Category Archives: Guest Post

Giving Historical Context to Elizabeth Warren’s Plan for Native Americans

On August 16, Senator Elizabeth Warren announced the policy she will pursue for American Indians if she wins the presidency in 2020. While the New York Times called it a plan to “help” Native Americans, the Huffington Post emphasized Warren’s intent to “empower tribal nations,” noting specifically her desire “to reverse” a 1978 Supreme Court ruling that tribal governments have no power to prosecute non-Indian lawbreakers.

Warren promised to seek congressional affirmation that tribes have “inherent jurisdiction over their sovereign territory,” including jurisdiction to arrest, try, and jail non-Indians who commit crimes there. Voters may think that is a radical and unrealistic proposal, but Warren’s choice of words – her call for legislation to “restore” tribes’ jurisdiction over non-Indians – suggests that radical change came with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of existing law. Indeed, a year before the court ruled, the American Indian Policy Commission – a body created by and composed of US lawmakers – adopted virtually the same position on tribal jurisdiction as Warren has. A commission investigation revealed that several dozen tribes were applying their laws to non-Indians as well as Indians, with encouragement from key federal officials.

This historical information is not from Warren’s manifesto; it appears in Reclaiming the Reservation: Histories of Indian Sovereignty Suppressed and Renewed, my book recounting modern tribes’ efforts to regulate all people and activities within reservation boundaries. Reservations – even those established for Indians’ “exclusive use” – were never entirely closed to non-Indians, but thousands of non-Indians now live on reservations because Congress allowed them to acquire land there in the late 1800s. For five subsequent decades, the undeniably dominant United States tried to dismantle tribal nations and discourage Indian self-governance but did not abolish reservations or deny tribes’ inherent sovereignty. Meanwhile, through several turns of US policy, lawmakers and judges made a jumble of the rules for governing what remained of Indian country.

With stories from Indian perspectives, which the Supreme Court did not consider, Reclaiming the Reservation shows why and how tribes brought the issue of their power over non-Indians to national attention in the 1970s. Several factors had combined to convince them that taking responsibility for reservation conditions was essential for their communities’ survival and was their right under US law. Although tribes featured in the book did want to deter criminal activity, that was a secondary aim – a corollary of their desire to preserve and manage the land and resources on which their future as tribes depended.

Nevertheless, the action that eventually provoked a Supreme Court case about tribes’ jurisdiction over non-Indians was not a land use regulation; it was an arrest and prosecution for assault. A climactic chapter of the book examines the court’s denial of tribal power in Oliphant v. Suquamish Tribe along with the criticism that opinion earned for its blinkered, disingenuous account of relevant history and its evident racial bias. The book does not end there, however, because – as Elizabeth Warren’s familiarity with the issue indicates – tribes’ determination to ensure safe conditions on reservations did not end there. The Supreme Court’s veto of criminal law enforcement has not deterred them from invoking civil power to regulate non-Indians.

As the number of non-Indians who travel, live, or work on Indian reservations has grown in recent years, so have the stakes in the jurisdiction debate. Yet most non-Indian voters today are as uninformed about reservation community histories as the justices were in 1978. Thus, while Senator Warren’s support for tribal power may win her Indian votes, it could alienate more numerous non-Indians, many of them fearful that tribal police and courts will be unfair. Rather than address that fear directly, Warren identified tribal jurisdiction as a sensible response to another, proven threat: criminals are escaping justice through gaps in reservation law enforcement. She cited Native women’s shocking rate of violent victimization, often by non-Natives who never face prosecution – a scandal that motivated Congress in 2013 to approve limited tribal court jurisdiction over Indians’ abusive, non-Indian intimate partners.

That amendment to the Violence Against Women Act was politically feasible because tribal governments are increasingly sophisticated, effective, and accepted as permanent components of an American federation that has three kinds of sovereign polities. Senator Warren’s position on tribal jurisdiction is also a consequence of that historic tribal resurgence – a sign that tribes have persuasively communicated their need for empowerment and their ability to wield power judiciously. Their accomplishment illustrates a central theme of Reclaiming the Reservation: long after Europeans invaded America, Indians continue negotiating with their conquerors for terms of relations that will enable sovereign tribal communities to endure.


Alexandra Harmon is professor of American Indian studies at the University of Washington. She is the author of Rich Indians: Native People and the Problem of Wealth in American History and editor of The Power of Promises: Perspectives on Pacific Northwest Indian Treaties. Her book Reclaiming the Reservation is part of the Emil and Kathleen Sick Book Series in Western History and Biography.

