Indigenous Enslavement: Part 2

Episode 3, Season 2

Understanding Indigenous enslavement expands our conception of slavery in what is now the United States. It spread across the entire continent and affected millions of people of different backgrounds. If we define slavery too narrowly, we can fail to see its persistence over time and even its modern-day permutations. Historian Christina Snyder examines the Civil War, Lincoln and emancipation with Indigenous people in mind.


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Resources and Readings

Christina Snyder
McCabe Greer Professor of History, Penn State University


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Hasan Kwame Jeffries: When I teach slavery at The Ohio State University, I’ll often begin by asking my students, who are overwhelmingly white, to raise a hand if they have heard of the Underground Railroad. Without fail, nearly every hand goes up. And then I asked them, Who would have supported the Underground Railroad had they lived in Ohio during the era of slavery? And without fail, nearly every hand goes up again. Ohioans are proud of their state’s involvement in the Underground Railroad. That loose network of activists that helped untold numbers of enslaved African Americans escape freedom. Down in Ripley, Ohio, the homes of abolitionists John Parker and John Rankin are well preserved. One can even visit the purported spot where freedom seeker, Eliza Harris, whose bold bid to escape slavery was immortalized by Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin where she crossed the Ohio River.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And throughout the state, there are historical markers pointing out places where Underground Railroad safe houses and way stations once stood. There’s one such marker right here on the campus of Ohio State. And although Ohio social studies standards don’t say much about slavery, when it’s first taught, which is in the fourth grade, the Underground Railroad is the suggested focus. And Ohioans should be proud of their state’s role in the Underground Railroad. But failing to put the rich history of the Underground Railroad in the broader context of American slavery and settler colonialism does far more harm than good.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Contrary to what my students and most Ohioans have come to believe, the Underground Railroad, even in Ohio, was not widely supported. So at that moment when my students all had their hands up, I have to explain a little hard history: “Sorry, all of you would not have supported the Underground Railroad because if white people supported the Underground Railroad then, like you all are saying you would have, there would have been no need for the thing to be underground.”

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I understand that people want to be on the right side of history, but the sobering reality is that the vast majority of white people in Ohio wanted nothing to do with the Underground Railroad or abolition; they just wanted to keep African Americans out of the state. But we teach slavery and abolition as fundamentally a conflict between Northern white egalitarians and Southern white racists. So our students don’t understand that Northern whites from small farmers to Abraham Lincoln believed just as deeply in white supremacy as Southern whites. And you can’t understand American history, either during or after slavery, if you don’t understand that racism was a national phenomenon and not a regional one; that it guided the actions of enslavers and non-enslavers alike. That it informed the policies of federal officials, whether they were dealing with African Americans or Indigenous people.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It’s why freed men and women never received 40 acres and a mule. It’s why there are no federally recognized Native nations in Ohio. Land that once belonged to nations like the Shawnee, Seneca, Miami, Ottawa’ and others. Hard history is sobering. It’s disappointing to learn that not every white person outside the South was a conductor on the Underground Railroad or opposed forcibly removing Indigenous people from their ancestral land. It’s disappointing to learn that white Northerners believed in white supremacy too. But hard history is also profoundly instructive because it explains history the way it actually happened, not the way we wish it happened.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I’m Hasan Kwame Jeffries, and this is Teaching Hard History: American Slavery, a special series from Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. This podcast provides a detailed look at how to teach important aspects of the history of American slavery. In each episode, we explore a different topic, walking you through historical concepts, raising questions for discussion, suggesting useful source material, and offering practical classroom exercises. In our second season, we are expanding our focus to better support elementary school educators, to spend more time with teachers who are doing this work in the classroom. And to understand the often-hidden history of the enslavement of Indigenous people in what would become the United States.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Talking with students about slavery can be emotional and complex. This podcast is a resource for navigating those challenges so teachers and students can develop a deeper understanding of the history and legacy of American slavery. I’d like to welcome back my cohost for this season, Dr. Meredith McCoy. Meredith, it’s great to talk with you again.

Meredith McCoy: Hasan, it’s great to be here with you.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It’s clear that to fully understand the institution of slavery in America, we really have to dig deep. A growing number of historians have increasingly encouraged us to expand our thinking behind the Atlantic slave trade, looking at the roots of American slavery in the era of Columbus. And also thinking about not just the oppression that was the institution of slavery, but the ways in which African Americans resisted it.

Meredith McCoy: I think that’s right, Hasan. And we also have to think about how every Native nation is operating within its own context. And therefore every Native nation is going to engage with the slave trade in a different way. And then lastly, we also have to think about the sort of ideological conflict that we get between Native nations who have their own pre-existing understandings of bondage and captivity, and European notions of bondage that are really incorporating Indigenous peoples into this increasingly global understanding of capitalism and the commodification of individual people.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But, you know, that’s the conflict that we almost never focus on. This land just simply wasn’t empty. The conflict that garners the most attention in the classroom when discussing American slavery is usually the Civil War. When we talk about the impact of the war on the institution of slavery, and really on American society, we often dig up this history of plantation slavery. But when we turn our attention to plantation slavery and the reasons for the conflict, we pretend as though that land that is being fought over wasn’t occupied previously by Indigenous people. That’s a big piece of the story.

