In his book The Other Slavery, historian Andrés Reséndez reveals of a missing piece of American history — the enslavement of Native Americans. From the first days of Columbus in the Caribbean down to the 20th century, Indians were pressed into slavery.
Only it wasn’t called slavery. It was called indenture, or debt peonage, or not given any name at all. Indian slavery was different from African slavery. The slaves were not transported across the ocean. They were captured and sold by rival Indian tribes, hunted down by white kidnappers, or taken up on charges of vagrancy. Unlike Africans, who all came to North America originally in bondage, Native slavery varied depending on location and tribe.
It was different in other ways too. African slavers sought primarily young men, but with Indian slavery, women and children were more desirable. Women had useful skills — weaving, food preparation, child care. Women and children were more docile and easily managed. In the West particularly, household servants were often Native Americans, often children who had grown up working for their owners.
Indian slavery was not legal, but it persisted anyway. The Spanish crown prohibited Native slavery in 1592, but it continued. Mexico outlawed all forms of bondage and gave the Indians citizenship, but peonage continued. The 13th Amendment prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States, and this certainly should have applied to Indians as much as African-Americans, but Native bondage was ignored. They weren’t called slaves, so how could they be set free?
Reséndez looks at slavery’s beginnings in the Caribbean, the encomienda system in Mexico, and the spread of slavery throughout the American Southwest. When the Mormons arrived in Utah, they came upon a thriving slave trade already in place, and in their efforts to rescue and convert natives, they found themselves entangled in buying and keeping Indian children. In New Mexico the removal of the Navajo to a reservation was an opportunity for slave traders to capture and sell into bondage countless women and children. And in California, even before the Gold Rush, the Indians were coerced into labor by the rancheros, both Mexican and American
Reséndez explores how Native American slavery has been overlooked. He sees in it a major cause of the decline of the Indian populations that can be added to the well-known causes of disease, massacre, and removal. For anyone interested in Native American history or the history of the American West, this is an important book.