To hear more about Reclaiming the Reservation, please join us for Professor Harmon’s Emil and Kathleen Sick Lecture on November 6th at 3:30 p.m. in UW Allen Library’s Peterson Room.

How a Culture of Impunity is Fanning the Flames in Amazonia

As a cultural anthropologist who has worked in Amazonia for the past twenty years, I am saddened—but not at all shocked—by the swathe of fires currently burning across northern Brazil. The smoke from these fires has famously blackened the daytime sky of Brazil’s largest city, shaking the world to notice the existential threats facing the peoples and ecosystems of Earth’s largest remaining tropical rainforest. And while reports have correctly laid the blame on the Brazilian government for its feckless response to the conflagrations, it is the Brazilian President’s public statements and policy proposals—which so clearly signal a racist contempt for Indigenous rights—that are the true fuel that drives these fires. President Jair Bolsonaro’s “develop-at-all-costs” posture regarding the Amazon encourages the type of land-grabbing, forest destruction, and violence against native peoples that I write about in Conjuring Property: Speculation and Environmental Futures in the Brazilian Amazon. Though based on research conducted through 2014, my book describes colonial land dynamics that have only intensified since Bolsonaro’s ascendancy, placing numerous societies and an entire ecosystem closer to the brink of destruction.

The explosion of fires is not natural, and this year’s record-breaking conflagration is not new. Indigenous peoples have managed fire in an ecologically sustainable fashion for millennia. But since Brazil began to encourage agricultural colonization in the region during the 1970s, the Amazon’s dry season has been eagerly awaited as the “burning season”: time for ranchers and soy-planters to clear large extensions of forest, let them dry, and strike the match. In this way, over 20 percent of the original forest’s extent has been converted to pasture and field over the last few decades. The vast majority of this agricultural expansion has proceeded through illegal land-grabs, in which elites deforest land, evict peasant and Indigenous groups at gunpoint, and manipulate the judicial system to launder their ill-gotten lands into deeded properties. Some of Brazil’s (and indeed the world’s) largest companies are involved in this cycle, in which traditional communities and their forests and rivers fall prey to an unsustainably expanding agricultural system. Though technically illegal, the machinations of this system are taken for granted among rural colonists, who have come to resent any form of legal enforcement as a brake on their right to “improve” the land by burning down the forest.

It is a system in which fire and political maneuvers are the weapons that colonists use to invade and rob Indigenous territories. And though in operation for half a century (a history documented in Conjuring Property), it is a system whose backers and beneficiaries have finally arrived at the very pinnacle of power in Brazil. Since taking office in January 2019, President Bolsonaro and the “ruralist” parliamentary block have sought to open Indigenous lands up to mining and logging operations; have slashed the budgets and oversight potential of environmental agencies; have backed an “economic liberty” suite of policies for agribusiness; have vowed that the government will not demarcate “one more centimeter” of Indigenous land in Brazil, and have taken steps to try to decertify (rob) existing Indigenous reserves. These maneuvers are especially heartbreaking because over the previous two decades Brazil had been making concerted efforts to reverse deforestation and protect culturally- and ecologically-significant territories. Bolsonaro learned from his time in congress how to enflame rural populist resentment for regulations, sentiment that has its deepest root in a skepticism among Amazonian colonists regarding whether the elites that benefit most from Brazil’s political-economic system really have their best interests in mind. The ruralists in Brasilia understand how politically useful anxiety in the provinces can be for expanding their grip on power.

The parliamentary assault on Indigenous peoples and on Amazonian ecosystems is vast, coordinated, and has been decades in the making. Though there have been signs of hope—last month Brazil’s Supreme Court unanimously rejected Bolsonaro’s attempt to assign oversight of Indigenous territories to the Ministry of Agriculture—the ruralists have a litany of schemes in the queue. The idea is to act for “Brazil above all.” This slogan was no doubt on the minds of ranchers and farmers in the Amazonian towns of Novo Progresso and Altamira, where on August 10 thousands of acres of felled forest were set ablaze. A week after this coordinated “Day of Fire” (which had been announced in a local newspaper on August 5), with the flames still raging (and smoke settling on São Paulo), local farmers chirped on social media that the fires were meant to signal support for the president’s policies, since Bolsonaro “supports those of us who produce.” The implication was clear: colonists see themselves as “producers” in contrast to Indigenous Amazonians, whom they view with scorn and contempt. The irony is that the very forest itself, with its unmatched biodiversity and ability to store carbon, is in large part the result of thousands of years of purposeful habitation and cultivation by Amazonia’s native peoples; the original producers, as it were.

