8. The Search For Cancer Among The Forest Indians Of Alaska

For support of this chapter on the woodland Indians I returned to my study of Alaska's most famous medical missionary, Dr. Joseph H. Romig, whose two sons live in Anchorage. Though formerly helpful, they were not replying to my letters; so I wrote my friend Mrs. Willetta B. Matsen, who is librarian of the Arctic Health Research Center of the U.S. Public Health Service in Anchorage. She replied, in part:

“Unfortunately, I have not been successful in getting to Mr. Robert Roming because his health has not been good this year and he has been outside for surgery — in fact is there now ... Had you noticed that in Jones, ‘Study of the Thlingets,’ there is a statement that at that time no cases of cancer (among the uncivilized woodland Indians) had been found?”

I felt the guiltier about not having consulted Jones early in this investigation because it is one of my earliest memories as a graduate student of anthropology at Harvard that we were all supposed to admire and consult this foremost authority on the woodland Indians of southern Alaska. Now that Mrs. Matsen has reminded me, he shall be the first quoted in this chapter. For Jones was on the scene four years ahead of Roming, and may have been the earlier of the two to publish views on the relations between civilization and cancer.

According to Who's Who, Livingston French Jones, born in 1865, graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1891. From 1892 to 1914 he was a missionary and in 1914 he published at New York A Study of the Thlingets of Alaska, those woodland and shore Indians whom you pass soon after you reach Ketchikan when you come from Seattle, and all along from there to Juneau and almost to Anchorage. South of the Athapaskans, they are the most important forest Indians of Alaska. Jones says in his preface:

“The information imparted to the public in the following pages has been gleaned by the writer almost entirely from the natives themselves, either through their lips or by his own personal observation. Having lived and laboured among them more than twenty years, he has had exceptional opportunities ...” He goes on to say that he has also read widely, to compare the observations and views of others with his own.

As explained previously, it was common with northern missionaries of the late nineteenth century to name cancer as one of a group of diseases that were believed to be rare or absent. I quote from Jones the first paragraphs of his chapter on “Diseases,” and enough more to show the trend of his thinking:

“While certain diseases have always been found among the Thlingets, others that now afflict them are of recent introduction. Tumors, cancers and toothache were unknown to them until within recent years.

“The older ones have yet sound and excellent teeth while the rising generation experiences the white people's misfortune of cavities, toothache and dental torture ... The white man's food, especially his sweetmeats, which are now freely indulged in by the natives, is, no doubt, largely the cause of this change.

“While consumption is now the most prevalent disease among them, we are told by the natives themselves and by careful historians that it is an imported disease ...”

As mentioned in the first chapter of my account of frontier beliefs concerning malignant disease, Bishop Reeve told me on the Mackenzie in 1906 that he had news of cancer's having been found to the west of him beyond the Rockies, in British Columbia and in Alaska, the most civilized natives being the ones afflicted.

Our next witness is from the south Alaska coast, and the southern woodlands that are just west of Livingston Jones and not quite as far west as Joseph Romig.

Dr. J. Lyman Bulkley was born at Sandy Creek, New York, in 1879. He studied medicine from 1896 to 1900 and was graduated with the latter year's class from the medical school of Syracuse University. That year, or the next, he went to Alaska, where, after vicissitudes, he settled down to the practice of medicine at Valdez for some ten years, his last known address there being on McKinley Street. In 1927 he was associate editor of the New York City journal Cancer, under chief editor Dr. L. Duncan Bulkley. To the July issue of 1927 Dr. J. Lyman Bulkley contributed an article, “Cancer among Primitive Tribes,” in which he wrote:

“The observations, which the author of this article has used, principally ... are the result of the experiences of others ... His own personal observations on the subject were gathered during a sojourn of about twelve years among several of the different tribes of Alaskan natives, during which time he never discovered among them a single true case of carcinosis ...

“In the nearly twelve years which the writer of this article spent in Alaska, during which he came into contact with many of the different tribes of the natives living there (although not all), he never found a true case of cancer among the full-bloods and but very few among those of mixed blood. The food of these people consists almost exclusively of fish and some shell fish, with cereals, berries and some vegetables ...

