Polios, Natives, and Broken Promises

Early_Winter_RiverI’ve been thinking about broken promises. My parents thought about them a good deal, expected them. Lately, I’ve learned to expect them as well.

I developed Polio in the later summer of 1955, shortly before my eighth birthday. Polio was, and in spite of a worldwide eradication campaign, continues to be a virus that attacks the human central nervous system, often with devastating results including paralysis and death. I was in hospital for more than three months; during the critical portion of the illness, an iron lung literally breathed for me. Luckily, I was in a military hospital and received the best available care, care that save my life. Unlike some of my friends I walked out of the hospital, abet with braces and a marked limp.

Back then, the March of Dimes was the national standard in the U.S. for Polio research and care. The organization was formed by President Roosevelt in 1938. At that time, Polio epidemics were sweeping the country, virtually no one had health insurance, and many individuals and families, suffered grave financial burden under the influence of the virus. The March of Dimes promised, and provided, financial support, hospital care, and ongoing physical therapy and durable medical equipment to millions of individuals struck by Polio, and their families.  For many, the effects of Polio last a lifetime, often worsening over time.

With the advent of reliable vaccines the fear of Polio waned, as did the outpouring of charitable giving that had driven the organization’s efforts. By the late 1950’s the March of Dimes had essentially abandoned Polio’s survivors, moving on to more lucrative fundraising opportunities. Irregardless of earlier promises of ongoing support, those of us who continued to live in the shadow of the virus were left to our own devices. This broken promise, affecting millions, was not an issue for me as long as I remained a military dependent, but became very problematic when I reached adulthood.

Now that I am an elder I watch as politicians seek to roll back, or at least make less accessible, crucial social supports such as Food Stamps, Social Security, Medicare and affordable health insurance, and even the Americans with Disabilities Act. I’m surprised that the population of our country has refused to rise up and put a halt to this. I guess I should not be, after all American history is littered with broken promises. For example, back in the 1830’s my Cherokee ancestors were forcibly removed from their farms in the Southeastern U.S.. In spite of several treaties that were upheld by the Supreme Court, President Andrew Jackson ordered their removal, sending the Cherokee on a death march to what became Oklahoma. There are stories of Cherokee families forced from their farm houses at gunpoint as white “settler” families watched, waiting  to move in; settlers took over working farms, benefiting hugely from generations of Native industry.

Treaties and other promises meant nothing to the politicians. The heartbreak, economic hardship, and deaths that resulted from the removals were just the unfortunate consequences of “progress”. Nor would the Trail of Tears mark the end of broken treaties and promises.

I was raised to think about the community first, to understand that the fate of the least would ultimately be the fate of everyone. This was the task of every person in the community, but even more so those who had been identified as chiefs or healers. If one had something to share, one shared it; anything less was unacceptable. Today we are witness once more to the ascension of greed. To me, these days seem much too similar to the 1800’s, only instead of Manifest Destiny we have the NeoIdeologies with their concerted, ongoing assaults on Native and Afro-American people, the social safety net, and Mother Earth. As usual, those leading the charge are in line to reap great financial benefit from the harm they encourage. This is not a Dreaming I can abide by.

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7 thoughts on “Polios, Natives, and Broken Promises

  1. Very well written, Mike. Saddened for your suffering (and your parents’!) but glad to know you better. My mother-in-law caught polio at the age of 9 in the 50s in Korea. She went through a whole lot and has had one bad leg all her life.

    Diana

    • Diana, Thank you. I have managed to muddle through, collect a PH.D. and assorted other degrees, and settle into a reasonable late career/partial retirement. There were many very difficult years, but I am certainly OK. I am also trying to come to terms with the Polio experience, from the distance of 60 years. Broken promises seems to be a common Polio theme. I also have a weak leg.

  2. Well, Michael, this is quite a post. You know we have similar thoughts and feelings about our shared family histories, and it’s also ingrained in me that our purpose in this life is to help one another.
    That’s why the ‘me first’, ‘one percenter’ mentalities are so anathema to us.
    I do have a sense though, that the tide is turning. I read many people and I feel an uprising in unwillingness to stand by for much longer. I think the Idle No More movement has extended beyond Indigenous wishes. Perhaps even more and more of us are starting to remember our true Indigenous natures.

    • Well, Robyn, I do hope the tide is turning. I often wonder what my parents and their sibs would make of the state of the world. On one hand they would see it as just another example of colonial greed and racism. On the other, I imagine my dad would feel a great deal of solidarity with the many people who are standing up to the craziness. We shall do our work, and see what comes of things, eh?

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