It seems that all is burning in Brazil. Just a few days from now marks the one-year anniversary of the fire at the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, in which ethnographic and archaeological treasures, precious pieces of art and manuscripts—all irreplaceable testaments to the staggering cultural diversity of Brazil—were reduced to ashes. As an anthropologist who has the privilege of working with the Indigenous peoples of Amazonia, I also have the obligation to condemn the racist rhetoric and genocidal policies pursued by the current Brazilian government. Those who would pose the future of Amazonia as a question of “production” vs. idle, unutilized land are committing grievous errors: the human rights of Indigenous peoples, and the priceless value to the global ecosystem that the forest produces, must not be sacrificed as “costs of doing business.” Though I applaud the efforts of political leaders and companies that are demanding that Mr. Bolsonaro change course, I am deeply skeptical whether he would—or even could, given the power of the ruralists in congress. Certainly, international pressure must continue, and global citizens must prioritize consumer- and investment-choices that preserve the forest. But ultimately the Brazilian people will decide the fate of the leaders who have placed so much in peril for so long. Citizens near and far should continue to watch the Amazon even after the rains cool the fires this year. Because burning season comes again next year, and the year after, and so on until no trees remain lest we all remain attentive, vigilant, and supportive of the Indigenous peoples of Amazonia.


Dr. Jeremy M. Campbell is an associate professor of anthropology at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. His 2015 book, Conjuring Property: Speculation and Environmental Futures in the Brazilian Amazon, received the James M. Blaut Award for the outstanding book in political ecology from the Association of American Geographers and an Honorable Mention Book Award from the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology.


This piece was adapted from an open letter written on behalf of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America.

Explore South Lake Union’s Public Art with Jim Rupp

Good weather and visitors inspire many to explore downtown Seattle, but after Pike Place Market, Pioneer Square, and the Olympic Sculpture Park, many are at a loss about other destinations. The collection of art in Seattle’s public spaces provides many opportunities to discover hidden art treasures in the city—many tucked away in unfamiliar locations and others obvious but unnoticed by passersby. The South Lake Union (SLU) neighborhood is one of my favorite sites to tour because it has over twenty artworks readily available to see during a two-hour walk. Most of them are contemporary creations and the designs of many were influenced by the neighborhood itself.

Nautical history is a theme of two works in South Lake Union Park. An upside down, 20-foot-long sailboat hull is the principal element of Blanche, a sculpture at the park’s northern end. Artist Peter Richards created it after learning about the long history of boating and boat building on Lake Union. One of the best-known builders was Blanchard Boat Company, which built the hull you see. The exterior is clad in stainless steel, a nod to the more technological industries in today’s SLU. You can rent the same model sailboat at the nearby Center for Wooden Boats.

Near Blanche is the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) which is well worth a visit. Hanging from the ceiling down to its main floor is John Grade’s 60-foot tall, 11,000 pound sculpture constructed from wood planking from the three-masted schooner Wawona. Grade named his work after that dismantled sailing vessel. MOHAI has informative signage that tells about both the ship and the many interesting aspects of Grade’s design. It moves and you can walk into it! A must-see.

 

 

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The designs of two sculptures by Seattle’s Lead Pencil Studio arose from research about what the neighborhood looked like in the last century. Re-Stack, at Ninth Avenue and Thomas Street, has arches one would have seen on old buildings and its stacked cubes refer both to pallets in the many warehouses that once existed throughout SLU, as well as stacked boxes in today’s Amazon facilities. This sculpture is made of a stainless steel wire mesh that seems to create a ghostly image of things past. Lead Pencil Studio used the same steel mesh to create the form of a toll booth in the plaza off of Fairview Avenue North between Thomas and Harrison streets. This was inspired by photos of parking lots that were once common in the area. The sculpture, titled Troy Block, refers to the Troy Laundry building that once stood on this site, remnants of which remain on its east side.

Walk down the alley off of Republican Street between Yale and Pontius avenues and you can see one of the many other brick laundry facilities that inhabited SLU throughout the 20th century. On the other side of that alley is Laundry Strike, a vertical collection of wicker hampers cast in bronze, with “1917” woven into one side. Wicker hampers were used by laundry workers (all women) and artist Whiting Tennis used these images to commemorate the 1917 Seattle laundry strike, which resulted in those workers achieving an eight-hour workday and pay of ten dollars a week—one dollar more than minimum wage at that time!

