Behind the Scenes of Stolen Relations: Highlighting the Development Team

Whether it’s scrolling through our website’s intricately placed historical maps and photographs, learning more through the simple act of clicking a site subheading, or navigating through the archival database— our users owe it all to the Stolen Relations development team. Their work is the glue that holds the project together, as they design the user experience to emphasize ease, education, and enjoyment. Despite their immense roles, their largely back-end positions do not get publicly appreciated as much as they deserve! As such, the Stolen Relations team thought we would offer our site visitors the chance to get to know and love our development team as much as we do; we enthusiastically conducted an interview with multiple team members, digging into the past, present, and future of their work. Take some time to read below.

  1. How did Stolen Relations and the Brown Library’s Center for Digital Scholarship come to work together?

The origins of Stolen Relations and the CDS collaboration was a conversation between our faculty principal investigator, Professor Linford Fisher, and our former colleague from the Library’s Center for Digital Scholarship, Brian Croxall (now at Brigham Young University). 

Professor Fisher shared with Center for Digital Scholarship (CDS) staff that he was impressed by the efforts of other digital scholarship projects (such as the People of the Atlantic Slave Trade Database) to extract personal data from historical documents in order to document the individuals involved in the slavery of those of African descent. He was hoping to do a similar project focused on his research interest, the enslavement of Indigenous people in the Americas.

A small team from the Library started building the first prototype of the database. The early iteration of the project raised important questions about the project’s scope. Was this a database of Indigenous enslavement in all the Americas? Should the scope at least initially be localized to the New England community? What information was most important to collect from the archival documents? 

With the help of our Native American and Indigenous Studies program here at Brown, the project team started to reach out to potential Indigenous community partners to ensure the project met their needs and amplified their voices first. The CDS team added another staff member to the project to focus on community outreach. In collaboration with the CDS staff and community partners, the Stolen Relations project started to focus on the New England area to start. The project team still maintains the same goal of documenting as many instances as possible of Indigenous enslavement in the Americas between 1492 and 1900 (and beyond, where relevant). 

For the past seven years, the Library has supported the project with 3-4 staff members at a time. Our CDS also supports faculty as they craft grant applications in the digital humanities, and CDS supported Professor Fisher in writing the National Endowment for the Humanities grant in 2022. Ashley Champagne, Director for the CDS, is the Co-Research Director on the grant.

With the generous support of the NEH, the project will now build a public-facing portal for the project with the help of external developers. The Library will still remain in a central role and help lead the project. The public portal, once built, will continue to require support from the CDS in terms of regular maintenance, updates, and potential new features.

  1. Tell us about the development team. Who are you? What do you do?

It’s easy to think of programmers as people consumed by strictly technical concerns, but we are an active, creative part of the community-centered project mission as a whole. Birkin Diana writes, “We realize dreams. That’s what I love about this work; that’s what’s inspiring.” Or, as Elizaberth Yalkut says, “We make stuff! We make ideas into things people can interact with and learn from.”

A project like Stolen Relations has many moving, interlocked parts and making sure that they all come together at the same time is a tricky challenge. Importantly, it’s impossible for the development team to be separated from the actual community-centered mission because everyday development decisions impact the project as a whole. As a result, the development team meets regularly with community partners to hear their feedback on development decisions.

The information you see on the website is stored in a database which is taken care of by Birkin Diana. Patrick Rashleigh is developing what is called the “API”, which is the door through which websites (and computer programs in general) access the database. Elizabeth Yalkut builds the website that people interact with, put data into, and search for information. All of Stolen Relations ultimately is put on a hosting service, set up and maintained by Cody Carvel, which makes it available to the web.

We are working with a firm, Common Media, who is providing a designer and developers to move us towards making Stolen Relations ready for the public launch.

Importantly, we are all working together with the rest of the project team and our community partners to ensure that the ins and outs of the very development of this database project is community-centered and illuminates the role the enslavement of Indigenous peoples played in settler colonialism. 

  1. Can you describe the softwares (for dummies) you all use for Stolen Relations? What purposes do they each serve in the project?

For anyone looking to get started in web programming, the most important programming languages are the ones that run in your browser: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. 

HTML describes the content of the page (typically text and images), CSS describes how a page or site should look on the internet, and JavaScript makes it possible to have rich, dynamic interactions with a page. Without CSS, a page would just be black text on a white background, with the occasional blue link to another page. 

JavaScript lets users ask questions and manipulate the data to find answers (or, often, more questions). (Note that it is totally unrelated to the Java programming language.)

