground Indians
The Indians seldom live to a ripe old age. It is their custom to bury the dead and erect a circle of tall pointed poles about the grave. If the death takes place in the winter-time, the corpse is preserved in a wooden coffin, and later, when the frost has gone out of the ground, the relatives provide it with burial, even though they must make a long and arduous journey for this purpose.
Formerly the aged and others unfitted to make the long journeys were left behind in the wilderness. This custom is no longer adhered to. Even so, it is as pathetic today as before for an Indian to become old and infirm. By and large, he receives full sympathy from the others, but he who must remain at home with the womenfolk, whilst the hunters are afield after the caribou, no longer enjoys the respect of his fellows, and this is indeed a bitter fate for men who rank the honor of the hunter above all else in life.
In olden times the Indians were susceptible to various illnesses; amongst these may be mentioned the plague of boils. The malady still occurs, although to a lesser extent. The boils often appear on the hips and buttocks and I have seen them as large as clenched fists. It takes quite a long time to effect a cure.
The ancient illnesses are of little significance contrasted with the diseases derived from the white race. Thus tuberculosis has wreaked havoc with the Indians east of Great Slave Lake. Spasmodic epidemics of " flu " have broken out in their ranks and have brought death to many. Venereal diseases, on the other hand, are anything but common. In an earlier portion of this book I have spoken of the epidemics of coughing which break out in the spring of the year and often continue all through the summer months, disappearing as soon as cold weather sets in. These colds can hardly be due to infection from the outside, since they afflict even the Indians living in entirely isolated regions.
Like other primitive peoples, the Indians are lacking in physical resistance to the diseases of the white race. There are other factors, too, which play a definite part in the spreading of disease: the habit of spitting incessantly and the general uncleanliness of the Indians, to which may be added their spirit of resignation when illness begins to assume serious proportions. On the whole, the people east of Great Slave Lake have fared better than the tribes which, to a varying degree, have given up a healthy tepee-life and the food which the wilderness provides, in exchange for a life indoors and a diet of flour.
Ever since ancient times the Indians have had their own medicines prepared from weeds, roots, and bark, often administered to the accompaniment of certain rites. From an old Indian I once received the information that he knew about thirty different kinds of medicines, amongst these a poison which could kill a human being in the course of five minutes. Further than this he would say nothing, for an Indian guards his medical knowledge with the most scrupulous secrecy. How great a part mystic rites and possible frauds play in the cure it is, consequently, difficult to determine. One matter of significance in this connection is worth mentioning, however: the Indian is a most apt subject for all forms of suggestion.
In spite of the fact that the materia medico, of the Indians is so frequently cluttered up with superstition, there are reasons to suppose that a number of their medicines have various effects. It is a known fact, for example, that they have a practical means of abortion. For diarrhoea they use dried rushes. For urinary ailments they drink a broth made from the inner red bark of the willow. For scurvy they boil the needles of the dwarf spruce in water for a short time and drink the liquid. By boiling the inner bark of the larch they obtain an antiseptic, which is then placed upon the ailing part as hot as the patient can stand it. It seems not only to kill infection, but also to cause the wound to heal more rapidly than otherwise. For frost-bite they use the inner bark of the pine. This they chew into a pulp, which they then plaster over the frozen part. May I add that, after writing the above, I allowed an Indian to doctor one of my great toes which had become frozen, but that the inflammation had gone so far that perhaps the treatment of my medicine-man was not wholly to blame? In any event, the result was that Williams of the Royal Mounted Police was obliged to cut away a goodly portion of my toe.