Women of the Pimería Alta-Sickness and Health

Small white apothecary jar with green scroll pattern. Circa 1800 from Mexico.

Credit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Women’s Sickness, Health, and Healing

Prior to European contact, native people in the Pimería Alta had a much longer lifespan than their European counterparts. The average life expectancy of the Pimería Alta’s early inhabitants was around 40 years, compared to 25 in Europe. Jesuit priest Ignaz Pfefferkorn remarked that the native people were “unafflicted by common European scourges such as dropsy, gout, sciatica, and apoplexy.”

This difference in life expectancy and general health may be due to a healthier diet and lifestyle.

The O’odham practiced subsistence agriculture, hunting, and gathering. Europeans, on the other hand, practiced taxing and strenuous agriculture and animal husbandry. Economies relied on the production of excess to support those “above” the producers.

Before the introduction of missions, O’odham communities practiced a sprawling settlement pattern. Clusters of homes or cooking spaces never touched each other. So, even when diseases did strike the native communities, their spread-out society made it difficult for diseases to spread and negatively impact the village.

To combat sickness and maintain health, indigenous people had to develop an intimate relationship with the landscape. They were very familiar with the wealth of botanical and medicinal resources that existed all around them. Native women, especially, played an important role in developing herbal, botanical, and medicinal knowledge. Women were usually not permitted to take on the primary roles of shamans and spiritual healers in O’odham and Yoeme societies. However, they did tend to bodily sickness when spiritual efforts failed.

When Spanish missionaries arrived in the Pimería Alta in the 1690s, traditional dynamics of life, death, sickness, and healing quickly changed. Colonization decimated native populations. Illness and death were pervasive across Spanish mission communities. Jesuit priest Ignaz Pfefferkorn remarked that “the vigilant care of the sick was one of the most important concerns of the missionary.”

The mission’s architecture, which favored tight living quarters and indoor public spaces, worsened matters. The close proximity of these spaces acted as a petri dish for disease. This especially impacted native people in the missions, who had little-to-no resistance to the Old World illnesses introduced by European missionaries and colonists.

While native populations plummeted due to diseases like smallpox, influenza, and measles, another menace took its toll on native women and children. This killer was syphilis. The historical record states “syphilis ... has infected the larger part of this population, mostly adult Indians, both male and female.” High rates of sexual violence toward indigenous women by European colonists contributed to the spread of syphilis in native communities.

Syphilis had a devastating effect on maternal and infant mortality. It passed from mother to fetus in the womb, and endangered both. Miscarriages and stillbirths increased. Infected mothers who survived their pregnancy and delivery still experienced long-term health effects. Before missionization, Pfefferkorn recorded that “very rarely does an unlucky birth occur. The birth of a dead or deformed child is extremely rare.”

The new dangers of motherhood created an unexpected urgency for native women. They were, afterall, the primary conservators of native culture. Dwindling numbers of indigenous women pressured mothers to pass on their knowledge and skills to any surviving children that they did have. But with fewer community members to retain valuable cultural information, native communities soon adopted more and more Spanish customs.

Part of a series of articles titled Women of the Pimería Alta.

Juan Bautista de Anza National Historic Trail, Tumacácori National Historical Park

Last updated: March 25, 2021