Meredith McCoy: Right. The idea that there was a sort of terra nullius or an empty land is core to this idea of Manifest Destiny. The United States has to deal with a lot less guilt about its dispossession of Indigenous peoples if it just imagines that the land was vacant. Instead, what we have to do as teachers is go back several decades before the Civil War to understand the history of Indigenous removal. Now, removal was not just in the Southeast, it was all over the Midwest and the Southeast and the Northeast. But in particular, the story that gets tied into the Civil War is often that of the Southeast. Now, what we know is that increasingly as white settlers and colonizers populated the Eastern seaboard. There was an increased demand for Native lands and resources. And by the 1830s, this demand for Indigenous lands had support in the White House from a president named Andrew Jackson.

Meredith McCoy: In 1830, Andrew Jackson and the Congress pushed a law called the Removal Act that allowed the president to offer lands out West in exchange for Indigenous lands in the East. Now, the Supreme Court in 1832 in a case called Worcester v. Georgia affirmed Indigenous nations’ sovereignty. But the president famously responded to that law by saying something to the extent of, “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.” Pointed his own military ability to push Indigenous peoples west regardless of what the Supreme Court said. Now, it’s important that we understand that Indigenous peoples were strategizing around the situation. They read it for what it was. Some Indigenous people signed relocation treaties in hopes of mitigating the impact of white violence against their communities. They were hoping to preserve their nations and maybe even preserve some of their land base. And while this often gets referred to colloquially as a “voluntary relocation,” we have to understand they’re operating under extreme duress.

Meredith McCoy: They are coerced in a sense by the changing social landscape around them. Other nations refuse to leave their homelands and then they’re relocated by military force. Now, all of this is undergirded by an absolutely wild implication that Indigenous peoples are all the same and that Indigenous lands are interchangeable as though we don’t, in each of our nations, have a very specific knowledge base of how we work with our land in our own territories and how we steward that land and how it sustains us. This would be as though someone invaded London and told Londoners, “We will exchange your homelands here in London for new lands in Warsaw that you’ve never seen,” and ignoring the Polish people who already live in Warsaw. It’s a ludicrous assumption about how Native people are, and it tries to homogenize Native peoples into one controllable group.

Meredith McCoy: Over the course of removal from the 1830s up through several decades, tens of thousands of Native people are marched from their homelands to what’s then called Indian Territory. This is supposed to be a new permanent home for Native people that will be theirs for as long as the grass grows. Now, that promise is quickly violated. If teachers are interested in connecting the Civil War and removal with their students, there are great resources for them from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Teachers can show the 12-minute film, The Indian Problem, which was produced for the exhibit, “Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indians.” And they can also engage with several NMAI Native Knowledge 360 modules about removal that are linked to the Teaching Hard History framework online. This is a really wonderful opportunity for them to expand how they represent the causes that led up to the Civil War, including the fight for Indigenous lands and the future of slavery in what had then become Indian country and is currently understood as Oklahoma.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, too often we do overlook the displacement of Native nations leading up to the Civil War, but we’re not going to do that here. Meredith, in this episode we’re going to continue listening to your conversation with Dr. Christina Snyder, picking up where the two of you discussed the impact of the Civil War and emancipation on Indigenous people. So what do you think is important for us to understand about this critical moment, from the perspective of Indigenous people?

Meredith McCoy: Hasan, that’s a great question. And I turned to Christina to find out really what the Civil War meant for Indigenous peoples. And so I asked her, how did that war, which is really a war between factions of the United States, appear to Native nations across the continent?

Christina Snyder: This is such a watershed event in U.S. history, and it’s often how we break up the U.S. history survey. We see it as the most pivotal event in American history. And if you look at it from the perspective of Native history, it actually looks quite differently. For many Native people, it’s actually a non-event. It’s something they don’t want to be involved in or not interested in. And particularly for Native people living in the far West, something that they were not directly involved in or involved in only tangentially. So that’s one important thing to remember is that it doesn’t carry the same weight everywhere. And especially from the West, it looks different.

Christina Snyder: When we think about the war itself, we first have to remember that the Civil War started because Americans had a disagreement about what would happen to slavery in the West; would slavery expand into the West? So from the very origin of this conversation, we have to realize that this was an argument about U.S. imperialism, about what was going to be the shape of the West. Both Northerners and Southerners wanted to expand there. By and large, this is an extremely popular idea of Manifest Destiny. But they just disagreed about what the nature of that colonization is going to look like. And so of course, this does have tremendous consequences for Native people because they’re the people who were actually living in the West. And at that time, many parts of the West are still dominated by Native people. It’s still a very Native space.

Christina Snyder: And for Native people, they had to make strategic decisions about how best to preserve their sovereignty and their territory during this period. And it affects some Native nations a lot more than others. If we, for example, look at Indian territory, Indian territory is largely occupied now by the state of Oklahoma. And it’s the place that Native peoples who were forced to walk the Trail of Tears had to go to after Indian removal. Native peoples of the Southeast, the people that I’ve mostly been talking about today, they are forced into Indian territory along with some removed Midwestern peoples, and eventually, peoples from the plains. So you have all these different Native nations who are being forced into this tighter and tighter space.

Christina Snyder: Indian territory is an important strategic place for both the Union and the Confederacy, partially because they want to control the Mississippi River Valley. They are both very interested in Indian territory’s proximity to Texas. In terms of looking west, Indian territory is a strategically important place. Many of the nations there actually still try to remain neutral; many of them want to stay out of the war. They’ve had enough of the violence of colonial wars. They’re all still recovering from Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policy, which had uprooted them from their homes just a few decades earlier. And within all of these nations, there are significant factions who were kind of arguing to join one side or the other. And eventually, Native people in Indian territory feel like they have to make a choice. They really have no choice because if they don’t make some kind of a choice, then the Confederates of Texas are going to invade and overwhelm them.