 

 

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SLU also has a collection of art that refers to the history being made today by high tech companies. Biotech research is the subject of Labyrinth, laminated glass panels that stand outside of the Center for Disease Research at 307 Westlake Avenue North. In this piece, artist Linda Beaumont incorporated chronographic representations of the genetic sequence of a lethal parasite that is being studied within the building. Dan Corson’s Nebulous, at 400 Ninth Avenue, refers to Seattle’s role in computer innovation and the fact that both the environmental and technological climates are changing. Note that the glass discs of his two cloud-like forms (which also refer to Seattle’s cloudy weather) electronically change levels of opacity and pulsate at varying rhythms.

With the complex grey column at Mercer Street and Boren Avenue, artist Ellen Sollod achieved her goal of creating a technology-oriented work for this multifaceted neighborhood of biotech and technical research companies. It’s called Origami Tessellation 324.3.4 (Fractured). Sollod also created other small works along Mercer, including a hatch cover in the sidewalk at the corner of Fairview Avenue and Mercer Street that features a spider and its web—Sollod’s reference to the worldwide web.

As you tour these and other artworks in SLU, keep in mind that there are over 300 other artworks readily available for viewing in Seattle’s public spaces. You may love some and dislike others, but you’ll never know unless you walk about and look.

 

 

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James M. Rupp is a Seattle native, long-time lawyer, and local historian who has been collecting information about art in Seattle’s public places for over forty years. Art in Seattle’s Public Spaces is his second book on the subject and was made possible by the generous support of the Michael J. Repass Fund for Northwest Writers.

Vernacular Formations of Sexuality in India

In October 2018 I spoke at a meeting organized by Hasratein (Desire), a queer collective in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. This meeting was soon after the landmark Supreme Court judgment in India on September 6, 2018 that read down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), allowing for same-sex sexual acts between consenting adults in private. Pushing against the euphoria of the moment, my observations explored the non-linear trajectories of sexuality politics that cannot be plotted within the paradigms of rights, recognition, and individual autonomy. Drawing on the key interventions of my book Unruly Figures, I shared my thoughts on how regional idioms of activism and vernacular cultural practices, from different parts of India, disrupt a singular narrative of sexual progress and liberation.

Unruly Figures: Queerness, Sex Work and the Politics of Sexuality in Kerala, was conceptualized, researched, and written over a period of about ten years. The primary research for this book was done in 2007–2010 when the global AIDS prevention and awareness machinery played a crucial role in making sexual categories such as the Commercial Sex Worker (CSW) and Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) highly visible. Sexuality politics in different regions of India has undergone considerable shifts as I was completing this book. Identity categories, legal frameworks, the public health machinery, global and national patterns of funding, the status of sexuality as a field of study, the circuits of print and visual media—there are many sites through which we can track these changes.

While the struggle for reading down Section 377 is perceived as an overarching framework for this period—this book demonstrates that the rights bearing sexual subject cannot be the fulcrum to anchor the long, ruptured history of the politics of sexuality in India. So it seems apt that this book reaches its readers in the aftermath of the Supreme Court judgment hailed by international media with headlines such as: “India Backs Freedom – Others should Follow” (The Guardian, September 9, 2018), and “India’s Riotous Triumph of Equality” (New York Times, September 7, 2018). My explorations in this book function as a timely reminder about the dangers of celebrating a teleology of sexual progress with set moments of origin and arrival. It makes us acutely aware of the unresolvable contradictions that nestle in the same slice of history.

How do we address the fact that the Supreme Court judgment on Section 377 comes at a time when India has witnessed systemic violence against religious minorities and Dalits, massive unemployment and dismantling of social welfare structures, as well as increasing surveillance in public spaces? “Safe Spaces, Unsafe Times: Support Systems in a Suspended World,” was the title of a workshop held in Delhi on November 2018 that attempted to move beyond the mainstream narrative around the repeal of Section 377 and address the question of larger support systems for gay, lesbian, and transgender persons. The tentative and restless journeys in this book, its reflection on political subjectivity and dispossession, hopes to speak to these dilemmas of our present.

Public interventions such as the dual autobiographical project by Nalini Jameela and the report on lesbian suicides by the activist group, Sahayatrika (Co-traveler), are struggles staged in embattled settings. The forms of self-fashioning we encounter in Unruly Figures are marked by reiteration and failure. Yet the idioms to etch these everyday politics are drawn from the layered imaginations available within “small places.” Cultural practices such as watching soft-porn films and reading pulp fiction play a role in unsettling a disciplined ordering of gender and domesticity in Kerala.

