Sanitarium Incinerator

Killing Germs and Destroying Culture

In 1915 tuberculosis struck the Spokane Indians hard. Four natives died and fifty more were suspected of having the disease. In response to the outbreak, the Indian Service used the site of the former boarding school to create a sanitarium for local Indians suffering from tuberculosis.

Sanitariums were not just found on Indian reservations. Tuberculosis was a national epidemic and there were sanitariums across the United States. When infected patients arrived for treatment, staff would often burn their clothes and other belongings to decrease the risk of contaminating others.

At the new sanitarium, native children sometimes arrived in their finest traditional regalia. Though by the late 1800s many Indians wore western-style clothing for daily wear, traditional clothes were still made by hand, and treasured for special occasions. Photographs of Native gatherings from around this time show Indians dressed in buckskin jackets and pants with ornate and detailed bead work. They are adorned with necklaces, earrings, belts, bags, scarves, and head pieces. In their hands are pouches, purses, staffs, and tomahawks. Some of these cultural objects may have been burned at this incinerator. Traditional regalia, some of it passed down for generations, went up in smoke.

The children were issued new clothes--simple wool or cotton skirts and blouses for the girls, collared shirts and dungarees for the boys. These were not simply white American styles, but those of working class Americans, reflecting the occupations of manual labor that children would be taught at Fort Spokane.

Recent archaeology has confirmed oral histories by uncovering beads and other remnants of native regalia that were brought to this incinerator to be burned.