Christina Snyder: So eventually, the five large Southern nations and also a few plains peoples sign treaties and ally with the Confederacy. Most of the leaders of those factions, their interests were aligned with the South. Some of the leaders of those nations had adopted the enslavement of African Americans, had developed plantations, so they felt that their economic interests are aligned. And the important thing to understand though is that there is a larger context here where the Confederacy is also trying to offer much more generous terms than the Union. So it does things like agree to pay back treaty annuities, so treaty monies that the Union had not been paying. They also agree to seat an Indian delegate in the Confederate Congress, which they actually did. And that was something that many of these nations had really been searching for for a long time: to seat a delegate in the U.S. Congress.

Christina Snyder: They also get to form their own Indian troops and elect their own officers, which again, something that the Union wasn’t offering. So eventually, they do side with the Confederacy even though there are factions of each of those nations that join the Union. And so it really becomes a Civil War itself in Indian territory that is partially about slavery, but is also partially about these issues of sovereignty and territory and thinking about how to protect that. So that’s one kind of view of the war. And if we look at another region that’s really profoundly affected by the Civil War is Native peoples who remained in the South. So the removal policy forced about 90 percent of Eastern Indians to live west of the Mississippi. But there’s still a significant population of Indigenous people in parts of the East Coast and particularly in North Carolina.

Christina Snyder: So the largest Native nation there, the Lumbees, they live in eastern North Carolina obviously in the midst of the Confederacy, some of them joined the Confederacy. Some of them do enlist, but many more decide to fight for the Union, which, of course, would have been an unpopular choice in that state. But it is probably they made that decision because of the Confederacy’s conscription policy. So what the Confederacy was doing was forcing Native men to work in really difficult labor situations. And particularly what the Lumbee men were being forced to do was to work at Fort Fisher in Wilmington. This was the Confederacy’s most important seaport. And it was really terrible work, it was building earthworks. It’s made even more deadly by a yellow fever epidemic that strikes two different times during the war.

Christina Snyder: And so some Lumbees to protest this fight for the Union, others began to fight in different ways. So there’s a gang that’s formed under the leadership of a man named Henry Berry Lowrie. It’s a multiracial gang of Native people, some people of African descent, some white people who are resisting conscription. Then they also fight the home guard. It’s a military organization that is supposed to enforce conscription. Part of the leadership of that becomes some of the early leadership also for the KKK. So they’re resisting some of these forms of coercion and white supremacy that are developing around them. And the story of Henry Berry Lowrie and his gang is really an interesting story. It’s almost a kind of Robin Hood story of resistance and survival and trying to fight oppression in a really difficult environment.

Christina Snyder: So if you’re interested in learning more about that story, I’d recommend a recent book by Malinda Maynor Lowery called The Lumbee Indians: An American Struggle, which has a great chapter about the Lowrie gang in the broader context of the Civil War. I’ve just given you a few different examples of Native people who get caught up in the war. And you can see all these different pressures at play and how people chose different sides. And we can also talk about some of the consequences that the war had for people.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I’m really struck by what Christina Snyder just said in terms of the different perspectives that Indigenous people had when it came to the Civil War. Of course, in the minds of most white Americans, the Civil War is sort of the end-all be-all, the great conflict in America. For African Americans, the Civil War is the important dividing point between slavery and freedom, life and slavery, life and freedom. But in many instances, as Christina Snyder pointed out, depending upon who you are in terms of your Native American affiliation depends upon where you were. It either meant everything in terms of who you’re going to side with if you’re a Lumbee. But if you were out West already, it meant very little. In fact, you try to stay out of it. I think when we shift the angle of view and look at this great American conflict from the perspective of Native Americans, we get a new idea of what it meant to all of the parties involved.

Meredith McCoy: That’s so true. I think that that shifting of perspective is an important exercise for teachers to do with their students. Teachers can ask their students, “Okay, so we know the way that the Civil War is normally taught in U.S. history textbooks, but what happens if we shift our perspective and we ask: What did the war mean to you if you were living in Indian territory or what did the war mean to you if you were out on the West Coast?” And those answers are going to be very different. And so helping students to sort of de-center that core national narrative that the Civil War is this end-all be-all of U.S. history and remembering that it’s just one thing. A very important historical moment, but very important for a certain subset of people. This is also an interesting question about leadership and how leaders are making strategic choices for their nations given the different contexts in which they operate and the different social pressures being put on them. And so we have to think about the leadership of Indigenous nations making equally strategic choices to the leadership of what was then the United States.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And that’s a really important point too because when we think about leadership when it comes to the Civil War and thinking here specifically about Abraham Lincoln, there is also a core national narrative that frames Lincoln as the great emancipator. Somebody who went into the war trying to make this a war about abolishing slavery, somebody who rejected white supremacy, was a racial egalitarian. When in fact we know that wasn’t the case, that Abraham Lincoln believed as deeply as any white Southerner in white supremacy, which is important to understand because it helps us understand why he refused to make this a war about abolishing slavery, even though folk like Frederick Douglass and others are chiding him to do so. Which shines an important light on, why does it become a war to end slavery? And the military necessity and military developments that had occurred between 1861, 62 and 63 so that it finally becomes an absolute war to end slavery.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This question of leadership is really important, and I think that exercise of shifting perspectives is equally important and useful when thinking about these leadership questions because depending upon who you are and your group interest, you will approach the same problem and seek solutions to that problem differently depending upon if you are a Lumbee or if you are Abraham Lincoln.

