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David S. Jones

Few developments in human history match the demographic consequences of the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. Between 1500 and 1900 the human populations of the Americas were traBnsformed. Countless American Indians died as Europeans established themselves, and imported Africans as slaves, in the Americas. Much of the mortality came from epidemics that swept through Indian country. The historical record is full of dramatic stories of smallpox, measles, influenza, and acute contagious diseases striking American Indian communities, causing untold suffering and facilitating European conquest. Some scholars have gone so far as to invoke the irresistible power of natural selection to explain what happened. They argue that the long isolation of Native Americans from other human populations left them uniquely susceptible to the Eurasian pathogens that accompanied European explorers and settlers; nothing could have been done to prevent the inevitable decimation of American Indians. The reality, however, is more complex. Scientists have not found convincing evidence that American Indians had a genetic susceptibility to infectious diseases. Meanwhile, it is clear that the conditions of life before and after colonization could have left Indians vulnerable to a host of diseases. Many American populations had been struggling to subsist, with declining populations, before Europeans arrived; the chaos, warfare, and demoralization that accompanied colonization made things worse. Seen from this perspective, the devastating mortality was not the result of the forces of evolution and natural selection but rather stemmed from social, economic, and political forces at work during encounter and colonization. Getting the story correct is essential. American Indians in the United States, and indigenous populations worldwide, still suffer dire health inequalities. Although smallpox is gone and many of the old infections are well controlled, new diseases have risen to prominence, especially heart disease, diabetes, cancer, substance abuse, and mental illness. The stories we tell about the history of epidemics in Indian country influence the policies we pursue to alleviate them today.


For more than a century after the republic’s founding in the 1780s, American law reflected the ideal that the commons—the public domain—should be turned into private property. As Americans became concerned about resource scarcity, waste, and monopolies at the end of the 19th century, reform-minded bureaucrats and scientists convinced Congress to maintain in perpetuity some of the nation’s land as public. This shift offered a measure of protection and an alternative to private property regimes. The federal agencies that primarily manage these lands today—U.S. Forest Service (USFS), National Park Service (NPS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and Bureau of Land Management (BLM)—have worked since their origins in the early decades of the 20th century to fulfill their diverse, competing, evolving missions. Meanwhile, the public and Congress have continually demanded new and different goals as the land itself has functioned and responded in interdependent ways. In the mid-20th century, the agencies intensified their management, hoping they could satisfy the rising—and often conflicting—demands American citizens placed on the public lands. This intensification often worsened public lands’ ecology and increased political conflict, resulting in a series of new laws in the 1960s and 1970s. Those laws strengthened the role of science and the public in influencing agency practices while providing more opportunities for litigation. Predictably, since the late 1970s, these developments have polarized public lands’ politics. The economies, but also the identities, of many Americans remain entwined with the public lands, making political standoffs—over endangered species, oil production, privatizing land, and more—common and increasingly intractable. Because the public lands are national in scope but used by local people for all manner of economic and recreational activities, they have been and remain microcosms of the federal democratic system and all its conflicted nature.