Alex Gunter Parrish on Christian Missions and the Consequences of Colonialism

“Three of our children were folded in the arms of the Good Shepherd during the past year. Tuberculosis, the tendency to which was inherited, took each of them. As none of the teachers … or other white people at Unalaska, are so far as we know ever touched by the great white plague, we have come to the conclusion that it is not the climate but the conditions of living that make the disease so prevalent among the natives. Few children in Alaska are well born. Then, the ignorance of the parents, who seem to make it their chief avocation during the long winters to watch lest a whiff of fresh air get into their cabins, and the lack of good food add their contributions to the inherited tendency.”

– Annual Report of the Woman’s Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1909

Since the news of John Chau’s death reached the wider world, both pundits and people on social media have offered commentary on the merits or folly of Mr. Chau’s actions. One of the strongest criticisms has been the possibility of disease transmission. Recently, Ed Stetzer interviewed experts who helpfully contributed information on epidemiology and missions. While essential to research on colonialism and missions, disease transmission is not the only factor in understanding how disease affects mission fields.

As a historian, I research American missions movements, focusing on how American missionaries were influenced by race theories and how these race theories affected missionary education, proclamation, and public health efforts. As an Alaskan, I was drawn to this history in my home state. My research led me to the troubling story of missions and tuberculosis among Alaska Natives.

The quote that opens this article introduces an argument by some missionaries in southwest Alaska in the early twentieth century. They insisted that Alaska Natives had both a biological and cultural predisposition to the disease. In this short article, I want to introduce this history and suggest that evangelicals must consider how problems of disease and imperialism have intertwined in missions. Using Alaska Natives and tuberculosis as a case study, I argue that missionaries in Alaska spread tuberculosis through destructive ideologies as much as they did through personal transmission.

Contrary to what some anti-missions folks may wish to find in the historical record, there was no missionary “patient zero” who introduced tuberculosis to Alaska. The historian and physician Robert Fortuine, in his book Chills and Fever, notes that archaeological remains of pre-contact Alaskans show some physiological markers similar to tuberculosis. However, even if tuberculosis was present prior to outside contact, the widespread devastation of the disease came only after contact with outside colonizers. Evidence shows that tuberculosis drastically affected indigenous populations in both Russian and American outposts.

The reasons for this spread, in addition to contact with infected outsiders, were due to the disruption of indigenous foodways. The Russian and American commodification of Alaska’s forests and animals devastated regions where people survived by hunting and gathering. According to former Alaskan public health worker Penelope S. Easton, many of the food and care providers in indigenous communities quickly died off from tuberculosis and other diseases. These realities introduced widespread poverty and malnutrition, two significant risk factors for the spread of tuberculosis.

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Source: Christianity Today