Meredith McCoy: Raising the issue of leadership allows us to really closely examine Abraham Lincoln and particularly his relationship to Native nations. Abraham Lincoln is a particularly complicated figure for a lot of Native people. And to understand Lincoln, it’s helpful for students to understand the history of the Dakota War and also of the Dakota 38. It’s important to remember that the Civil War was not the only major conflict happening in the 1860s in North America. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, there had been significant white encroachment pushing west into Dakota territory in what’s currently understood as Minnesota. And under duress from military threat and pressure from traders who alleged that Dakota people owed them massive amounts of money, Dakota peoples signed a treaty with the United States in the 1850s. They would exchange some of their lands for cash annuities and also for a permanent reservation base.

Meredith McCoy: But the reservation land that they were given was poor and didn’t yield sufficient food, and the U.S. government consistently failed to deliver its annuities on time. That was in part due to government corruption and also once the Civil War ramped up, due to the Civil War making cash tight for the Union. And so food was scarce and Dakota people were starving and looking for this fulfillment of a promise from the United States that never came. So facing desperate circumstances, four Dakota men attacked five white settlers. This set off a six-week war in which Dakota people tried to reclaim their homelands from the whites who had taken their lands without keeping their promises for resources. By the end of the six-week war, 303 Dakota people were ordered to be executed. This is where Abraham Lincoln enters the story. Lincoln, in evaluating how many executions to carry out, is looking at Congress and talking to them about how such a mass execution might look to the public.

Meredith McCoy: And so he considers initially only hanging two people, but then goes back and re-evaluate and says, “To really make sure that Native nations are scared into never rising up again, let’s make this a much larger mass hanging.” And so Lincoln orders the mass execution of 38 Dakota people. And then there are subsequent bounties put on the scalps of Dakota leaders who had escaped imprisonment and execution. After the Dakota 38 were hung, the United States declared the remaining Dakota treaties invalid and marched thousands of Dakota people west out of Minnesota. Now, a teacher might initially ask, “What is the relationship between the Dakota War and the Civil War? Just because they’re both happening in 1862, do we have to discuss them together?”

Meredith McCoy: Well, I think that the Dakota War helps us to understand Lincoln in a much more complex way because we see how he’s thinking about public impressions of the war and public ideas about the future of the United States. The Dakota War also links conflicts along the Eastern Seaboard during the Civil War, conflicts that were about land and the future of the United States with debates further west about how far the United States would actually stretch and what it would look like. And the fact that these Dakota people were fighting for the return of their homelands reminds us that the coast-to-coast model of the United States was never inevitable.

Meredith McCoy: As teachers are thinking about how to teach the Dakota 38, they can draw upon the videos and class resources that were developed by the Minnesota Historical Society at, including about a 10-minute broken promises treaty that allows students to think through the thought processes that led to the development of the war and how Dakota people were navigating an incredibly difficult social landscape. Teachers can also examine resources from the University of Minnesota Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies as they’re thinking about what it looks like to explain the Dakota War and its relationship to the Civil War to their students. So understanding the history of the Dakota War and the mass execution ordered by Lincoln of the Dakota 38 helps us to understand that Lincoln was both executioner and, with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, also a liberator. It’s important to ask ourselves, Why in our history textbooks only one of those two stories gets recorded, and what that is telling students about the narrative of the United States?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The emphasis on the great emancipator and not the great executioner certainly reinforces that normative narrative of United States of perpetual progress, that Abraham Lincoln is the answer to the conflict that is about to tear the American nation apart. And he’s the person that we are to look to during this time of turmoil from the perspective of the 20th and the 21st century. But when you put in the fact that the great emancipator is also this great executioner, then you have to question, Well, is even the great emancipator narrative true and accurate? And when we begin to peel back the layers, we realize that Lincoln isn’t coming into the Civil War as someone who is wholly committed to abolition or emancipation. He isn’t coming into this conflict as a racial egalitarian.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: He’s coming into this conflict as somebody who believes in white supremacy, he’s coming into this conflict as someone who is willing to allow slavery to exist in order to preserve the Union. So bringing in the Dakota 38, talking about these decisions and choices to take Native lives to invalidate treaties, I think gives us the whole picture of Abraham Lincoln and not the rosy picture of Abraham Lincoln that we choose to look to because it fits nicely with this myth of American progress.

Meredith McCoy: Hasan, that is a really beautiful way of putting all of that history. And lest teachers or students become tempted to think about executioner and liberator or as a binary, let’s remember what Lincoln was doing. He was attempting to build a Union based on white supremacy or that would uphold and buttress the white social, political and economic power of land-owning men. And Native eraser is part and parcel of that. So the largest mass execution in U.S. history was not somehow diametrically opposed to Lincoln’s image as a liberator. Instead, all of this is working towards the same end goal, which is ultimate domination of Indigenous lands and resources moving west across the continent.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I wonder then about the Emancipation Proclamation because one of the great myths about the Civil War and about the Emancipation Proclamation is that it in fact frees enslaved people. When in truth, the reality is it only declares free those who were living in territories, states controlled by the Confederacy. But the broader point that the Civil War with the Emancipation Proclamation, with the 13th Amendment, ends slavery in America. What are the implications for the Civil War and the ending of the enslavement of African people in America for the enslavement of Indigenous people?

Meredith McCoy: Yeah. It’s important that we talk about the Emancipation Proclamation. It’s such a center part of how we’re expected to teach slavery and the end of the Civil War in our social studies classrooms. And yet, it totally obscures that Indigenous peoples were not protected by the Emancipation Proclamation and that the Emancipation Proclamation also did not apply to African slaves held in slavery by Indigenous peoples in Indian territory. So I turned this question over to Christina and she clarified how the emancipation works for Indigenous peoples and Indigenous peoples who were slave holders in this time.

