Mid-season Recap: Key Lessons on Indigenous Enslavement

Episode 9, Season 2

Educators can no longer ignore our country’s history of Indigenous enslavement. Our students need a fuller understanding of the pivotal history of slavery to comprehend the present and develop a vision for our nation’s future. In this mid-season recap, we highlight key lessons about this consequential part of American history—along with teaching strategies and resources—through the voices of leading scholars and educators featured so far.


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Andrés Reséndez: How many Indian slaves had been taken from Columbus all the way to the 19th century?

Christina Snyder: There are between 2.5 and 5 million Indigenous Americans who are forced into the Indian slave trade. So that’s a huge, that’s a staggering number.

Eduardo Díaz: There were economic factors, as we know, because slavery’s a business at the end of the day.

Andrés Reséndez: I call it "the other slavery" to distinguish it from African slavery. But in some ways, it is the slavery that is most relevant for us to think about current forms of human trafficking.

Maureen Costello: Today, 40 million people around the world are involved in some form of slavery, which is some form of coerced labor.

Christina Snyder: I think a useful metaphor is thinking about slavery as a virus that mutates over time; that it doesn't always look the same. 

Kate Shuster: We teach history so students have a sense of the past, which helps them understand the present and develop a vision for their future. History education is more than names and dates. If done right, it helps students realize that history isn’t static. It’s evolving to encompass different sources and different perspectives: new voices that tell us a truer story, of where we came from, where we are, and where we’re going.

I’m Kate Shuster, project director of the Teaching Hard History initiative for Teaching Tolerance. On our website, tolerance.org, we have frameworks and resources for teaching American slavery in schools. In this podcast, we bring you the lessons we should have learned, through the voices of leading scholars and educators. 

Season two has focused on the lesser-known story of Indigenous enslavement. And in this episode, we’re recapping this consequential part of American history, which started before these continents were known as the Americas. 

We begin with Andrés Reséndez, author of The Other Slavery, and Christina Snyder, who wrote the book Slavery in Indian Country

Andrés Reséndez: The Spanish did it. The Portuguese did it. The English did it. The Dutch did it. The French did it. The Mexicans did it. The Americans did it. It involved everybody who was a colonizer.

Christina Snyder: Columbus, even before he came to the Americas, he had participated in the African slave trade. He and his father were both participants and had bought and sold West Africans in Europe. So on the second voyage to the Caribbean, Columbus captured 550 Indigenous peoples, carried them back to Spain. Actually, 200 of them died on the voyage.

Andrés Reséndez: And it remained more or less legal until the middle of the 16th century, at which time the Spanish Crown essentially made it completely illegal to continue slaving for Indians.

Christina Snyder: But as early as the 1520s, Spanish ships started terrorizing Indigenous communities on the Atlantic Seaboard and in Florida. And so Native people are essentially being kidnapped and sold as slaves in Europe and in the Caribbean. Hernando de Soto and Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, in the late 1530s, early 1540s, they kidnap hundreds of Indigenous people, mostly women.

Andrés Reséndez: And eventually, Queen Isabel in particular emerges as a strong defender of Indian slaves to the point of becoming antagonistic to Columbus. We all know the story of how she initially had pawned some of her jewels in order to finance Columbus’s voyage of discovery, but eventually, she reportedly said that “Who is this Columbus who is sending my legal vassals as slaves?” 

Debbie Reese: For Columbus Day, I think that’s an opportunity for us to, as teachers, talk about the Taíno people, and Puerto Rico and the experiences that we are seeing in the news every day about the people of Puerto Rico.

Christina Snyder: Something interesting that I’ve done with my class is to have them read a version of the Requerimiento, which is a legal document that the Spanish came up with, I think in the fifteen teens. When they were invading a village, they would read the Requerimiento—usually in Spanish unless there was a readily available Native interpreter—which basically said that “If you refuse to submit to the King and Queen of Spain and to the doctrines of Catholicism, then we have every right to kill you, to enslave you, to sell you.” And Spanish colonizers thought about this as a legal contract.

Kate Shuster: That was Christina Snyder. Before her, Debbie Reese, editor of the website American Indians in Children’s Literature.

When I was growing up in New Mexico, I learned that slavery was far off in the southeast. I learned that only Africans and their descendants were enslaved and that the Civil War ended slavery. I certainly never learned that when New Mexico was a territory, most landowners were also enslavers or that my home state didn’t extend full voting rights to Indigenous people until 1948. 