For the curious and committed, here’s a quick run-down of the other major technologies we use:

  1. Where do you see the future of Stolen Relations going? How is the Development team’s work helping it get there?

With the acquisition of the NEH grant, it really is “all systems go” for the project as we strive to make the information available to the public in a compelling, accessible, and responsible way. We are aiming to publish this important information as soon as possible, with the acknowledgement that even after our launch, there will be plenty of work left to be done.

So the future of Stolen Relations has multiple horizons: first, we need to get it ready for a public launch, then moving to support the incorporation of additional content, such as educational resources, materials to contextualize the data, and data visualizations.

  1. Why should everyone be excited about digital scholarship and humanities? What role do you see them playing in the future of education and academia?

This is a huge and complicated question, and answers vary widely according to whom you ask!

For those of us working in development in the context of Humanities scholarship, we see how technology and the Humanities vitally need each other. The stunning advances in technology (as of this writing, the dust from the chatGPT launch is still settling) really necessitate a humanistic perspective if we’re to ensure that the interest of the tools don’t end up overshadowing the interest of people. The humanities provide that perspective, and it is worth noting that every member of the development team has their primary educational background in the humanities.

However, as Elizabeth and Birkin remarked above, we are builders and like to see impact in the world—and this is where the humanities needs the digital. We can take research and make interactive tools that are engaging, accessible world-wide, and have the potential to effect change. The world needs more humanistic, critical, contextual thinking in combination with technology (particularly web technology). The intersection of the humanities and technology represents an opportunity to shape the world for the better. This is very much top of mind for us in Stolen Relations.

Laurie Tamayo

Indigenous Freedom Suits and the Problem of the Law

Zoe Zimmermann

Petersburg, Va. Courthouse. 1865. Photograph. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

One of the many paradoxes of Indigenous enslavement is that, in many regions, the practice flourished well after it was supposedly abolished. The Stolen Relations research team is constantly astonished at the number of cases we discover after colonies and states passed laws against enslaving Indigenous people and even after the 13th amendment. Slaveholders used a variety of tactics to keep Indigenous people in bondage, such as claiming that they were actually African, relying on arcane and confusing legislation, refusing to keep written records, and even selling their slaves out of state if anyone became suspicious. As the condition of slavery was passed between generations, identifying those who were free by law became an exceptionally difficult task. 

Still, there are numerous instances of enslaved Indigenous individuals and families who managed to trace their lineage to a wrongfully enslaved ancestor and prove their freedom in court. These cases, known as “freedom suits,” are the subject of this blog post. In British America and the United States, most claims to freedom depended on a legal premise known as partus sequitur ventrem, which meant that the legal status of children would always follow the mother. Thus, the children of enslaved women would always be legally enslavable, but the children of free women should legally be free, regardless of the father’s status. While partus sequitur ventrem was most typically used to keep the children of enslaved women in slavery, over time enslaved Indigenous people used it to gain their freedom by demonstrating that they had a free maternal ancestor (and then therefore that freedom should have been passed along to successive generations). In some cases, questions of free maternal ancestors intersected with questions of legal enslavement in the first place, making court decisions and determinations even more complicated. And proving one’s family history to an often unsympathetic court with little or no written evidence could be next to impossible. 

In 1807, these hurdles to freedom were made abundantly clear to Pallas, an Indigenous man who sued for his freedom in Virginia. Maddeningly complicated legal issues, a lack of resources, and even the threat of death were challenges faced by anyone attempting to find freedom in the courtroom. Pallas’ story is one in which the shortcomings of an obtuse colonial bureaucracy nearly sentenced a man and all of his relatives to a life of slavery.

It seemed like Pallas had a good case for his freedom. He was descended from Bess, an Indigenous woman who was enslaved in 1703, seemingly from somewhere outside Virginia. Though Pallas never knew his ancestor, the legal status of her enslavement formed the central dilemma for his case. Indigenous enslavement was presumed to be illegal in Virginia in 1807, when the court heard Pallas’ case, but whether it was illegal in 1703 was another question altogether. Because legal records were poorly maintained, no one really knew exactly when Indigenous enslavement had been outlawed in Virginia. Pallas’ attorneys supposed that it was in 1691, but the opposing counsel denied that. Neither side could be proven right, though, because no one could find the law in question.

The circumstances under which this law “went missing” are sketchy at best—attorneys claimed that since destruction was “naturally incident to books and papers of this kind,” then “it could not reasonably be presumed that many copies…would still be found in existence.” Yet this seemingly minor discrepancy meant the difference between freedom and slavery for Pallas. Without evidence, the lower court ruled in favor of Pallas’ owner.