The political is recast in this book for it is routed through unexpected sites, such as the wanderings of two schoolgirls on the run in a 1980s popular Malayalam film. The cover image of this book gives new life to an image from this film that is central to the book. There is much to learn and unlearn from struggles staged in unhomely places—places that bind us and yet they are too close to let go. This doubleness of marginalized subjects and their relation to their immediate surroundings has to be taken into account as we search for an elsewhere. The potential for transformation is kept alive by drawing on the unruly movements generated in the spaces that we inhabit. Thus to engage with the global trajectories of sexuality politics we need to pay heed to vernacular imaginations of sexuality.


Navaneetha Mokkil is assistant professor at the Centre for Women’s Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. She is the coeditor of Thinking Women: A Feminist Reader.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bringing Indigenous Artists to the Forefront

A student recently came by my office to talk about Atalie Unkalunt, a Cherokee vocal performer, lecturer, actor, and writer of the early twentieth century. Reading too quickly through an introductory email, I thought that the student perhaps meant Mary Ataloa McClenden, the legendary Chickasaw singer and teacher. While I’d never heard of Atalie, I’d run across Ataloa while researching American Indian concert vocalists for my 2004 book, Indians in Unexpected Places. There were a lot of these singers—Tsianina Redfeather, Princess Watawaso, Irene Eastman, Oskenonton, Yolachie, Falling Water, Sausa Carey, Kiutus Tecumseh, Carlisle Kawbawgam, to name just a few. Somehow, though, I’d missed Atalie Unkalunt, who was (despite sharing four out of six letters in her stage name) not Ataloa.

The moment reminded me of two issues central to my new book, Becoming Mary Sully: Toward an American Indian Abstract. First, no matter how well we think we understand our pasts, there are always individuals hidden to us, human footnotes in the flow of our narratives who are so deeply buried as to be invisible. I thought I knew the world of early twentieth-century Native vocal performers. But Atalie Unkalunt reminds me just how fragmentary my knowledge—our knowledge—really is. I have no doubt that more and more such performers will emerge, claiming space in the stories we tell.

Mary Sully—the professional name used by my great aunt Susan Deloria—may well offer the definitive example of such an invisible footnote of a person. Between the late 1920s and the mid-1940s, she made ravishingly beautiful, highly intelligent art that was shown to the world on perhaps four or five occasions. Her medium was colored pencil—the tools of an artist struggling with poverty—and her work followed a form that she called the “personality print,” a three-panel triptych that developed themes and iconographies across distinct styles—modernist abstraction, geometrical design patterns, and Native-influenced imagery and design. The personality print was quite literally meant to capture the essence of an individual, and Mary Sully focused her attention on an archive of popular culture celebrities—Babe Ruth, Helen Keller, Betty Boop, Bing Crosby, and 131 others. Like Atalie Unkalunt and Mary Sully herself, many of these people have now faded into deep-footnote obscurity. Who remembers Alice Fazende, the last Confederate widow, or Jesse Crawford, the “poet of the organ”?

The second issue Atalie Unkalunt pressed on me was that when we move people from the footnotes to the main text, there’s a good chance we change the very nature of the story. Here, too, I’ve found that Mary Sully matters. Indeed, in Becoming Mary Sully, I suggest the ways in which she’s a game-changing artist.

The story of early-mid-twentieth century Native American art has had a story not unlike the one I once told about Native musicians performing operatic arias and Indigenous melodies while garbed as Indian princesses and chiefs. In that story, in the first half of the twentieth century, Native crossover artists, supported by patrons, teachers, art markets, and schools, created new forms of art in New Mexico, Oklahoma, and elsewhere. Their work was brilliantly creative and technically excellent—but it was also circumscribed by the desire of non-Native supporters for a brand of primitivism that emphasized Indigenous pasts, “traditional” subject matter, flat perspectives, and featureless, timeless backgrounds.

Put Mary Sully’s work into this story and watch the narrative change. Her work reversed anti-modern primitivism (indeed, one might call it instead “anti-primitivist modernism!). In that sense, Sully asks us to rethink not simply a story about Native American art, but about the far more intimidating category “American Art” itself. For all its anonymity, Sully’s work sought out dialogue with artists we more easily place in the “American” canon: Aaron Douglas, Diego Rivera, Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley. And when Mary Sully is read as something other than a footnote, we find ourselves contemplating a significant cohort of Indian women who made similar efforts to engage the wider world of American art: Edmonia Lewis, Angel De Cora, Wa Wa Cha, Tonita Pena, and many others.