So if this is news to you, you’re not alone. Here’s Maureen Costello, former director of Teaching Tolerance—with Dr. Reséndez and Dr. Snyder—telling us the history of this other slavery, which probably isn’t in your textbooks, either.

Maureen Costello: And the Indigenous enslavement, really most of the scholarship in that field has been within the last 10 or 12 years.

Andrés Reséndez: I call it “the other slavery” to distinguish it from African slavery. But in some ways, it is the slavery that is most relevant for us to think about current forms of human trafficking.

Christina Snyder: So it’s not just in the South. It’s, in fact, all over the continent. And when it was, enslaving Native people as part of a global economy began with Columbus’s second voyage in 1495, and it really continued until the 1880s or even later in some places.

Maureen Costello: The person that helped the Pilgrims—who most of us know as Squanto, but whose real name was Tisquantum—was helpful to the Pilgrims because he spoke English. Well, how did he speak English? Even before the Mayflower arrived, Tisquantum had been captured, had been brought to England and had been enslaved. And had managed to get back to North America, but had picked up the language while he was in England. He was one of many Indigenous people who had been plucked off the shores of what we now called the Atlantic Seacoast, prior to the English landing at Plymouth Rock, prior to Jamestown settlement, prior to all of that and who had already spent time in Europe as enslaved people.

Christina Snyder: Native North America is incredibly diverse on the eve of colonization. There were likely between 5 and 10 million people living in what’s now the U.S. They’re speaking 300 different languages. We don’t know exactly how many different nations they lived in, but today in the United States there are over 560 different Indigenous nations. And just because of the devastation of colonialism, those numbers were much greater, we think, before the European invasion.

Maureen Costello: Every part of the United States that we live in today has had its own colonial experience with those different powers. And all of them enslaved Indigenous people at some point in their history, and in many cases, even after they cease to be under the control of colonial powers.

Andrés Reséndez: And so when it came time to harvest or planting, they would go out, get their encomienda Indians at gunpoint, bring them to their estates, make them do the work and then release them again until they needed them again. And even if abiding by the regulations of the encomienda, and not selling Indians, and not treating them as slaves, they were able to make them work in workshops in order to produce goods, especially harvest pinion nuts or to make textiles to supply the silver mines. It was possible to resort to other subterfuges. So, for example, the entire Apache Nation was deemed an enemy of the Spanish Crown, and therefore any Apache apprehended could be legally enslaved in the sense that they would be tried and sentenced to 10 years of forced labor or 15 years of forced labor. And so they would sell not the person but the service to which this person had been condemned. And so that was another way to get around the legal prohibition against Indian slavery.

Kate Shuster: You’re listening to Teaching Hard History: American Slavery. We’re recapping our Season Two episodes so far about Indigenous enslavement.

As educators, we can no longer ignore our country’s record of enslaving Indigenous peoples. We need changes in our classrooms, our textbooks and our national institutions. Here’s Debbie Reese, with Eduardo Díaz and Renée Gokey of the Smithsonian Institution.

Eduardo Díaz: And I thought, “Wow, I work at the Smithsonian. I don’t know that we have ever dealt with this issue.” We have obviously dealt with the issue of African slavery at the Smithsonian but nothing that I could recall had ever been done on what is now known as “the other slavery.” 

Debbie Reese: A few years ago, a teacher wrote to me about a student that she had in her classroom. She was teaching, I think it was, fifth grade, and they were looking at the way that Thanksgiving has been taught. And the student was horrified when she was learning this history. And she said to her teacher, "Do you mean all those smiling Indians worksheets that I had to do all these years were wrong?" 

Renée Gokey: I remember one teacher. We were doing an activity where we kind of sort different primary and secondary sources. And we look at false narratives, and we define that. And we look at incomplete narratives and talk about some of the characteristics of those. And then more-complete narratives where we hope to provide first-person perspective, and some documents, and journals, and quotes and art pieces that help to tell these more-complete narratives from Indigenous perspectives. And this teacher, all of a sudden, she was engaging with the activity, and she threw her hands on the table, and she said, “I get it—we tell the stories that make us feel good about ourselves.”

Kate Shuster: The recent 1619 Project, from the New York Times, presented a compelling and challenging case that the history of the United States is the history of enslavement. 

Writing for the 1619 Project, Princeton professor Matthew Desmond says that slavery was foundational to America’s “low-road approach to capitalism,” which he describes as “the culture of acquiring wealth without work, growing at all costs and abusing the powerless.” 

