1912 | Wyandotte, OK

Safe at Last

Catherine Johnson on a time-tested immunity booster.

Long ago an Indian went to visit the white men’s settlements. These people being gathered together hired him to introduce smallpox into his country. They told him, “Uncork this bottle in your country and let its contents run out!”

So he uncorked the bottle in the midst of a large crowd of his people, whom he had convoked. When it was done, they went back to their homes, and all of them were attacked by smallpox, a kind of disease still unknown among them. So many Indians died that the few that were left ran off to the woods and gathered there. The game animals also assembled there and planned to stamp out the new disease. The skunk said, “I am surely able to kill smallpox.” The skunks, therefore, drawn up in battle array all across the country visited by the disease, began to shoot their scent. Now they had killed smallpox, and its dreadful powers were so much reduced that it was no longer the same disease as had come across the great waters. From that time on was known the medicine used for preventing smallpox; that is, before being sick, one should drink five drops of the skunk’s secretion once a week in order to secure immunity. When this has been done, no danger whatever is incurred on visiting those who are sick with this kind of disease. This remedy, indeed, never fails, and smallpox cannot prevail against it.


Catherine Johnson

“The Skunks’ League Against Smallpox.” A Wyandot of the Deer clan, Johnson relayed this and other stories to Canadian ethnologist Marius Barbeau. Shortly after the French and Indian War, British army commander Jeffery Amherst proposed the idea of deliberately spreading smallpox among the Native Americans. “You will do well,” he wrote, “to try to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race.” In 2017 Amherst College ousted “Lord Jeff” from his role as unofficial mascot, replacing him with a mammoth.