Christina Snyder: When we think about the end of slavery, we tend to think about it in terms of presidential actions and legal actions. So the short answer is that, no, the Emancipation Proclamation does not apply to the West. And in fact, it doesn’t even apply to Indian territory where those nations are allied with the Confederacy because, again, they’re independent nations. They’re merely allies of the Confederacy, they’re not part of the Confederacy. So the Emancipation Proclamation really only applied to Confederate territories. And we might add too that there are certain places in the U.S. where slavery was still persisting up to that point, like in Kentucky, for example, where it doesn’t apply either. So the reality of it is that the Emancipation Proclamation has a limited reach, and it has no reach on the West or Indian territory.

Christina Snyder: The U.S. tries to come up with a more forceful and clear articulation of the abolition of slavery, which comes with the 13th Amendment, which is ratified in 1865. And that’s supposed to end slavery more clearly and definitively. But again, that does not apply to Indian territory. And the U.S. has a very limited control over the West. So that’s really not what ends Indigenous slavery in the West either. And so I think part of the challenge of telling this story, particularly when we come to this part of talking about abolition is that it’s not nearly as neat as saying the Civil War ended Indian slavery, because it did not. To try to end slavery in Indian territory, the United States had to sign a series of separate treaties with Southern Indian nations. And those are collectively called the Treaty of 1866, that forced those nations to give up about half of their land to also allow the U.S. to build railroads and roads and forts throughout Indian territory. And also to abolish slavery and incorporate free people as citizens.

Christina Snyder: I should say that some of those nations had actually done that for themselves during the war, meaning abolished slavery, the Creeks and Seminoles and Cherokees had all done so of their own volition during the war. The Choctaws and Chickasaws did not, and so slavery persisted in those places. In the West, the colonizers themselves are somewhat different in the Mississippi Valley and in New France, what’s now Canada. You have the French, and in the farther west you have from the Spanish. And even the Russians have colonized Alaska and parts of the Northwest all the way down into California. All of these different imperial regimes employ enslaved Indigenous labor. They do so in different ways. When it comes to the Spanish realm, they are also tapping into Indigenous warfare and really encouraging and amplifying that warfare.

Christina Snyder: You have some Indigenous people on the plains who really benefit or try to make the most out of the tools that colonial trade gives them access to. It’s interesting to think about Native history in that period in the West because really before the colonial period, the plains is a very different place. It’s a place mostly of farmers, and it’s not a place that relied very heavily on bison hunting because bison hunting is extremely hard before horses and guns come to the plains. And so it’s really only with the convergence of the acquisition of horses from the Spanish, and that mostly is coming out of New Mexico. And then guns, which are often coming out of French Louisiana. And so in the early 1700s, plain societies start to gain access to these. And it is a powerful kind of convergence that allows people to live a totally different lifestyle than they had led before.

Christina Snyder: So really the heyday of what we think of as kind of the mounted plains warrior exists from about 1700 until the late 1800s. And that’s it, it’s actually kind of a blip in the broader history of North America. But part of what these people are engaging with is also the buying and selling of captives. And a very popular destination for those captives are various colonial settlements in New Mexico, so Santa Fe, Albuquerque. Some of them are traveling on the Santa Fe Trail, which becomes a major human trafficking route. And again, what you see in New Spain and the area that we think of as New Mexico is a kind of convergence of different kinds of forced labor. So there is Indigenous enslavement. There are also forms of peonage that developed there. And peonage often ensnares Native people in that region.

Christina Snyder: It’s something that we may also be familiar with in the context of Southern history after the Civil War. And basically what happens is that a person who’s poor engages in a labor contract with the landowner, often accepts goods on credit. The landowner is often the only source of those goods. And the landowner can also charge whatever he or she wishes in terms of interest, room and board such that this person is trapped in peonage over the course of his or her lifetime. And that condition can even pass down to children. So peonage is a kind of slippery condition of forced labor that actually shares many of the same aspects of slavery in the sense that people are doing work for free. They’re often in these abusive situations. Those contracts, those labor contracts can even be transferred to other landowners so they and their children can be subject to that shifting around of contracts.

Christina Snyder: So there are other kinds of forced labor systems that Indigenous people in the West become caught up in. After the Civil War, even after the passage of the 13th Amendment, it was only when the Treaty of 1866 was enforced, in 1866, 1867 that the enslavement of African Americans was really ended in Indian territory. And if we look further west, the process is even longer and more fraught. Shortly before the 13th Amendment was ratified, President Johnson actually was thinking about Indian slavery in the West. And it’s interesting because federal officials don’t always have a good handle on what’s happening in the West because the forms of enslavement can look different. They can sometimes really struggle to understand it or to develop policies around it. But interestingly, Johnson is thinking about it. And so what he does is to use federal agents appointed by the U.S. to try to free all Indian slaves that came to their attention.

Christina Snyder: So these are essentially personnel working in Indian Affairs who were supposed to seek out and free Indian slaves that they find. But in reality, this is really hard to execute. This is a really difficult policy to execute because these federal officials, they tend to have a difficult time locating Indian slaves, understanding what that slavery looks like, again, because it’s not what they’re seeing in the American South. They’re used to thinking about slavery in a very narrow sense. But the other part of why it’s so hard is that masters do everything in their power to conceal, evade and resist that emancipation. It’s in the master’s interest to try to perpetuate that exploitative relationship as long as they can. So even after the Civil War, federal officials report that the slave population just of New Mexico is at least 1,000 and maybe as many as 4,000.