Slavery was, and remains, a method of ruthless economic exploitation. One that trapped millions of Indigenous people across the Americas from the very beginning of the European invasion.

Christina Snyder: Warfare and slavery have a major role in Indigenous population devastation and these declines that you see everywhere in the Americas. It’s very likely that Indigenous peoples in the Southeast had experienced a 70 percent population loss from just 150 years before.

Andrés Reséndez: As every schoolchild knows, the devastation of the Caribbean occurred because of smallpox, malaria—"virgin soil” epidemics. These are the explanations that are dominating our understanding of the demographic history of the Caribbean in the first half of the 16th century. But a closer look at the sources, the 16th-century sources—which tended to emphasize overwork, displacement, appropriation of Indigenous native women, as well as illness—revealed that slavery may have been a major factor as well, because epidemics and slavery did not act independently, but in fact there was a synergistic relationship between the two.

Christina Snyder: Slavery and the warfare that accompanied it contributed significantly to Indigenous mortality in that early colonial period. So it’s not just diseases. One French colonial official in Louisiana, around 1700, estimated that for every captive taken alive, three people died resisting that invasion.

Andrés Reséndez: The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 is the largest revolt that occurred in the American Southwest, by far. And it is usually explained as a result of Catholic zeal to convert the Pueblo Indians to Christianity. There is certainly a point to that and there is plenty of evidence about that. But in recent years, scholars have looked into other aspects of this story and more broadly have added perspective about Indian slavery. And so, in many ways, we can recast that Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and think of it as the greatest insurrection against what I call “the other slavery.”

Kate Shuster: As America moved into the 1800s, the treatment of Native Nations barely moved at all. New laws claiming to protect Indigenous people became instruments of incarceration and enslavement. 

Christina Snyder: When the U.S. forced Native people to Indian Territory, you know, 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.

Andrés Reséndez: So, one of the most obvious provisions of that so-called act for the protection of Indians of 1850 was that any Native who is able to work and yet has no visible means to support themselves could be denounced by a white settler. He would need to be imprisoned and sold to the highest bidder for a term that could not exceed four months. So essentially, Natives who didn’t have any visible means to support themselves could be turned into slaves for a period of four months. Another way to do it was that Indigenous children could be inducted into “apprenticeships,” as they were called. A white person could go before the justice of the peace. And with the agreement of either the child’s parents or a friend—quote unquote, friend— that that child could be inducted into these apprenticeship, which essentially was servitude for multiple years. Maybe 20,000 Indigenous Californians [were] affected by this act of 1850, mostly used as domestic servants or also in agricultural enterprises.

Christina Snyder: 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.

Debbie Reese: I also think that it would be interesting for teachers to try and find any books that talk about Lincoln and the Dakota 38. You won’t find it, because that gets left out of the biographies about Lincoln.

Christina Snyder: 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.

Debbie Reese: A white student was doing a presentation on Lincoln and the Dakota 38 and how he was responsible for the largest mass execution of anybody in the United States and that’s 38 Dakota men who were hanged in a public execution. And some of the students in the class are African American, and they are visibly uncomfortable as she recounts this. And one said, “Wait, wait, wait, can you just give me a minute because Lincoln is like my hero. I didn’t know that he did all of this.”

Christina Snyder: There’s really no big push to liberate Native peoples of the West. And 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.

Maureen Costello: The 13th Amendment did not apply to “domestic nations,” which is what American Indians were considered.

Christina Snyder: So even after the Civil War, federal officials report that the slave population just of New Mexico is at least a thousand and maybe as many as 4,000. And there are these ongoing kind of 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 were 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 show it should be narratively 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 essentially is that those forms of bondage persist in different places to different times, sometimes until the 1880s, sometimes even into the 20th century.

Andrés Reséndez: This other slavery happened in spite of express prohibitions. It happened on the basis of subterfuges, it happened on the basis of debt. It happened on the basis of convict leasing, et cetera, which are the very same traits that we see in the human trafficking today. Today, slavery is prohibited all around the world, yet it happens. More than 42 million people are estimated to be subjected to some kind of modern form of slavery. And this happened against express prohibitions and using the mechanisms that would have been utterly familiar to Native Americans who were subjected to very similar labor regimes in the 16th, 17th and 18th and 19th century. So in some ways, this is the slavery, and what is really the other is a very unusual slavery is African slavery, in which all the empires of the world made it illegal and were in agreement about how the system would work.

Christina Snyder: 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.

