Strong Hearts and Healing Hands: Book Review by Super Star Agni

In his 2019 book titled Fighting Invisible Enemies: Health and Medical Transitions among Southern California Indians, author and professor Clifford E. Trafzer (Wyandot), examined the gradual incorporation of Western medicine into Southern California Indian communities. In the sequel, Strong Hearts and Healing Hands: Southern California Indians and Field Nurses, 1920–1950, he delves deeper into the working relationship field nurses and Native people built during that period and the resulting decline of mortality from infectious diseases.

Trafzer writes that during the late nineteenth century, the Office of Indian Affairs first introduced Indigenous peoples of Southern California to Western medicine. Moving into the early twentieth century, more Native people used Western medicine, especially to fight infectious diseases believed to be transmitted by Westerners. During this time, public-health nurses recognized the key elements to controlling and defeating pandemics: quarantining, testing, and tracking cases and contacts—the same tactics used today to fight COVID-19, which has caused the worst pandemic since the 1918 flu pandemic.

As with Fighting Invisible Enemies, Strong Hearts and Healing Hands is one of few works with an impressive amount of integrated Native and Western historical medical research. In addition to noting contributions of Native elders, leaders, and healers, such as Martha Manuel Chacon (San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians) and Pedro Chino (Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians), Trafzer also chronicles the work of white and Native field nurses who served in the region between 1920 and 1950. Much of the nurses’ work involved providing medical treatment and educating Southern California Native communities about how to control the spread of diseases, such as tuberculosis.

Also similar to Fighting Invisible Enemies, Strong Hearts and Healing Hands utilizes historical maps and photographs, data tables, reports of Indian Service medical personnel as well as oral histories conducted with several Southern California Indian communities.

The difference, however, is that Strong Hearts and Healing Hands focuses more on the lives and work of the field nurses, both white and Indigenous, as well as on relationships between the nurses and Southern California Native families, mothers, and children.

While the book leans more toward the positive aspects of Native and non-Native medical collaboration, cultural differences and disagreements between parties are also well-documented to provide a more nuanced view:

“Field nurses instructed Indians in sanitation and public health, often sharing health literature discussing diet, nutrition, infant care, home sanitation, and prevention of infectious diseases. Nurses instructed pregnant women about prenatal and postnatal procedures through ‘Little Mother’ and ‘Well Baby’ conferences, clinics, and workshops on and off reservations. Unfortunately, nurses counseled women to use baby formula to feed their infants rather than breast milk. Of course, schools of nursing had emphasized the ‘scientific’ benefits of formula over breast milk, but many Indian mothers knew better and continued to nurse their babies.”

While it may be tempting to call Strong Hearts and Healing Hands a derivative work of Fighting Invisible Enemies due to how much they have in common and given the wider scope of the original, I would argue both are well-researched, highly readable works that succeed in their respective aims.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s