Christina Snyder: And there are these ongoing anxieties about how to apply the 13th Amendment in the West. And in a series of Supreme Court cases, which are called “the Slaughterhouse cases” that are decided in 1873; they actually ruled that the 13th Amendment, the Civil Rights bill and other Reconstruction legislation was really conceived of in the context of the South and not of the West. And so it should be narrowly applied to a kind of Southern context. And so what you see here really is the federal government abdicating its authority as liberator. So the story of what happens to these Indian people held in bondage is essentially is that those forms of bondage persist in different places to different times, sometimes until the 1880s. Sometimes even into the 20th century. And again, masters try to evade the laws by masking what they’re doing by trying to depict Indian children as adoptees or indentured servants or, again, holding people in peonage in a situation where they can’t really get out of. And so it gets really messy in the West and persists well beyond the 13th Amendment, certainly well beyond the Emancipation Proclamation.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What really stands out to me is the continuity of forms of involuntary servitude. We think about the Civil War ending slavery as a hard break. But on the African- American side, we certainly know that slavery existed in different forms. And with Indigenous folk, we see that slavery existed in different forms. And the through line I think is very much that the war did not necessarily change attitudes. When thinking about enslavers, the attitude, the reason for enslaving people, to exploit their labor for personal gain and profit, was still there. And so naturally, there would be this desire if they’re forced to give up the institution in a particular way to search for alternative means of exploiting people’s labor. I think it’s so critically important that we think about the Civil War and abolition and the end of slavery and the 13th Amendment. And we’re ready to sort of wash our hands of the institution of slavery rather than saying that there are these multiple ways in which involuntary servitude existed before the war and there will be and are multiple ways in which involuntary servitude would exist after the war.

Meredith McCoy: The imperative for profit in a capitalist system does mean that people continue to find ways to evolve the institution of slavery to make sure that they could continue to make as much profit as they could, ignoring the basic dignity and rights of other peoples. When Christina was talking to us about how this persists over time, she also talked to us about how legality of enslavement was different for Indigenous peoples and African people. It’s helpful for students to both understand how each impacted the other and also to compare how each of them operated.

Christina Snyder: If we think about the differences between the enslavement of African Americans and the enslavement of Indians, one of the key features is legality. Throughout the course of the colonial period, Europeans increasingly protected the enslavement of African Americans really robustly in law. I’m sure in our classrooms we’re used to thinking about many of these laws. Whereas in contrast, in terms of Indigenous slavery, many imperial powers resisted that or tried to put restrictions on it. The colonies themselves, many people still tried to hold Indian slaves, but it operated in a legal gray area or in an extra-legal way.

Christina Snyder: Again, one of the differences that we see between these different forms of bondage is one that’s very rigidly protected by law and one that is much harder sometimes to see in the historical record because it’s often in this legal gray area.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Given the history that was just laid out, when would you say that the enslavement of Indigenous people actually ended?

Meredith McCoy: To answer that question, we first have to ask, what happened to Native nations who had allied with the Confederacy and how the Union responded to those nations after they came out on the losing side of the war?

Christina Snyder: The Union rules that all previous treaties were null and void because these were treaties that were signed between the United States and Indian nations, and that Indian nations had violated those treaties by allying with the Confederacy. And treaties are such an important part of a Native history and they still really structure relationships between Native nations and the federal government today. So it’s important in our classrooms to maybe take an example of a treaty to read or read excerpts from it because we often think about them as kind of one sided and highly exploitative, and they certainly could be that way. But they also acknowledge certain Native rights to land and self-government and other kinds of sovereign rights. And those are still the legal basis of Native peoples’ fights for autonomy today. So they’re very foundational. And the treaties themselves were one of the things that led some of these Southern nations to ally with the Confederacy in the first place because they argued that the United States had not honored the treaties.

Christina Snyder: When the U.S. forced Native people to Indian territory, if you look at the treaties of removal, they’ll have really poetic language saying that Native nations will have access to this land forever; that it will be theirs as long as the water flows and the grass grows. But that came to an end pretty quickly. The U.S. abrogates those treaties and demands back about half of the land of Indian territory. So making and breaking treaties has tremendous consequences for Native nations. You see some really difficult consequences. The Seminoles, who had suffered a lot during the war because of things like famine and disease, are forced to move in with the Creek Nation people that they had had traditional historical conflicts with because they lost all of their land. And the lands of the other nations are really contracted quite a bit. And as the U.S. pivots from the Civil War, it looks to the West, and Northerners and Southerners think about the conquest of the West as a way to reconcile their sectional differences.

Christina Snyder: So the Civil War really bleeds into the Plains Wars. What happens to that land in Indian territory that the removed tribes were forced to give up is that it becomes reservations for plains peoples that are forced there. So what you get is a kind of smaller and smaller contraction of people in this place. And for those who had allied with the Confederacy, it’s not only this loss of land, but there’s going to be a significant assault on their autonomy and their remaining treaty rights really until the end of the 19th century when the U.S. pursues the Dawes Act and the Curtis Act, which disbands their tribal governments and dissolves their national territories.

Meredith McCoy: There’s a really great resource for teachers to increase their content knowledge of this topic, particularly taking Cherokee Nation as an example. There’s a new podcast from Crooked Media called This Land that traces the history of land dispossession and land rights for Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma. As we think about the end of the Civil War and how it did not result in the end of enslavement for Indigenous people, what is it, if anything, that ends enslavement of Indigenous people across the continent?