“... the writer feels that the conclusion can be safely drawn that to civilization and all its influences may be attributed in a very large measure ... the increase in frequency of malignancy among primitive races.”

At Valdez, where Dr. J. Lyman Bulkley practiced medicine for a decade following 1900, we come westbound to the forest Indians and coastal Eskimos among whom Dr. Joseph H. Romig practiced medicine through more than forty-four years, from 1896 past 1940.

In his later decades, especially after the government built the railway north from Seward through Anchorage to Fairbanks, and after Dr. Romig became primarily a railway employee, his practice embraced a racially still more conglomerate group — whites, non-white immigrants, forest Indians, and Eskimos. From this angle, to emphasize the Athapaska-Indian and Tlingit-Indian connection, I quote again the extract from the 1933 interview of Dr. Weston A. Price with Dr. Romig, taking the liberty to italicize the word Indian by which forest Indian is meant.

“Romig, a surgeon of great skill and with an experience among the Eskimos and Indians, both the primitive and modernized ... stated that in thirty-six years of contact with these people he had never seen a case of malignant disease among the truly primitive Eskimos and Indians, although it frequently occurs when they become modernized.”

Let us now move northward along the Bering Sea coast to the northern or Yukon River edge of the Romig territory. From the sea we go 200 miles up the Yukon, easterly, to the Episcopalian mission of Anvik, which, overland, is only 75 miles from the salt water of Norton Sound. It is a wooded country whose forest Indians have long been friendly with the Eskimos of the treeless coast. Here lived, in his youth, the informant whom I have already summoned as a character witness for Dr. Romig, the present rector of St. Peter's-by-the-Sea, of Sitka, the Reverend Henry H. Chapman. To quote further:

“I remember one elderly man, a full-blooded [Athapaska] Indian, who had a growth on his lip that was suspected of being cancerous. I understand that he was examined by a traveling physician who was passing through Anvik. I do not know what the doctor's diagnosis was. I do know that the man lived to a good old age, and that until comparatively recent times he was the only Indian in that area who was even suspected of having cancer ...”

In reply to a further query, the rector wrote again from Sitka on September 16, 1958. He confirmed that he had lived at Anvik all but three of the years between his birth in 1895 and his first journey in 1908 when he went out to become a graduate of Middlebury College, Vermont. “I returned to Anvik as a missionary in 1922 and lived there until 1948, except for furloughs and the four years I was in Fairbanks.

“The native people of the Anvik area are Athapaskans. During my youth the main parts of their food were meat (caribou, rabbits, grouse, waterfowl, beaver, porcupine, black bear and lynx) and fish (salmon, whitefish, shellfish, loche and lampreys). The loche has a large liver which is said to be even richer in vitamins than ordinary cod liver. The Indians also ate raw foods such as berries, wild rhubarb, and a root which they called ‘mouseberries’ because it was gathered and hoarded by field mice.

“They obtained fat from caribou, black bear, and beaver tails. The lampreys were rich in oil, which was highly prized. They also bought seal oil from the Eskimos. Even in my boyhood they supplemented their native diet with white man's food, including lard ...

“The usual way of cooking meat was either boiling or frying. As a boy I was once invited by a party of Indians to eat bear meat with them. It was boiled and well done ... I do not know that any flesh foods were eaten raw, except for dried fish ...”

Neither does the published literature on the forest Indians report that any flesh foods were customarily eaten raw by the forest Indians of Alaska or northern Canada. Indeed, the name “Eskimos” is believed by many to have been derived from an Algonquin expression meaning “they eat their meat raw.”

When I went down north along the Mackenzie, in 1906 and 1908, I now and then heard talk of how horrified the Athapaskans had been when they first saw white men of the Northwest Company and Hudson's Bay Company eating the customary British underdone roast meats. In 1910, when we met the Athapaskans northeast of Great Bear Lake — Dogribs, Slaves, and Yellowknives — we found that they were still mildly horrified to see the Hudson's Bay Company Canadian Joseph Hodgson and the Old Country British John Hornby and Cosmo Melvil, who were then living among them, eating rare caribou steaks and roasts.

