Isenberg Injects New Insight into Indian Vaccination Act

By Griselda Jarquin – Why did the United States government vaccinate Native Americans while forcibly relocating them? How was the vaccination program used to justify U.S. expansion into the West? On February 1, 2017, at the first Environments & Societies colloquium of the quarter, Temple University’s Andrew Isenberg explained.

Isenberg is a professor of history whose work examines the intersection between the borderlands, medicine, and the state in the nineteenth century. His paper, “An Empire of Remedy: Vaccination, Natives and Narratives in the North American West,” analyzes what appears to be an incongruity in American policy: the creation and implementation of the 1832 Indian Vaccination Act.

These mass inoculations were carried out at the height of the of the Indian removal program, when the federal government forcibly relocated tens of thousands of natives from territories east of the Mississippi River to reservations in the trans-Mississippi West.

American weaknesses

Historians cite manifest destiny and the Indian removal program as major factors in colonial westward expansion. How, then, do we reconcile the federal government’s efforts to enact a vaccination program? Early historians understood it within the context of the American conquest of the West.

For instance, some argued the vaccination program was a “cynical exercise,” while others believed that the U.S. government used vaccination as an incentive for resistant or hostile Indians to cooperate. Recent historians of medicine, meanwhile, have argued that vaccination programs “aimed to extend the power of the state.”

Isenberg takes this interpretation one step further. He argues that although the vaccination program did attempt to extend U.S. influence, it is perhaps best understood “in light of manifold American weaknesses: the vulnerability of Americans to smallpox and the inability of Americans to realize their claim to sovereignty in the West.” For many Americans, fear of a smallpox outbreak outweighed their fear of Native Americans.

Medical diplomacy 

In addition, the West in the 1830s was still a borderland. There, the U.S. enjoyed only limited influence, forcing it to compete with other imperial powers, such as Britain and Mexico, for sovereignty. Aiming to garner goodwill and loyalty among Native Americans, the U.S. used vaccination as a form of medical diplomacy

Vaccination was also “a part of a paternalistic narrative that legitimized American advances into the West.” Americans used the vaccination program to convince not only the Native Americans but also themselves of their benevolence, highlighting how the Native Americans stood to gain from American rule.

“In the 1830s,” Isenberg said, “the United States was an empire of medical remedy. Through vaccination, Americans hoped to convince themselves—in the face of Indian removal and their encroachments into Mexican territory—of the safety, certainty, and benignity of the American body politic.”

Outlasting imperialism

Complicating this narrative further, Isenberg explained that the vaccination program to eradicate smallpox was by no means a uniform, top-down policy. “Local physicians and intended recipients of the vaccine exercised decisive agency and control over the process.”

Explaining the difference between direct acculturation, which was characterized by forced assimilation, and permissive acculturation, which refers to choices that Native Americans willingly made, Isenberg argues that the vaccination program fits in the latter category.

“Native American willingness to be vaccinated—embracing a European medical innovation to counteract the spread of an Old-World disease—reflected natives’ ability to adapt to, and thus outlast, European ecological imperialism,” he said. 

Learn more about Andrew Isenberg.

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The Environments & Societies Research Initiative is administrated by the Institute for Social Sciences.