These arguments might ring a familiar echo for those fortunate to have seen the recent Hilma auf Klint exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City: a previously obscure artist, lifted from the footnotes and, on the strength of the work, elevated into the main narrative of the invention of modernism, utterly transforming that story in the process. I’m not an art historian—but it seems to me that the world of art scholarship and appreciation is caught up in an amazing moment of footnote rescues and returns of the repressed. It’s a moment when Atalie Unkalunts and Mary Sullys have a chance to leap out of the past and take a second shot at the main texts and the master narratives that evaded them in life.


Philip J. Deloria (Dakota descent) is professor of history at Harvard University and the author of Indians in Unexpected Places and Playing Indian. His most recent book, coauthored with Alexander I. Olson, is American Studies: A User’s Guide. He is a trustee of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, where he chairs the Repatriation Committee; a former president of the American Studies Association; and an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Debunking Ten Arguments from the Anti-Vaccine Movement

Author of Staying Healthy Abroad, Dr. Christopher Sanford debunks ten common arguments used by anti-vaccine activists.

The purpose of this article is educational. For medical advice for any health condition, please consult your physician. To learn more about the measles outbreak, read this recent blog post.


In January of this year the WHO (World Health Organization) released a list, “Ten Threats to Global Health in 2019.” One of the ten threats listed was vaccine hesitancy: “the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines.”

For a variety of reasons, a significant number of people choose to forego vaccines for themselves and/or their children. Anti-vaccine sentiment has swelled in recent years to a vehement political movement, and declining vaccine rates have led to a resurgence of a number of infectious diseases. Measles has seen a 30% increase in global cases in recent years. There are now measles outbreaks in 22 US states.

The evidence for the benefit and safety of vaccines is voluminous and consistent. Dr. William H. Foege, a public health physician who was instrumental in the global eradication of smallpox, wrote, “Vaccines are the tugboats of preventive health.”

There are myriad arguments used by anti-vaccine activists. Below are ten common arguments that arise.

  1. Vaccines don’t work.
  2. Vaccines only give partial protection.
  3. Protection from vaccines is inferior to that from natural infection.
  4. Vaccines contain mercury, a toxic heavy metal, and antifreeze, ether, and other toxic chemicals.
  5. Vaccines cause autism.
  6. Vaccines are no longer necessary.
  7. Vaccines overwhelm the body’s immune system.
  8. Vaccines are a plot by pharma (large pharmaceutical corporations) to generate profit.
  9. Vaccines are a plot by the CDC and/or US federal government, to attain any of a panoply of nefarious goals.
  10. Vaccines contain fetal cells.

Let’s address these one by one.

1. Vaccines don’t work.

This is a bizarre argument. Disease after disease has diminished markedly in prevalence immediately following the introduction of its respective vaccine. Tetanus in the US has been reduced by more than 98%; polio is almost eliminated worldwide; smallpox, which caused an average 48,000 cases per year in the United States during the 20th century, has been eliminated from the planet. The HPV (human papilloma virus) vaccine was introduced in the US in 2006; already we are seeing a significantly reduced level of cervical cancer in women. The incidence of multiple other infectious diseases, including mumps, rubella, and pertussis, have been markedly reduced in recent years—all because of vaccination.

2. Vaccines only give partial protection.

This is true but is not a reason to avoid vaccines. And often the protection level is very high. At one extreme, vaccines such as yellow fever and hepatitis A (in those under age 40) offer over 99% protection. At the other extreme, influenza often offers about 50% protection; this can be even lower if the vaccine and circulating strains are a poor match. Many vaccines are about 90% protective. If vaccine levels are sufficiently high as to prevent easy transmission in a population (“herd immunity”), there may be sporadic cases but outbreaks are effectively prevented. The level of immunity necessary to attain herd immunity differs for different infections. For polio, this level is 80% of the population; for measles, which is more infectious, about 95% of a population needs to be protected, either by vaccine or prior infection, to prevent outbreaks.

3. Protection from vaccines is inferior to that from natural infection.

Untrue! Protection from either is equally protective. Vaccines provide protection without causing illness, or exposing people to the risk of death from their respective diseases.

4. Vaccines contain mercury, a toxic heavy metal, and aluminum, antifreeze, ether, and other toxic chemicals.

Thimerosol, a preservative which contains ethyl mercury, has been removed from all vaccines except multi-dose vials of influenza vaccine. There are thimerosol-free preparations of flu vaccine.

And thimerosol is not harmful. Ethyl mercury is quickly excreted from the body; it does not bioaccumulate. The form of mercury that bioaccumulates is methyl mercury; this is the form that is found is some seafood, such as tuna. Thus if you eat vast amounts of tuna, mercury toxicity may be an issue.

