Eye Told You So: Native Americans and Eye Disease

Julianne Jennings

In 1637, Thomas Morton, one of the founders of the settlement at Mount Wollaston (now Quincy, Mass.) gave a description of the Indians in New England that mentioned their admirable perfection in the use of the senses, and in particular, “their eyes":

“This is a thinge not only observed by me and divers of the Salvages of New England, but, also, by the French men in Nova Francia, and therefore I am the more encouraged to publish in this Treatice my observation of them in the use of theire senses: which is a thinge that I should not easily have been induced to believe, if I myself had not been an eye witnesse of what I shall relate.

“I have observed that the Salvages have the sence of seeing so farre beyond any of our Nation, that one would allmost believe they had intelligence of the Devill sometimes, when they have told us of a ship at Sea, which they have seen sooner by one hour, yea, two hours sail, then any English man that stood by of purpose to looke out, their sight is so excellent (Thomas Morton, New English Canaan, 1637)”

Edmund Shaftsbury, an early 1900s writer on health and human magnetism, writes about the early American Indians: “The American Indians are known to have the strongest eyes in the world. They have the closest thing to ‘telescopic vision.’ They can see objects in the far distance that the average person would need a telescope to see” (Gurki Doe, American Indian Telescopic Eye Vision, October 13, 2011).

If these accounts are true, what caused the decline of eyesight in Native America? Books. Yes, books. They require fixed and focused attention to written pages on a blank background. Native America was comprised of persons required to have flexible vision in order to hunt and gather. But that was within a context of short term, so the eyes were pliable and flexible, and could immediately focus at distances as well as close proximity.

Another cause for poor eyesight is the typical American plate. It’s filled with refined grains, processed foods, added sugars and fats, things that tend to weaken our eyesight and result in diabetes and glaucoma. Age and eye trauma are also contributors that may lead to vision impairment.  

John D. Woolf, Cheyenne River Sioux, is president of Thundercloud LLC Optical Services. In 25 years of service, his company sold 50,000 pairs of glasses annually at 100 locations in 20 states. Woolf recalls, “My eye detachment came five months after cataract removal that was caused by an eye injury in 1954 from a rock in the eye. My eye had to be removed and lased from the rear. Silicone bands were placed around it, and muscles had to be reattached to hold the eye in place.”  

Woolf said, “With our health history as Native Americans, we live lives that have more outdoor activities, sports, hunting, horseback riding, walking, more health issues due to diet, alcohol, violence and limited health care, so we must take better care of our eyes.” According to an Indian Health Service study in 2000, diabetes is growing at 800 percent among Natives verse non-Natives. Diabetes affects our soft tissues in the eyes, heart and extremities, and can cause loss of feet, fingers and eyes. Erectile dysfunction also often occurs.

While finishing up the first five months of my teaching contract in China, I had made plans to spend spring break in Italy with friends. With just two weeks remaining before my departure, I began noticing a “shadow” or “curtain” in the corner of my right eye. I thought nothing of it at the time. However, my vision seemed to get worse.  I immediately made an appointment upon my arrival home. An eye specialist had confirmed I had a detached retina (probably age related).

The retina is the light-sensitive layer at the back of the eye that converts light images into nerve impulses that are relayed to the brain to produce sight. When the retina separates from the deeper layers of the eyeball that normally support and nourish it, the retina is said to be detached.

In the United States, retinal detachment is a relatively uncommon condition, affecting only one in10,000 Americans each year. However, there are certain groups who have an unusually high risk of developing this problem, including people who have had blunt trauma to the eye or penetrating eye injuries, and people who have had cataract surgery. Up to three percent of people who have had cataract surgery eventually develop a detached retina, making retinal detachment the most serious post-surgical complication of cataract treatments.  

Severely nearsighted people often are nearsighted because they have an eyeball that is unusually long. The elongated shape creates more stress between the vitreous fluid and the surface of the retina. In many cases, the more risk factors a person has, the higher the risk of retinal detachment. For example, a very nearsighted person who also undergoes cataract surgery probably will have a higher risk of retinal detachment than someone who has cataract surgery and is not nearsighted. Overall, the risk of retinal detachment increases the older you get, and men are about 50 percent more likely to develop the problem than women.

People with diabetes also have a higher risk of a different type of retinal detachment as a complication of diabetic retinopathy. American Indians are at greatest risk for diabetic eye disease, due to having the highest rates of diabetes among all racial/ethnic groups in the United States. For more on eye health, contact John Woolfe at [email protected] or 402-580-6965.

 Julianne Jennings (Nottoway) is an anthropologist.

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page