Beds with patients in an emergency hospital in Camp Funston, Kansas, in the midst of the worldwide influenza epidemic that struck Indian Country hard. Circa 1918. Photo: National Museum of Health and Medicine

It was called the 'Spanish Flu.' But it killed hundreds of Indians too

Spanish Flu decimated Indian Country

Pandemic killed 50 million world-wide
By James Giago Davies
Native Sun News Today Correspondent

RAPID CITY—A century ago the First World War ended, at the cost of 41 million dead. The “War to End All Wars” never touched Americans directly at home, no territories were invaded, no trenches were dug, no cities were shelled, but those celebrating the end of the conflict did not know something was happening far off in China, that would prove even deadlier than the Great War, that in the end, would claim the lives of 50 million people by 1920.

It was called the Spanish Flu, because Spanish Royalty were some of the first victims, but according to the Institute Pasteur in France, the virus began in China, later mutating in the USA near Boston, and then was spread to Brest, France, and then across the battlefields of Europe, and eventually the whole world.

In 1918 alone, 675,000 Americans died of the Spanish Flu. Eventually the pandemic reached South Dakota, and the Indian reservations. According to Thomas A. Britten, author of American Indians in World War I: At Home and at War, 400 people died on the Pine Ridge Reservation and 200 on Rosebud.

“We know how many people died of the flu, but we don’t know how many contracted the flu and survived,” said Matthew T. Reitzel, manuscript archivist for the South Dakota State Historical Society-Archives at the Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre. “An overall view of newspaper accounts forms the opinion that several people contracted the flu, a number of people died, but several people survived. It appears you had two outcomes if you contracted the flu -- either you died within three days to a week or you lived.”

Then Governor Peter Norbeck contracted the flu on a business trip to Lusk, Wyoming. He was hospitalized in Deadwood with a temperature of 103 F, but was released after three days.

A walk through the cemetery in Hot Springs reveals headstones out of synch with the death pattern of the rest of the cemetery. Entire families die within days of each other, during the first four months of 1919, and many cemeteries in South Dakota show the same pattern. The gruesome truth is not readily apparently, and one might think there was a house fire, or a wagon turned over, except that far too many died to be accounted for by such accidents.

Although Hot Springs did not suffer the full brunt of the pandemic until it was almost a year old, it was nonetheless the first town in South Dakota to experience a fatality. According to the South Dakota State Historical Society: “On Tuesday, Sept. 17, 1918, Mrs. Arthur Nielson of Hot Springs received word that her brother had died while serving his country in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A local South Dakota newspaper noted that, ‘He died of the new disease, Spanish Influenza, and was only sick three days.’”

In 1917, there were 54 deaths in South Dakota from the flu. In 1918, there were 1,847, and 700 more in 1919, and finally, 551 in 1920, for a total of 3,098. This means that 13% of the total lost to the pandemic were from Pine Ridge, even though they constituted at the time less than 5% of the population, meaning you were almost three times as likely to die from the flu if you were Oglala Lakota. Across the nation, reservation deaths were four times higher than the general population.

Vanessa Short Bull, told about the pandemic as experienced by her 97-year-old grandmother, Sadie Afraid of His Horses-Janis: “The Red Cloud family had just finished picking potatoes at the end of October 1918 (near Alliance, Nebraska) when they were told of ‘a real bad sickness that was coming and that they should start for home.’ They had just started to break camp when the middle–aged members of the family started to get sick with the flu. The family decided to stay encamped at Alliance until they got well enough to travel back home to Pine Ridge.”

“The oldest children in the group were Sadie′s sister, Zona, and first cousin Nancy, who were sent to town to get groceries and fuel. Nancy spoke very little English, so Aunt Alice, who could speak and write English, wrote the note for the groceries. Zona was sent along as the interpreter. Sadie, who was 7 years old at the time, was fearful watching her sister and her cousin depart for town. Adding to the tension was the fear that her family would die from the flu. Also, the train would stop in Alliance to bring home the bodies of the soldiers who had died in WWI. It was eerie for the child to watch the constant stream of wagons going to the graveyard everyday to bury the soldiers and those who had died from the flu.”


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James Giago Davies is an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. He can be reached at

Copyright permission Native Sun News Today

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