Welcome to the Stolen Relations Blog!
In this space, we hope to give more information about the various aspects and activities of this project. For the next three years we will be engaged in growing and developing Stolen Relations in particular ways thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). While we are still in the process of building out our public facing site, we feel that it is important to document and make available our processes, challenges, and goals for what we hope the Stolen Relations project can be and provide, both with regard to the Tribal and Indigenous communities for whom whose stories we aim to bring to light, and to educate the academic and broader public on the long standing and widespread history of Indigenous enslavement across the Americas. In the posts that follow, we will spotlight individual Tribal nations and individuals; introduce members of our leadership team; give examples from the archives and our database; and provide myriad updates on other aspects of the project, including progress towards our grant goals.
Tied to and embedded within our work and within the larger context of settler colonialism is the land. In order to work with the community it was important that we consider the land Brown University resides on and how our current work is interrelated to the trauma and separation of Indigenous nations from their homelands. In acknowledging this, we also acknowledge that Brown University sits upon lands taken from the Narragansett Tribal Nation, and it has directly benefited from the enslavement, dispossession, and transshipment of Narragansett tribal members over the years. We hope that through this project and our work, we are able to reconnect the many stolen relations back to their homelands to begin to help these communities heal and work through the trauma of settler colonial violence.
Background on Stolen Relations
The Stolen Relations: Recovering Stories of Indigenous Enslavement in the Americas project (formerly the Database of Indigenous Enslavement in the Americas [DISA]) is led by Professor Linford Fisher in collaboration with the Center for Digital Scholarship at the Brown University Library and thirteen regional Indigenous nations and communities. It seeks to illuminate and understand the role the enslavement of Indigenous peoples played in settler colonialism over time. As we scour the archives, we are seeking to document as many instances as possible of Indigenous enslavement in the Americas between 1492 and 1900 (and beyond, where relevant). Long overlooked by scholars and almost completely unknown to the wider public, the enslavement of Indigenous peoples was a persistent and destabilizing aspect of settler colonialism that tore apart communities and families and aided settler colonial expansion. The enslavement of Native Americans was a hemispheric phenomenon, perpetrated by every European colonial power in their invasion of the Americas. Scholars now estimate that between 2.5 and 5 million Natives were enslaved in the Americas between 1492 and the late nineteenth century – an astonishing number by any measure (even compared to the approximately 10.5 -12 million Africans who were brought as slaves from Africa in this same time period).
The project began in 2015 as a small database project with the aim of gathering and documenting all instances of enslavement of Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas. Fisher had been working on a book-length project since 2011 and realized that all the information he and other scholars were finding and collecting in archives in Europe and across the Americas needed to be collected and made available to tribal communities and the wider public. With this goal of centralizing and democratizing access to archival documents in mind, Fisher began working collaboratively with programmers and digital humanists at Brown to see what could be done.
As is always the case with these projects, progress was slow and uneven. Although the initial vision was for a hemisphere-wide, crowd-sourced database that might be semi-autonomously run, the reality was that it takes a huge investment of time and resources to create anything durable and responsible. Feedback on early grant applications steered the team away from crowd-sourced approaches (quality control was a major concern) and towards a less ambitious goal of a single region, starting with New England.
In 2019, with the changing tides of scholarship and greater focus on community collaboration, the Stolen Relations project recentered itself on the needs of Indigenous communities, with the goals of working to provide this history and information to those communities. As part of these efforts, the team reached out to the leadership of Tribal nations in Southern New England to invite them to appoint official project representatives for the project in an advisory role to help guide the project and bring Tribal considerations to the forefront. Through these connections we have a group of Tribal community partners whom we convene with twice a year to discuss the project and talk through concerns, challenges, and the general progress of the project. Tribal members also serve on subcommittees, including the Development Committee, in order to more fully integrate Indigenous perspectives and concerns into the back end programming and decision making.
As the project continues to grow, we aim to bring in more representatives across the country and continent to help inform the work that we do. In the coming years, as the database becomes accessible to the public, we hope to create more partnerships and work towards a more comprehensive story of the role of enslavement in the processes of white supremacist settler colonial violence across the Americas.
The Stolen Relations project is made up of at least five different groups or teams: 1) Core Project Team; 2) Tribal Community Partners; 3) Research Assistants; 4) Development Team; 5) Academic Advisors. Stolen Relations is housed at the Center for Digital Scholarship at Brown University, which has been a long-time supporter of this project. Currently the CDS is directed by Ashley Champagne, PhD, who is also the project manager and co-director of the NEH grant for Stolen Relations. You can read more on the People section of the website, and we will be spotlighting various members of these teams over the next few months and years.
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