No vaccine contains ether or antifreeze. These are bizarre, invented assertions. Vaccines do contain miniscule amounts of aluminum, but this is without any health consequence. Melody Butler, founder of Nurses Who Vaccinate, correctly notes that a baby gets more aluminum from breast milk than from vaccines.

5. Vaccines cause autism.

Dr. William Wakefield, a British physician, published a single report in Lancet in 1996 stating that there is a possible link between the measles vaccine and autism. His report has since been retracted by Lancet; his license to practice medicine in the UK was subsequently revoked by the General Medical Council (GMC).

Every study—and there have been at least twelve—on the measles vaccine and autism show that there is no relationship between the two. The most recent study on this is a large one, on over 650,000 children in Denmark, published this year in Annals of Internal Medicine. It found that “…MMR vaccination does not increase the risk for autism, does not trigger autism in susceptible children, and is not associated with clustering of autism cases after vaccination.”

We do not know what causes autism, but we do know that it is unrelated to vaccines.

6. Vaccines are no longer necessary.

Au contraire. The only disease that has been eradicated from the planet is smallpox. All other infectious disease are still circulating, some common, some rare. All vaccine-preventable illnesses will become more common if vaccination rates drop.

7. Vaccines overwhelm the body’s immune system.

Not true. The human immune system can deal with hundreds of thousands of antigens (foreign substances that stimulate an immune response.) Whether one, or eight, vaccines are given on a single day, the immune response is equally strong to each.

8. Vaccines are a plot by pharma to generate profit.

Pharma—pharmaceutical corporations—making a profit on vaccines does not prove that vaccines are harmful. If all this were driven by pharma, it is unlikely that they would convince physicians, the CDC, public health officials, etc.

9. Vaccines are a plot by the CDC and/or US federal government, to attain any of a panoply of nefarious goals.

It takes a more paranoid mind than mine to think that the 15,000 people who work for the CDC are plotting to do you harm. The idea that that many health professionals would conspire to harm the American public—and that that doctors, nurses, etc., would be complicit—is preposterous.

10. Vaccines contain fetal cells.

A few vaccines (specifically: varicella [chickenpox], rubella [the R in MMR], hepatitis A, the older shingles vaccine [Zostavax, not Shingrix], and one preparation of rabies vaccine [Sanofi-Pasteur’s Imovax]) are made by growing the viruses, which are attenuated (non-disease causing) in fetal embryo fibroblast cells. These fibroblast cells were obtained from two elective terminations of pregnancies in the early 1960s, and continue to grow in laboratories today. No additional sources of fetal cells are needed to make these vaccines.


This is an emotional topic for many. Ethan Linderberger was raised in an Ohio family that did not believe in vaccines. When he recently turned eighteen, he decided to receive all recommended vaccines. His mother, Jill Wheeler, described this decision as “insulting” and a “slap in the face.”

With respect to infectious diseases, there is no zero-risk option. Your choices are the smaller risk from vaccines, or markedly larger risk from infectious diseases.

The bottom line is that the evidence for the benefits of vaccine is massive and consistent.

I concur with Jackson County (OR) Health Officer Jim Shames, who states, “From a medical standpoint, vaccines are probably the most powerful and effective public health intervention of all time.”

Given the vehemence and organization of anti-vaxxers, their battle with traditional medical providers will probably continue for the foreseeable future. It is important that those of us who believe in the benefits of vaccines speak our minds. If the pro-vaccine majority are passive, the anti-vaccine minority will determine the national and international tone and policy.


Christopher Sanford, MD, MPH is associate professor in the Departments of Family Medicine and Global Health at the University of Washington, and a family medicine physician who specializes in tropical medicine and travelers’ health. His research interests include medical education in low-resource settings and health risks of urban centers in low-income nations.

To hear more from Christopher Sanford, come to his book talk at the University Bookstore on Tuesday, June 11th. To learn more about how to keep yourself healthy while traveling, buy his book.

What You Need to Know About the Measles Outbreak

In light of the current measles outbreak in the United States, we asked Dr. Christopher Sanford, author of Staying Healthy Abroad, to break down the statistics on measles nationally and globally for travelers across the country. He also answers some commonly asked questions about immunity and vaccinations.

The purpose of this article is educational. For medical advice for any health condition, please consult your physician.


Over 700 people in 22 US states have been infected with measles this year—the biggest measles outbreak in the US since 1994. Sixty-six of these people have required hospitalization. Most of those with measles had not been vaccinated for measles.

