Book Review: Cherokee Medicine, Colonial Germs by Paul Kelton

Cherokee Medicine, Colonial Germs by Paul Kelton
Cherokee Medicine, Colonial Germs: An Indigenous Nation’s Fight against Smallpox, 1518–1824 by Paul Kelton
University of Oklahoma Press, 2015

Cherokee Medicine, Colonial Germs by Paul Kelton is an essential challenge to the “virgin soil” thesis that has governed the standard historical narrative of the European colonization of the New World. Dr. Kelton argues that this narrative is too simplistic, and largely fails to comprehend or address the complexity of Native cultures during that period. Moreover, the “virgin soil” thesis is based entirely on the testaments left behind by European colonialists—who misunderstood Native actions and behaviors more often than not—and incorporates no significant input from Native Americans’ own historical knowledge.

Worse yet, the “virgin soil” thesis whitewashes the effects of the violence and oppression inherent in the colonization of the New World.

Dr. Kelton uses the Cherokee as an example of how the traditional narrative of colonization falls apart when asked to answer to the historical resources of a Native people. Moreover, he points out that even the reliable documentary evidence we have from the European colonists themselves doesn’t support the “virgin soil” thesis.

If you liked Guns, Germs, and Steel, this book will make you see things in a very different light. This is exactly what good history is supposed to do.

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