Smallpox vaccinations

September 14, 2007

A couple of days ago, I had to go to the doctor for a routine check-up. The nurse and I determined that I had not had a tetanus shot since 1991, so she rolled up her sleeves, I lowered my pants, and I got it right in the behind. It’s good for ten years, which is to say, I am basically immune from lockjaw for a decade. The little things she injected me with are starting off their ten-year plan of defense against rusty nails and other mishaps.

While I was in the waiting room before the vaccination, I had been studying for my comps. I’m reading a book of essays by various anthropologists and ethnographers about the Huichol people of northwestern Mexico. Unlike many of their indigenous neighbors, the Huichol are famous for maintaining their cultural lifeways in the face of colonialism and the steamrolling external forces of assimilation. They are also famous for the peyote they eat as part of their ritual life. The so-called “Huichol trinity” is peyote, corn, and the deer.

Smallpox, known as etsá in Huichol, was a terrible assassin throughout the Americas in the years after the arrival of the Spaniard colonizers. One of the reasons for the Huichols’ amazing cultural resilience is that they were less affected than some by smallpox because their native medicine discovered vaccination. Allow me to quote at length an essay by Armando Casillas Romo, MD, who did a study of the various diseases and remedies known to the Huichol:

…the dreaded smallpox. The people of San Andrés Cohamiata say that no one in this area has had this disease for a long time, as long as fifty years.

The extraordinary thing is that to ward off this scourge in the absence of medical help from the outside, Huichol shamans developed their own technique of immunization. We were told that the mara’akáte (pl. of mara’akáme) would use the thorns of the plant known as huizache, a thorny shrub found over much of Mexico, to pierce the skin eruptions of people already suffering from smallpox and extract the liquid from them. With the permission of the parents, they would then inoculate the arms of healthy children with this liquid. The cure also involved the same “confessions” rite as that prescribed for rubella.

Several Huichols told us that etsá disappeared from their community thanks to a famous mara’akáme named Carrillo, who died several decades ago. It is said that to “cover up”–that is, calm–the disease he made a pilgrimage to Haixáripá, a sacred place on the slopes of Popocatépetl, the great snow-covered dormant volcano near Mexico City, where Huichol mythology says smallpox made its first appearance. His efforts were successful and small pox never again bothered the people of San Andrés.

All this has left me a little interested in the history of tetanus in our own world. I got a shot without clear understanding of what tetanus even is, why the shot lasts only ten years, and who discovered the inoculation. I also am clear that I have confidence in the shot without any confession or pilgrimage narrative as supplemental community participation in my wellness. So, my vaccination was effective but also socially impoverished.

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10 Responses to “Smallpox vaccinations”

  1. Dave Bonta Says:

    Wow, I hadn’t heard that about Huichol smallpox vaccinations! Vaccination does seem like a good fit with native theories of disease in the region – e.g., attempting to get rid of infection by shamanic immersion in the personality of its purported agent.

  2. Alex Says:

    I am sorry that your backside is hurting, dearest…

  3. Joy Says:

    Thanks for this information Brett. It is very interesting. I think we all just learn to trust the vaccinations we have without really knowing anything about them. Thanks for sharing this! And by the way, ibuprofen and an ice pack will help with the pain. 🙂

  4. sheepdays Says:

    Dave, yeah, I was floored when I read this. But I think you’re right in that it is not completely unlike the rest of southwestern US/northwestern Mexico indigenous healing systems. It’s also interesting to note that vaccinations continue to be an aspect of homeopathic medicine that we all practice despite the near total triumph of allopathic medicine.

    Alex and Joy, thanks for the sympathy for my hindquarter. I’m on the Ibuprofen and will try the icepack of it gets too ouchy. Maybe a little peyote would set me straight.

  5. Little Mary Says:

    and you know that peyote is harder and harder to find these days cause the gringos are going to have their spiritual experiences…heard that on npr the other day. and i really dont’ want to picture you getting a shot in your ass, but i am glad it did the trick!

  6. sheepdays Says:

    LM-what?! You don’t want to visualize that?
    Yeah, I’ve heard that about gringos too. Very crappy.

  7. Liz Says:

    Bonnie’s ex father-in-law was one of the few people who contracted lockjaw and lived. The story is that he wished he would have died because of the excruciating pain. Funny thing is that man looked cadaverous. Seriously. I don’t know if that was from his lockjaw, or not.

    My mother made us get tetanus shots for (nearly) everything. I am safe through 2317.

  8. Cathy Says:

    Hmmmm. . . . I’ve only every had to raise my shirt sleeve. Hmmm. . . .

    BTW – Reverend Cotton Mather learned of inoculation from a slave on whom it was performed when he was a child in Africa. This is interesting:
    http://www.todayinsci.com/B/Boylston_Zabdiel/Boylston_Zabdiel.htm

  9. sheepdays Says:

    Cathy, thanks very much for this link. This kind of thing is absolutely fascinating and inherently subversive of the standard western assumptions about medicine.

    The nurse said I could have it in my arm or backside but that it would hurt less in the rear because there was more “muscle mass” back there. Yeah, that’s what it is…


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