Summary Objective 2

Students will describe the nature and extent of colonial enslavement of Indigenous people. Maps to Key Concepts 1, 2 & 4


What else should my students know? 

2.A Throughout the Americas, Europeans enslaved between 2.5 million and 5 million Indigenous people. In much of what is now North America, Indigenous people were bought and sold until the late 19th century.

2.B All European colonies enslaved Indigenous people for profit, justifying the practice because of perceived racial and cultural inferiority. Many enslaved Indigenous people were forced to labor far from home, as evidenced by the mass export of women and children to Europe and the Caribbean, often called the “Reverse Middle Passage.” Sometimes the profit from these sales was used to purchase enslaved Africans to work in the American colonies.

2.C European pursuit of enslaved Indigenous labor caused widespread warfare. Often, colonists financed or otherwise coerced their Indigenous allies to engage in wars with other Indigenous peoples for the purpose of acquiring people to enslave. Some Native nations initiated conflicts and capture to profit from selling captives to Europeans. 

2.D The violence of slavery further devastated Native nations already weakened by European-introduced diseases. Because of the combined effects of disease, slavery and war, the Indigenous population in the Americas declined from 60 million people to as few as 4 million by the 1600s. These populations later rebounded significantly, and today there are about 5.2 million Indigenous people living in the United States alone.


How can I teach this?

  • New research suggests that the European invasion of the Americas may have resulted in the deaths of as much as 90 percent of the continent’s Indigenous population. 
  • Enslaving Indigenous people was a primary goal of many Spanish “explorers,” but most textbooks and memorials do not discuss this. Students should learn that Christopher Columbus and Ponce de León were enslavers and examine contemporary representations of these figures.
  • To connect the past to the present, students should learn about Juan de Oñate, whose brutality toward Acoma captives is still the subject of protests in New Mexico. An episode of the podcast 99% Invisible tells that story. Many statues were erected by Mexican American and Hispanic organizations to commemorate “Spanish America” and are very controversial. 
  • Historians are still trying to figure out how many Indigenous people were enslaved in the Americas. Students should examine what their textbooks say about this practice and compare representations with current estimates.
  • An episode of the NPR podcast Hidden Brain provides useful context for examining the enslavement of Indigenous people.
  • Indian Slavery in the Americas” by Alan Gallay is accessible as a reading assignment for upper-level students or can be used as teacher preparation. K–12 educators can create a school account for free access through the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American history.
  • The Native History Project at Grinnell College offers sample lesson plans for teaching the history of Indigenous enslavement.
  • For more on the colonial enslavement of Indigenous people, see Margaret Ellen Newell’s essay “The Changing Nature of Indian Slavery in New England, 1670–1720,” available through the website of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts.
  • Written Out of History: Contemporary Native American Narratives of Enslavement,” available with a free login on, draws on oral traditions from contemporary Native nations to explore the history of Indigenous slavery.
  • The National Humanities Center has excerpted accounts of the enslavement of Indigenous peoples in the Spanish Caribbean from 1495 to 1544.
  • Slate has prepared an interactive graphic showing the names of all of the enslaved people in the colonies of New France between 1660 and 1760. It explains the trends in Indigenous slavery in New France and will help students to explore the impact of French culture on Indigenous populations.
  • The short film The Forgotten Slavery of Our Ancestors is designed to introduce students to the scope, duration and impact of Indigenous enslavement throughout what is currently known as the United States.



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