Christina Snyder: Yeah, this is a tough question. Typically, we’re so used to thinking about abolition as a legal issue, as a political and legal issue. But again, the reality is that the U.S. adopts very limited legal action in this regard and puts basically no coercive authority behind it. So there’s really no big push to liberate Native peoples of the West. So I would say that what the Civil War does in the West is not to end slavery but just to transform it into different kinds of coercive and bonded relationships. We can see this playing out in some different ways in different colonial contexts. For example, in Utah, the dominant settler group there, the LDS settlers are Mormons. They move into that space in 1840s. This is a space where the Indian slave trade already exists. They immediately buy Indian slaves. But how they come to think of it is as a kind of indenture program.

Christina Snyder: So they develop forms of indenture and apprenticeship that keep Indigenous children in their households as labors sometimes with the goal of assimilating them. Although those children died very young, did not outlive their indentures. And that continues well after the Civil War. So the last child who’s kind of taken in that way is taken in the 1880s, I think the late 1880s. And the reason that the federal government did not take exception to what was happening in Utah is that actually the way that LDS sellers framed this was very similar to what the federal government was doing with Indian boarding schools during the Allotment period. So these kinds of environments where Indian kids are forced away from their families under the guise of getting an education, but they’re often doing manual labor for half the time that they’re there. This is also an environment of confinement and labor and assimilation. So again, there are some significant overlaps with the kinds of forced labor and also the people that is targeting, women and children that are left over from these earlier eras.

Christina Snyder: I would say too that we could think about this in the context of convict labor because the 13th Amendment explicitly protects convict labor. Native people are incarcerated at the highest rate of any racial or ethnic group in the United States. And this has been the case for a long time. Kelly Lytle Hernandez wrote a wonderful book about incarceration in California. And she says that this practice of arresting and forcing Indigenous people to labor has been happening in California since the 18th century. And so I would say, again, that the Civil War doesn’t so much end slavery as transform it, transform bondage into these different forms. And again, I think a useful metaphor is thinking about slavery as a virus that mutates over time, that it doesn’t always look the same. And in this case, it’s adapted to these different environments where it lives in a kind of area that’s either a legal gray area or is a legal practice, but still can serve many of the same ends in terms of labor exploitation and confinement.

Meredith McCoy: There are so many contemporary ripple effects, and I’m really appreciative that you’ve pointed to the disproportionate rates of incarceration for Native people. It’s also important that we think about this theft over centuries of Native women and children and the current epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. These things are all related. And as teachers are thinking about how to address these issues in the classroom, it’s important that we think about not just enslavement as something that happened in a historical period, but something that, as you say, has morphed and evolved over time and that ripples out into a variety of social issues that impact the health and well-being of Native communities today.

Meredith McCoy: This is where an exercise in contemporary issues could be really interesting for teachers and students. What happens if we ask students to think about the border camps that are housing migrant children as a form of confinement? How do we connect those to the stories of the confinement of Native children in the boarding schools? What happens if we ask teachers and students to build a community where they’re having open conversations about the rates of violence against Indigenous women and children and how that connects to earlier histories of violence against Indigenous peoples? This kind of drawing of connections over time, connecting the present rates of disproportionate violence, disproportionate incarceration, disproportionate poverty as a result of centuries of treaty abrogation and centuries of the prevention of wealth accrual. If we connect all of those things past to present, I think students start to get a really clear understanding of why this history is so important and why, when we discuss it, we can’t talk about it as isolated to the 1800s.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: That’s such an important perspective to offer to our students that what they see today doesn’t exist in isolation just as what we study and read about 150 years ago, 200 years ago didn’t exist in isolation. The ripple effects and that the connections over time are very real. And that in order to understand something that happens today, like disproportionate incarceration of Native people, of African Americans, that that just doesn’t happen. That there is a long history that gives rise to the conditions that we see today and they’re not just the happenstance of poor decision-making on the part of people of color. I really like that framing of the past and the present.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And when you lay out this history and explain both as you and Dr. Snyder were pointing out that something like slavery isn’t fixed, it’s not static. It is constantly changing because the motivation and desire behind it, the reason for it, the exploitation of labor for personal profit and gain, the desire to seek land, the desire to exploit people and natural resources, is really what’s driving it. So when the Civil War ends, people just don’t suddenly throw up the hand and say, “Oh, well, everything is equal now, let’s treat everybody the same.” You have folk who are trying to do the same things but now it’s in a new context.

Meredith McCoy: You’ve really hit some of the core takeaways that Christina wanted people to leave with, thinking about how do we understand histories of Indigenous enslavement. This idea that it’s dynamic because of its underlying goals, its connection to global capitalism. Since global capitalism doesn’t go away, neither does the motivation for profit and for the commodification of individual people. That is all part of this massive impact of the slave trade on Indigenous populations over time in terms of population loss and incorporation into this evolving version of global capitalism. So I asked Christina if she were going to boil this down into just a handful of takeaways for teachers and students, what they would be? And this is what she had to say.

Christina Snyder: I do think there are three takeaways that we can all benefit from and try to implement in the classroom. So I would say the first is that understanding Indigenous enslavement expands the scope of our understanding. That slavery is much bigger, much broader than we ever thought before. And we honestly are still wrapping our minds around just how vast the Indian slave trade was. We do know that just in terms of Indigenous people who are deported and traded coming out of the Americas, they’re between 2.5 and 5 million Indigenous Americans who were forced into the Indian slave trade. That’s a staggering number. In terms of that scope, colonialism forced Native Americans and Africans alike into a global economy that valued coerced labor.

