Medicalizing "Indianness" and articulating health in Haudenosaunee country

Authors: Meredith Palmer*, UC Berkeley
Topics: Cultural Geography, Indigenous Peoples, Medical and Health Geography
Keywords: Native American and Indigenous Studies, Science and Technology Studies, Race Critical Theory, Critical Health Geography
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/5/2019
Start / End Time: 3:05 PM / 4:45 PM
Room: President's Boardroom, Omni, East
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The Thomas Indian School (1855-1957) in Cattaraugus, NY, was a state-run asylum for Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) children that aimed to civilize and assimilate children by training them in “proper” gender, sexual, domestic, and labor practices. Such education for civilization was directly linked by state and federal policy-makers with allotment (the Dawes Act, 1887), which was the policy of dividing Native lands into small nuclear-family owned plots rather than sovereign lands run by indigenous governance. In efforts to treat and prevent health disparities among Native people, state officials and school staff created a spectacle of “care” that remains in the archive today. Drawing on centuries-old racist understandings of Indians as inherently infirm, state officials and school staff reproduced relations of inequality, paternalism, and set the stage for present-day Native health disparities. Today, Haudenosaunee health activism is faced with the paradox: how does one heal from trauma without re-creating the image of the “damaged” or infirm Indian? Drawing on archival research, interviews, and oral history, this paper argues that “care” of Native people by the settler state is entangled with the annihilation of sovereign Native claims to land. I show that these techniques undermine, but do not preclude practices of Haudenosaunee ethics of care and sovereignty.

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