Per the WHO (World Health Organization), global measles deaths have decreased significantly in recent years, from 550,000 deaths in 2000 to 90,000 deaths in 2016 (an 84% reduction), but measles remains common in many low-income nations, particularly in Africa and Asia. An estimated 7 million people were infected with measles in 2016.

People immunized before 1989 may have only received one dose of measles vaccine. This provides partial protection, but better protection is provided by receiving a booster dose, that is, two doses of MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) total.

International travelers should receive a total of two doses of MMR vaccine. If travelers are uncertain as to their vaccine status, they may request serology (a blood test) from their medical provider to look for immunity. Those born before 1957 in the US are assumed to be immune to measles, mumps, and rubella from prior natural infection; vaccination with MMR is not advised.

Almost all US and Canadian universities and colleges began to require evidence of two prior doses of MMR vaccine (or proof of immunity) in about 1994.

Background

Measles is a serious viral infection that is transmitted by coughing and sneezing. The virus can live for up to two hours in an airspace or on a surface. Usual symptoms are fever, cough, rash, runny nose, and conjunctivitis (pinkeye). Although most people fully recover, complications include encephalitis—swelling of the brain which can result in permanent brain damage or death—and pneumonia.

The usual case-fatality rate in measles is 1-2/1,000 (0.1-0.2%). However, in malnourished populations, the case-fatality rate can approach one in ten.

In order to prevent sustained transmission of measles, 95% of the population needs to be immune, either from vaccination or natural infection (“herd immunity”).

In the US, in the decade 1912-1922, measles caused an average of 6,000 deaths per year. Prior to 1963, when measles vaccination became available, measles caused 4,800 hospitalizations, 1,000 cases of encephalitis, and 400-500 deaths each year in the US.

Washington State

In the current measles outbreak in Washington State, there have been 71 cases in Clark County (in southwest Washington, adjacent to Portland, OR) and one case in King County. The majority of these cases were in unimmunized people.

United States

There are currently measles outbreaks in 22 US states.

There were 372 cases of measles in the US in 2018. Between January 1 and April 26 of this year, 704 cases have occurred.

Most US cases are in children. Per a April 9 article in the Wall Street Journal:

New York City officials declared a public-health emergency as authorities elsewhere in the state announced new measures to halt the spread of measles, stepping up their responses after a recent surge in cases. The city on Tuesday ordered mandatory measles-mumps-rubella vaccination and fines for noncompliance in certain ZIP Codes in Brooklyn.

The current US vaccine schedule for measles: two doses; first at 12-15 months, second at 4-6 years. Boosters after initial series of two are not advised.

Global Picture

The dramatic decline in global measles is primarily due to increased vaccine coverage in low-income nations. However, should vaccine efforts wane, measles cases and deaths would inevitably markedly increase.

Many countries in Europe have seen a large uptick in measles cases in recent years. There are currently outbreaks in Germany, Ireland, Italy, France, and other European countries. Countries outside of Europe with current outbreaks include Israel, Ukraine, and Australia.


What’s the difference between elimination and eradication?

Eradication is the complete and permanent worldwide reduction to zero new cases of a disease through deliberate efforts. Smallpox has been eradicated from the planet. Elimination is the reduction to zero, or a very low defined target rate, new cases of a disease in a specified geographical areas. Measles was declared to be eliminated from the US in 2000.

How effective is measles vaccine?

Very. The two-dose series provides 97% protection.

What is herd immunity?

If a certain threshold level of a community is immune to a disease, either through infection or immunization, that infection cannot be propagated within that community. The threshold for different infections varies. For example, the level of resistance for polio in a community necessary to prevent an epidemic is 80%. Measles is more infectious; about 95% of a community needs to be resistant to measles to prevent epidemics.

What is the current measles vaccine rate in the US?

Fairly high. Currently, per the CDC, 94.3% of kindergartners were current for measles vaccine in the 2017-18 school year. However, this rate is markedly lower in some communities, e.g., the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, NY, and Clark County, WA, in which measles epidemics are currently occurring.

How can I tell if I’m immune to measles?

If you’ve received the two-dose series of MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine, it is reasonable to assume that you’re immune. If your vaccine history is uncertain, options include a blood test to check immunity, or receiving the two-dose series.


Christopher Sanford, MD, MPH is associate professor in the Departments of Family Medicine and Global Health at the University of Washington, and a family medicine physician who specializes in tropical medicine and travelers’ health. His research interests include medical education in low-resource settings and health risks of urban centers in low-income nations.

To hear more from Christopher Sanford, come to his book talk at the University Bookstore on Tuesday, June 11th. To learn more about how to keep yourself healthy while traveling, buy his book.