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Timeline / Citizenship, Services, and Sovereignty / 1928: Government underreports American Indian deaths

1928: Government underreports American Indian deaths

Lead investigator Lewis Meriam publishes The Problem of Indian Administration, documenting the failure of the Office of Indian Affairs to accurately count the high number of deaths from recent epidemics among American Indians. The Meriam report, published by the Brookings Institution, criticizes medical workers assigned to reservations, calling them incompetent, and blames the government for making problems worse on reservations by not providing preventive medical care.

“Despite [these] recent promising developments, it is still true that the Indian Service is markedly deficient in the field of public health and preventive medicine. The preventive work in combating the two important diseases of tuberculosis and trachoma can only be characterized as weak. The same word must be applied to the efforts toward preventing infant mortality and the diseases of children.”—The Problem of Indian Administration, 1928

“Vital statistics have been called the handmaid of preventive medicine. They are indispensable for the efficient planning, development, and operation of a sound program for conservation of public health. The Indian Service has not yet been successful in overcoming the great difficulties inherent in securing vital statistics for the Indians and, moreover, its physicians in general have tended to neglect the important work of keeping case histories and other records basic to a public health program.”—The Problem of Indian Administration, 1928

“Because of these numerous defects in the medical service, it is not surprising to find that serious errors have been made in the treatment of Indians suffering from trachoma. Practically entirely ignoring the view held by many students of the disease that a close relationship exists between trachoma and dietary deficiencies, the Service for some years pinned its faith on a serious, radical operation for cure without carefully watching results and checking the degree of success achieved. The Service has now recognized the marked limitations of this radical procedure and has stopped its wholesale use. Serious errors of this nature are likely to occur in a service which is so seriously understaffed that following up cases and checking results are neglected. This serious operation was unquestionably performed on many Indians who did not need it, and, because of the difficulties in diagnosis of trachoma, upon some Indians who did not even have the disease.”—The Problem of Indian Administration, 1928

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