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Smallpox Epidemics, Part Four:
David Thompson’s Journals and the tales of Sokumapi

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Among the many stories in the journals of explorer David Thompson, are those of Sokumapi.

As historian Michael Payne points out, Sokumapi was baffled by the spread of smallpox among the nations of southern Alberta, particularly the Peigan people.

In Sokumapi’s account, he talks about the fact that they came across an encampment of people that they refer to as Snake Indians, and they went into the encampment – Snake Indians were enemies of the Peigan at the time – and they went into this encampment, and they discovered all these people either dead or dying. And, as he put it, he said, “we had no sense that somebody could spread a disease from one person to another, anymore than one man could give another man his wound.”

So they took material from this camp and then left, and shortly afterwards they began to die.

At the time of the great smallpox epidemic of 1781-82, people still had little scientific knowledge about germs and the spread of disease.

Sokumapi told David Thompson, for example, about one man who went, and there was a large, solitary pine tree in the area, that people thought had great spiritual significance and so on, and so he went and prayed to it for the recovery of himself and his family. He offered it sweet grass, he offered it horses and other presents, but in the end, only he, one of his wives and a son survived. And Sokumapi says that as soon as this man had recovered enough, he climbed the tree and he cut its top off, out of revenge for not having saved his family.

Smallpox shook the faith of aboriginal people, and it undermined their culture. For among the dead were their elders, the storehouse of aboriginal knowledge and wisdom.

But if you have a society that relies extensively on experience, oral tradition, the handing-on of knowledge, and wisdom and understanding to people who are young, I guess the equivalent would if we had a disease that caused the closing of our universities, or the destruction of our libraries. What you are talking about is an enormous loss of knowledge and understanding of the world.

On the Heritage Trail,

I’m Cheryl Croucher.

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