Europeans encountered Indians, the Indians were inoculated with European microbes -- if
only by breathing on them -- and often the result was disastrous. Native North Americans
had no natural immunities to such common European afflictions as smallpox, measles and
influenza. To someone whose immune system is working, a case of measles can mean no more
than a mild fever. For someone with no immunities, it is most likely deadly.
From a vantage point atop a certain Indian-made mound, Hernando de Soto had once reported seeing several Indian villages. A century and a half later, French chroniclers standing on the same mound could see none. It is estimated that during the 150 years between de Soto's march and the moment when Europeans once again entered the Southeastern region, 80% of the Indian population may have disappeared.
"Disappeared" is too tame a word. Not only does it not evoke the image of so many painful deaths of people who were loved and needed by their families and societies, but also the word fails to evoke the social and emotional confusion the diseases must have spread.
With so many leaders and older wise people dying, the Indian nations must have lost all their sense of direction. With so many priests disappearing among these very religious cultures, people must have anguished about how to properly continue honoring the spirits of their ancestors, and how to restore their own relationships with their gods. Yes, to be causing such misery -- to even take away the powers of all the old medicines -- the gods must be very angry. What had the Indians done to deserve such punishment?
Not only were the old medicines useless, but the gods themselves seem to have given up on them. The prayers, chants, sacrifices, and talismans practiced by their holy people now were clearly useless. The Indians had been forsaken in every way by every force of nature and the spirit world.
Soon after de Soto's visit, sparked by general anguish throughout the southeastern tribes, a widespread religious revival took place among the southeastern Indians. It was known as the Southern Death Cult, or the Buzzard Cult. But, soon, even the fervor engendering this cult withered and vanished.
Honor and bravery were important to Indian braves, yet now everyone knew how the Europeans had trounced one tribe after another, and there had been no revenge. Had the braves not been brave enough? Was anything left of their honor? As 80% of the Indian world lay down to die, physical pain and the unimaginable sorrow of the moment mingled with self-doubt and spiritual apprehension.
Whole Indian nations vanished. Pitiful and dispirited remnants of once proud societies merged for mutual protection into new, less cohesive confederations. But in these new groupings, the vitality and drive of the old nations was missing.
The people had lost the favor of their gods. And when even the gods suddenly turn against you, what hope can there be for yourself and your children?
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