Kate Shuster: Research about the scope, duration and impact of Indigenous enslavement is in its early years. Scholars continue to uncover new information on the hardships of this “other slavery” and its relationship to slavery today. Here, again, are Doctors Reséndez and Snyder. 

Andrés Reséndez: One of the first things that I wanted to do was to quantify this phenomenon. How many Indian slaves had been taken from Columbus all the way to the 19th century?

Christina Snyder: We do know that just in terms of Indigenous people who are deported and traded coming out of the Americas, there are between 2.5 and 5 million Indigenous Americans who are forced into the Indian slave trade. So that’s a huge, staggering number.

Andrés Reséndez: This number, 2.5 to 5 million, this is a major phenomenon that affected the entire hemisphere for the entire colonial period and beyond.

Christina Snyder: And in terms in that scope, you know, colonialism forced Native Americans and Africans alike into a global economy that valued coerced labor.

Andrés Reséndez: The earlier silver rush grew through the 16th century reaching the highest watermark years at the very end of the 18th and early 19th centuries. So we are really talking about a metal rush that lasted for 300 years. The primary workers were Natives from the region, but there were people as far away as India. The way to isolate silver was by mixing it with mercury, which is a very toxic process. So prisoners or the slaves who were devoted to mixing this sludge, they would not last more than two or three years. And mercury attacks the nervous system. So they would die horrible deaths, shaking uncontrollably because of the action of the mercury on the nervous system.

Maureen Costello: We really need to shift this idea that colonial only refers to the British colonial experience. And we also have to realize that we’re talking about hundreds of years of European involvement in exploiting people across the continent and enslaving them and look at the ways that shaped their cultures, their behaviors, what became the system of chattel slavery and how wealth was produced.

Andrés Reséndez: Masters who not only benefited but actually came to depend entirely on coerced Native labor for their businesses—be that in mining, or building houses, or as domestic servants, et cetera—found euphemisms and different ways to get around this prohibition. And so they devised a number of terms that crop up in the history of the Spanish Empire like encomiendas, repartimientos. And eventually they also resorted to other phenomena that are more familiar to readers of U.S. history like convict leasing or debt peonage.

Eduardo Díaz: There were economic factors, as we know, because slavery’s a business at the end of the day. There was inter-ethnic complicity, as we’ve discussed. There were wars that were fought over this. The geographic spread of Indigenous slavery was immense, not only in the Caribbean, but as we know, throughout Latin America, the U.S. colonies, including the Philippines, and most states. We need to go deep into the areas of removal, reservations, Indian schools, boarding schools.

Christina Snyder: I think a useful metaphor is thinking about slavery is a virus that mutates over time, that it doesn’t always look the same. 

Andrés Reséndez: The other slavery continues to this very day, right? We see reports about the new, the so-called “new slavery,” which I don’t think it’s anything new, but telling us that there are 40 million people around the world in more than 160 countries subjected to some, quote unquote, “new” forms of slavery.

Maureen Costello: Today, 40 million people around the world are involved in some form of slavery, which is some form of coerced labor.

Andrés Reséndez: I think scholars are every day providing new insight into this topic that had been left behind. And yet it is central to understand the dynamics, for example, of different colonial societies and their regions, between different Indigenous groups in the New World, that have colored the Imperial rivalries, that have colored great rebellions and warfare between different groups. And now this discovery is being also translated into the classroom. And I think we are very fortunate that we are able to contribute in this way.

Kate Shuster: Thanks to all our guests. Andrés Reséndez is author of The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America. Christina Snyder wrote Great Crossings: Indians, Settlers & Slaves in the Age of Jackson. Dr. Debbie Reese created the resource-rich blog American Indians in Children's Literature. Maureen Costello is the recently retired Director of Teaching Tolerance. Eduardo Diaz is the Director of the Smithsonian Latino Center. And Renee Gokey is the Teacher Workshop Coordinator at the National Museum of the American Indian.

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 provides free teaching materials that include over 100 texts, sample inquiries and a detailed K through 12 framework for teaching the history of American slavery. You can find these online at tolerance.org/hardhistory. That’s one word: “hardhistory.”

This podcast was produced by Barrett Golding. Russell Gragg is our associate producer. Gabriel Smith provides content guidance. And our senior producer is Shea Shackelford. Our theme song is “Different Heros” by A Tribe Called Red (featuring Northern Voice), who graciously let us use it for this series. Additional music is by Chris Zabriskie.

I’m Kate Shuster. Your regular hosts, Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries and Dr. Meredith McCoy, will be back soon with more strategies for Teaching Hard History: American Slavery.


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