In a presentation of evidence regarding the views of frontier doctors on the incidence of cancer, it is of consequence to make clear that early testimony regarding the rarity or absence of malignancies is as clear and strong for the forest Indian north as for the grassland Eskimo country. Some of the early medical missionaries — notably Dr. Hutton in Labrador — have inclined to credit a diet of raw flesh with that former absence of cancer in which they believed. To emphasize this point let me quote again Dr. Hutton's book Health Conditions (1925), Page 35:

“Some diseases common in Europe have no t come under my notice ... Of these diseases the most striking is cancer ... In this connection it may be noted that cookery holds a very secondary place in the preparation of food — most of the food is eaten raw ...”

If only Eskimos are considered, in relation to the alleged former absence of cancer, and of these only the Labradorians, then the logical deduction for one who believes nutrition to be fundamental in relation to malignancy, is that actual rawness of food may be the crucially important cancer-inhibiting factor. But the force of this logic diminishes as we go westward from Labrador, among the Eskimos. Without cancer's appearing at all, cooking grows steadily more important as we move west. From Dr. Hutton's and other accounts, the Labradorians, east of Hudson Bay, were the greatest raw-flesh eaters of the whole Eskimo world. West of the Bay the boiling of flesh increases; and inland from the Bay, among the Caribou Eskimos, the roasting of caribou supplements the boiling. At Coronation Gulf, near where Dr. Jenness and I spent the first years during which the Copper Eskimos ever associated closely with Europeans, the years 1910 to 1915, there was considerable summer use of roasting, though the winter cooking, if any, was by boiling. Among the Mackenzie Eskimos, as described from the 1860's by Father Emile Petitot and from the early 1900's by myself, boiling and roasting were both considerable. These methods were even a bit more common in northern Alaska, as described by John Simpson in the 1850's and Murdoch in the 1880's. In southwestern Alaska as described by Dr. Romig in the manuscript he submitted to our Encyclopedia Antarctica, for the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first one of the twentieth, the cooking of flesh foods reached its Eskimo high point.

Yet the mission testimony, starting from Labrador, remains equally clear, from east to west: the medical missionaries all looked for cancer, and they never found it among the “primitive,” though they did find it among the “modernized.”

Thus clarification is important for whoever expects a nutritional key to this Eskimo cancer situation. Among the Athapaska and western Eskimos cooking was hardly ever carried to the point of “well done,” or “boiled to pieces.” Instead the native meats resembled our fashionable roasts, which have a well-done layer on the outside, medium done just under that, and the center pink or red. And so it was with the forest Indians — at least with those Athapaskans from Great Bear Lake to just west of the Mackenzie, with whom I hunted and lived — though they insisted on some cooking, they were in practice as careful as Eskimo cooks to see that the centers of most pieces were pink.

To sum up the raw and cooked-food elements of northern medical missionary theorizing about cancer:

During the time when large numbers of non-Europeanized northern natives were allegedly free of cancer, there was little cooking of flesh foods beyond the degree which we call medium. Among grassland and coastal Eskimos raw flesh eating ranged from a great deal in northern Labrador to a good deal in southwestern Alaska. Only among forest Indians were raw flesh foods avoided, and even among these there was little use of overcooked flesh.

Vegetable foods, where eaten at all, were always raw, among prairie and woodland natives alike. Among Eskimos, vegetable foods were important only in the farthest west — along the west coast of Alaska, among the Aleutians, and along the south coast of Alaska. In the most northerly region from Baffin Island, Canada, to Point Barrow, Alaska, vegetable eating was negligible, except in time of famine. Among woodland Indians, vegetables were negligible with the Athapaskans from the west shore of Hudson Bay to beyond the Mackenzie. In Alaska the eating of raw vegetables by forest Indians increased westward along the northern belt and then increased still more southward, into the country of the Tlingit.

During the time when the medical missionaries reported cancer difficult or impossible to find among large numbers of primitive natives, there was no usual cooking of any vegetables, whether among grassland or forest natives. The cooking of vegetables is part of that Europeanization which is considered by some missionaries to be responsible for the introduction of cancer, or for the change from its being hard to find to its being impossible not to notice.

The European-style application of intense heat to food through frying was new to all northern North American natives.

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