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Indian Fall: Omikiwin (Smallpox)

Omikiwin, the disease of the scabs, as the Cree called smallpox, had appeared among the Blackfoot the previoius autumn. It wages silent but deadly war on that ferocious nation all winter and many people remembered what the shamans had predicted after the Methodists stole the Iron Stone. They had foreseen war, pestilence, and hunger. Now, the second of the prophecies had come true, and the people were filled with terror and rage.

The epidemic, like others before it, had arrived via the Missouri River. It crossed the tribal divide in late spring or early summer of 1870' A Cree raiding party rode into a Blackfoot camp that was deserted except for the dead and the dying, and the Cree warriors carted off weapons, clothing and other goods-all contaminated with the smallpox virus. Then the disease cut a swath of destruction through Cree country.

Scores died around every trading post and mission: one hundred at Fort Pitt; two hundred at the French mission of St. Albert, ten miles north of Edmonton; three hundred at Edmonton. Fear of catching the disease drove some people to commit suicide by drowning. Others fled to avoid being infected and died of starvation. White travellers in Blackfoot country found dozens of dead, abandoned and unburied. The Blackfoot were enraged that this catastrophe had devastated their nation, and some vented their fury by stealing or killing farm animals at the Methodist mission at Victoria. They even attempted to spread the disease to the whites by leaving infected blankets and clothing in white settlements, and rubbing their infected hands on doors and gates.

The saddest story from this summer of sorrow involved a young woman driven to despair by the horror and devastation of smallpox. Her tale was told for years afterward and was eventually published by Joe Dion in his book My Tribe the Crees. "We were told a story of a small party of Crees trying desperately to avoid coming in contact with the sick until at last they came across a village of tepees. As they were moving swiftly along, they noticed a beautiful young woman emerging from a large tent in the middle of the circle. The girl stood in the doorway and in a loud, clear voice she told them that she was the only survivor of the village. Then she sang one of her favorite ballads, ending with the word ahwiya, an expression of extreme pain. 'How I used to love that song when we were all alive,' she lamented as she retreated into the tepee. Some of the folks wanted to take her along but the elders would hear nothing of the kind. They were too concerned about trying to save their own hides.

"A halt was called not far from the ghost village and that night two young men decided to return and bring the unfortunate woman back with them. They reasoned that if they brought her a change of clothing she could not bring the disease with her. The two men, arriving at the death camp, went and stood at the door of the tepee where the girl had been seen. When they did not get any response to their call, they ventured within and there found the poor girl, her feet almost touching the ground. She had hanged herself."

From pgs. 121-122 of Indian Fall: The Last Great Days of the Plains Cree and the Blackfoot Confederacy, by D’Arcy Jenish. Reprinted with kind permission of the author.

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