The following book review originally appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of News from Native California.
In Fighting Invisible Enemies: Health and Medical Transitions Among Southern California Indians, professor and historian Clifford E. Trafzer (Wyandot) examines the gradual inclusion of Western medical practices with traditional Native medicine to combat the spread of settler-borne diseases among Indigenous communities of the Mission Indian Agency of Southern California during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
While writings on Southern California Indian medicine exist, few contain the amount of integrated Native and Western historical medical research as Fighting. In addition to noting the contributions of Native elders, leaders, and healers, such as Lorey Cachora (Quechan) and Pedro Chino (Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians), Trafzer also chronicles the work of field nurses who served in the region between 1928 and 1948. In addition to providing medical treatment, much of the nurses’ work involved educating families on how to control the spread of diseases. Even as tribal members accepted Western medicine over time, however, use of traditional medicine continued.
Fighting illustrates that while sickness was a reality for Southern California Indians before European contact, the introduction of Western diseases to the region post-contact marked a devastating flash point. During this time period, many families within the Mission Indian Agency died of infectious disease, including tuberculosis, pneumonia, and gastrointestinal disorders. Moreover, settlers eventually destroyed all the Indian economies of Southern California and prevented Indigenous peoples from accessing hunting and gathering grounds.
“Various aspects of settler colonialism during the nineteenth century had rendered the indigenous population of Southern California vulnerable to starvation, new microorganisms, and the destructive policies of federal, state, and local officials,” Trafzer writes.
Nearly 30 years in the making, Fighting was ultimately made possible by a grant awarded to Trafzer in 2016 by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).
“My NEH research grant gave me the time to spend a year focused exclusively on turning my research into a book manuscript…,” Trafzer said in a January 2020 NEH interview. “I am a professor and researcher, and have administrative duties as the Costo Chair of American Indian Affairs at the University of California, Riverside, all of which take me away from my project. NEH gave me time to finish a project I had started in the 1990s.”
Through use of historical maps and photographs, death certificates and death registers found in the National Archives, reports of Indian Service district medical officers, physicians, and field nurses as well as oral histories conducted with several Southern California Indians communities, Fighting does well to humanize clinical statistics and contextualize changes resulting from the incorporation of Western medicine. It also serves as a reminder in contemporary times of the importance of being in balance not only with nature, but also with one another.