Do White Americans have a “Great Death”?

Posted on November 7, 2013


Nearly every ethnic group has a “Great Death.” By this I mean catastrophic loss of more than human lives. Image

This expression comes (in translation) from the Yup’ik Eskimos and refers to their “Great Death,”  the aftermath of diphtheria, influenza and disease that decimated southwestern Alaskan villages after initial contact with Russian Orthodox and Moravian missionaries in the late 19th century and early 20th century (Napoleon, 1991). Like the sickness and death that swept indigenous populations two centuries earlier in what would become the lower 48 United States, European diseases took more than individual lives. The epidemics ruptured the basic fabric of Eskimo community. Entire villages were wiped out. Where a handful of children survived, missionaries collected them in orphanages. There, they were given “Christian” names, forbidden to speak their native language, and admonished that their joyful and sacred dances were the “dances of the devil.” The survivors lost their cultural identity, forgot the history of how their suffering had occurred, but experienced lingering social problems as a result of the trauma.

We know more about the social impact of the Eskimo Great Death than the pandemics among indigenous people in the continental Unites States because it is nearer to us in time and because oral history and the records of missionaries provide a picture of the wrenching impact of the epidemic and cultural loss. As is the case for other dominated or colonized people, the resultant alienation, displacement, and disproportionate social problems that followed the Great Death could be and were viewed by Euro-Whites as stemming from the backwardness and “innate” inferiority of Eskimos. Nowhere is this ideology more painful and insidious than in the idea that North American people of Asiatic origin are biologically more vulnerable to alcoholism.

This biological determinism is powerfully debunked by Harold Napoleon in his book-length essay entitled The Way of the Human Being. Napoleon points to a previously unacknowledged effect of the Great Death—that it wiped out the communitarian methods of problem-solving and mutual support. Napoleon asserts that, within intact Eskimo communities, elders were the keepers of moral codes and that people came together to address conflicts, deviance and other disruptions in any given village. He further argues that after the fracture of these communal responses people suffered from alienation, unhappiness or confusion but the mechanism for addressing these was lost. He writes that people experiencing problems did not have a way to address problems and therefore experienced a pathological urge to hide their troubles and paralyzing shame, for which there was succor, at least in the short term, in the anesthesia of alcohol, which had also come to Eskimo society, along with disruption and germs.

Napoleon’s essay created a shockwave in Eskimo society when it was first published in 1991. It struck readers as a powerfully true but previously unspoken explanation for the persistent and disproportionate social problems of Eskimos (and other colonized indigenous people), including delinquency, alcoholism, dropoutism and suicide.

I assert that there are dozen of other examples we might give of exploited or dominated people whose ceremonies forbidden, language forgotten, sacred places profaned—whose maps for navigation of the world’s travails were not just misplaced but rendered illegible.

We can also find a compelling example of people who reconstructed their cultural map for dealing with hardship in the Jews who survived the Holocaust. In the decade and a half after the genocide by the Nazis, they were were left with no way to make sense of their lives while millions of kinsmen had died. This is dramatized in “Lovers and other Strangers” by Isaac Bashevis Singer, a story of Jews in New York ten years after the end of World War II. A witness to their rootlessness, Singer portrays sexual promiscuity, alienation and nihilism in survivors who became emotional corpses. Further corroboration of the damage done when a terrible loss is not processed can be found in reports from Israelis during the 1960s who write that the genocide of the 1940s was not discussed, not taught in school, nor processed in the public sphere—until the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961. As the trial of the war criminal unfolded, there was an outpouring of previously suppressed, previously unacknowledged grief.

Another outpouring of grief occurred in American society on the occasion of the television miniseries, Roots, based on the family chronicle by Alex Haley. The book, a culmination of the author’s quest to corroborate oral history he had heard about his slave ancestors, sold out its advance printing of 200,000 copies in 1976; 1.5 million hardback copies were sold in its first 18 months after that, and the fictionalized family memoir has been translated into thirty-three languages. It won the Pulitzer Prize and was adopted a text by universities. ABC-TV estimates that 130 million viewers saw some part of the 12-hour miniseries in January 1977, and that three-quarters of the television audience saw the eight installment of the saga.

The work of processing mass grief and loss is ongoing and it requires learning accurate history and connecting with it. The current drama 12 Years A Slaves (2013) affords an opportunity to remember and emotionally process the brutality of slavery.

In Sinéad O’Connor’s hip hop lament and historical correction entitled, “Famine” the Irish songwriter says, “There has to be remembering/ And then grieving/ So that there then can be forgiving/ There has to be knowledge and understanding.”  She asserts a corrected history of the potato famine and points out that Irish people did not starve because of a blight on the potato crop in 1849, but because British colonizers shipped out the other food, “meat, fish, vegetables” under armed guard.

Both O’Connor’s song and Harold Napoleon’s essay about what he sees as the most important historical and spiritual causes of alcoholism in Yup’ik Eskimos refer to the trauma of the dominated people as posttraumatic stress syndrome. Consistent with O’Connor’s recommendation, Napoleon call for “talking circles” so broken communities can process their pain and reconnect with healthy traditional social patterns.

I began this essay by asserting that every culture has a Great Death. Is this true for every culture except for mine, that is, that of the White, Protestant, middle class American of European ancestry?

What have we lost? What could we possibly have to grieve for? For one thing, in terms of the sheer trauma brought about by the Civil War, the numbers are staggering. More soldiers died in the Civil War than in all other military engagements of the United States combined— an estimated 618,000 people. This was at a time that the free plus slave population was 31 million, so five percent of the U.S. died fighting over slavery.

Other damage comes in the guilt for the crimes of our ancestors. It is a terrible burden, all the more terrible because it is ancestral and more difficult to expiate because there are a thousand ways every day in which we are advantaged and privileged (McIntosh, 1989) because of the misdeeds of our grand-parents and great grand parents. The economic benefit of slavery and oppression to us is hard to calculate; the psychological cost even harder. As Albert Memmi (1965), the postcolonial theorist and author of The Colonizer and the Colonized wrote, not only is the soul of the oppressed rotted by injustice, so too is the soul of the oppressor.

Another ideal that took a body blow because of American slavery and racism was the very idea of the unified and functioning nation-state, an ideal that continues to suffer in the aftermath of the questionable presidential election of 2004, and the obstructionist politics of the Tea Party after the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, and his re-election in 2012. The government shutdown of autumn of 2013 cost the most vulnerable workers of the American nation as much as six billion dollars, a loss that can be traced back to schism in American culture between Blacks and whites and obstructionism against the first American president with acknowledged African ancestry. The damage to all Americans continues until we learn and process our history of racism.

Selected citations

Alaskool Central: online materials about Alaska native history. Posted by Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Fienup-Riordan, Ann. 1991. The Real People and the Children of Thunder: The Yup’ik Eskimo Encounter with Moravian Missionaries John and Edith Kilbuck. Norman, OK:  University of Oklahoma Press.

Loewen, James W. 1995. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. New York: Simon & Schuster.

McIntosh, Peggy. 1989. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Working Paper #189, published in Peace and Freedom, July/August 1989; reprinted in Independent School, Winter 1990. Accessed January 29, 2010 from

Memmi, Albert. 1965. The Colonizer and the Colonized.  Boston: Beacon Books.

Napoleon, Harold. 1991. Yuuyaruq: The Way of the Human Being. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Center for Cross-Cultural Studies.

Taylor, Helen. ‘The Griot from Tennessee’: The saga of Alex Haley’s Roots. Critical Quarterly; Summer 1995. Volume 37 Issue 2, p46, 17 pp.