Christina Snyder: So they’re dispossessed, they’re forced into these different environments. It’s something that has really lasting consequences in terms of transforming their homelands and the futures of those places. Which kind of leads me to the second point that I think we can take away, which are the kind of demographic and political impacts of the Indian slave trade. So as I mentioned before, when we talk about the early colonial period in particular, we often talk about Native population loss. And it’s really important to think about that, not just in terms of germs, it’s not just the diseases that are taking all these Indigenous lives. Warfare and slavery have a major role in Indigenous population devastation and these declines that you see everywhere in the Americas. And so that story of how early colonialism works, it’s not just a story about germs, it’s also a story about human agency.

Christina Snyder: And again, that’s forcing people into this global market that values slavery. This has a major impact on how Native people, how their ability to kind of deal with colonizers become so compromised by the Indian slave trade. There are devastating population losses, but then there are also relationships that people felt compelled to enter because they feel like they need to gain access to firearms, gain access to global markets. So I think that by thinking about the Indian slave trade, it does give us a totally new window on how these colonial relationships developed and why they’re so devastating to Native communities. And the third thing that I mentioned is just the dynamism of slavery that this helps us understand that slavery changes over time, that it’s not one thing all the time. It’s not just in one space, that it’s actually incredibly dynamic and incredibly dangerous. It spread across the entire continent and affected millions of different people of different backgrounds. And if we define slavery too narrowly, we can fail to see its persistence over time, and even its modern-day permutations.

Meredith McCoy: Teachers have really packed schedules, and there are dozens, and in some cases, hundreds of standards that social studies teachers have to cover in a given year. How might you think about talking to a teacher about how this blends in with the curriculum they already teach so that we don’t see this as additive history, but rather part and parcel of the history that we’re already integrating into our classrooms?

Christina Snyder: There are certain strategies that I imagine could be implemented fairly easily in the classroom. The first one that I’ll mention is just going back to thinking about Columbus because I think it’s something that we all teach about anyway. The reality it is that we’re not adding a different story, we’re just telling the fuller story of Columbus. He’s already engaged in African slavery and he brings those same principles to the Americas. And so that’s where you can really see this convergence and start to understand how this story is related to the Americas. I think that’s a very logical place to start. And again, I think that this topic will come up again when we think about early Native population loss, we probably already talk about disease.

Christina Snyder: But you can also think about that quote that I talked about from the French colonial officials saying that, for every Indian slave that’s taken alive, three people die trying to resist that. That helps you see kind of the mortality levels, the ways in which Native people are struggling against that. And when we talk about colonial wars, we’re often thinking about them strictly in terms of kind of imperial rivalries. But Native people are involved in all colonial wars in North America. They’re allied with European powers, they rely on European relationships for manufactured goods. And so again, we talk about colonial wars and the reasons why Native people wanted to ally with them. That’s another way to bring in some of the principles that we’ve talked about. When it comes to thinking later in the class about the Civil War and Reconstruction, I think it’s really important to talk about what the Civil War accomplishes and also to think about its shortcomings.

Christina Snyder: How does the Civil War look from Dakota lands? Let’s read the 13th Amendment and see what it actually says. Because again, it very explicitly leaves out convict labor. When you think about turning to the West, again, we probably talk about boarding schools already. And perhaps in the context of the Dawes Act, we can talk about those boarding schools in terms of a longer history of removing Native children from Indigenous households for purposes of confinement and labor. So I think that there are areas where those moments will come naturally. They won’t just add extra information, but they’ll really expand our understanding of these periods and these transformative events in American history.

Meredith McCoy: Thank you so much, Christina. I feel I have learned a lot from you today that will certainly inform my own classroom practice, and I hope will be really helpful for our listeners as well.

Christina Snyder: Thank you so much, Meredith. It was great to talk to you.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Christina Snyder is the McCabe Greer Professor of the American Civil War Era at Penn State University. She is the author of Slavery in Indian Country: The Changing Face of Captivity in Early America, and Great Crossings: Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in the Age of Jackson. Dr. Snyder is the 2018 winner of the Francis Parkman Prize from the Society of American Historians.

Meredith McCoy: Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, helping teachers and schools prepare their students to be active participants in a diverse democracy. Teaching Tolerance offers free resources to educators who work with children from kindergarten through high school. You can find these online at

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Most students leave high school without an adequate understanding of the role slavery played in the development of what would become the United States, or how its legacy still influences us today. Now in our second season, this podcast is part of an effort to provide comprehensive tools for learning and teaching this critical topic. Teaching Tolerance provides free teaching materials that include over 100 texts, sample inquiries and a detailed K‒12 framework for teaching the history of American slavery. You can also find these online at

Meredith McCoy: Thanks to Dr. Snyder for sharing her insights with us. This podcast was produced by Shea Shackleford with production assistance from Russell Gragg and content support from Gabriel Smith. Kate Schuster is our executive producer.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Our theme song is “Different Heroes” by A Tribe Called Red featuring Northern Voice, who graciously let us use it for this series. Additional music is by Chris Zabriskie.

Meredith McCoy: If you liked what you heard today, please share it with your friends and colleagues, and then let us know what you thought. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We always appreciate your feedback.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I’m Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, associate professor of history at The Ohio State University.

Meredith McCoy: And I’m Dr. Meredith McCoy, assistant professor of American studies and history at Carleton College.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries & Meredith McCoy: And we are your hosts for Teaching Hard History: American Slavery

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