Yet Pallas and his fellow plaintiffs would not give up so easily; they appealed their case to a higher court, despite the fact that that process could take several years. By this point, many of Pallas’ relatives living on other plantations had gotten wind of the fact that they, too, may have been able to claim their rightful freedom. These other descendants of Bess—Bridget, James, Tabb, Hannah, Sam, and many others whose names do not appear in the court records—filed individual freedom suits against their respective owners in Petersburg around the same time. Their collaboration offers a window into the kin-based communication networks amongst enslaved families in nineteenth-century Virginia as they likely shared legal advice, resources, and support right under their owner’s noses. 

When these cases reached the Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia, the court saw all six at once. At the trial, Pallas’ attorney, the prominent Virginia lawyer George K. Taylor, finally produced evidence of the 1691 act. In order to find it, Taylor had traveled to Monticello, the home of President Thomas Jefferson, to procure a manuscript version of the act. Nevertheless, the court still doubted the law’s authenticity and went as far as to analyze the handwriting in order to figure out if it had ever been officially enacted. It was not until the following year that yet another copy of the same law, also from 1691, would be discovered. At that point, the court determined that it would be too much of a coincidence to find two fraudulent acts from the same year, and thus finally ruled that the 1691 act was legitimate. 

After several long years of judicial confusion, Pallas and his family were finally granted freedom. But the horrible irony about it is that the “missing law” was, in fact, not missing at all—it had even been cited in a separate freedom suit just a few decades prior. It was only the oversight of the judges and attorneys involved in the case that caused the debate to drag on for multiple years.

Despite all the trouble the “missing law” caused, these convoluted legal details reflected in the court records only scratch the surface of the difficulties that enslaved families faced throughout the multiyear court process. The details provided in the record do not even begin to provide answers about how people were able to trace their genealogy, secure resources, or find sympathetic lawyers—let alone do these things all while protecting themselves from the wrath of a master who would not have been keen on losing labor. 

Every once in a while, though, the dangerous stakes of freedom suits poke out in the record. One of Pallas’ other relatives, Abner, likewise attempted to sue his owner, Thomas Hardaway in Dinwiddie County, Virginia. His case, though, never made it in front of the court—Hardaway murdered Abner before any legal proceedings could occur. 

I am not inclined to believe that Abner was the only person who suffered a terrible fate in attempting to file a freedom suit. It seems more plausible that household abuse would only have magnified upon a slave’s claim to freedom, but these are stories that we almost certainly will never know. We are lucky that Abner’s story still exists—ironically, the report of his murder in another freedom suit was ruled to be hearsay and stricken from the record. 

Despite the innumerable risks posed by the quest for freedom, dozens of freedom suits were taken up throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries. However, court records, while detailed and thorough from a legal perspective, almost completely erase the words of the enslaved individuals themselves, providing at best a dim glow onto their actual lived experiences. By centralizing these stories, Stolen Relations offers a way to see past the scant archival evidence and connect families across political boundaries and generational divides. We’ve amassed dozens of offhand remarks and genealogical references from freedom suits which, together, clearly prove that kinship and identity persisted among enslaved communities in the face of legal scrutiny. Within the database, we are able to map relationships among these complex and largely unknown communities, such as Pallas’ extended network of freedom-seekers. As we conduct further research, these networks will only expand, allowing us to more fully reconstruct and understand the movements, relationships, and livelihoods of enslaved Indigenous people in American history.


Pallas v. Hill, 12 Va. 149, 2 Hen. & M. 149 (1807), Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia;

For further reading on Indigenous freedom suits: 

Fisher, Linford. “A ‘Spanish Indian Squaw’ in New England: Ann’s Journey from Slavery to Freedom,” in Slave Narratives in French and British North America, eds. Trevor Bernard and Sophie White (Routledge, 2020).

Ray, Kristofer. “‘The Indians of Every Denomination Were Free, and Independent of Us’: Anglo-Virginian Explorations of Indigenous Slavery, Freedom, and Society, 1772–1830.” American Nineteenth Century History 17, no. 2 (May 3, 2016): 139–59.

Sachs, Honor. “‘Freedom By A Judgment’: The Legal History of an Afro-Indian Family.” Law and History Review 30, no. 1 (February 2012): 173–203.

Our Community’s Perspective: Highlight on Lorén Spears

Lorén Spears in front of the Tomaquag Museum logo. Tomaquag Museum.

Although Stolen Relations started out in 2015 as a mostly academic project, the team members realized over time that it needed input from and collaboration with the Indigenous nations in New England who were most directly affected by settler colonialism. In 2019 the project as a whole took a more intentional turn toward community collaboration in order to help decenter the power of the archive and to ensure Indigenous voices and perspectives were incorporated into the project. Since then, we have relied on dozens of community members (both local and non-local to the Providence region) to ground us through their diverse perspectives. In today’s discussion, we’ll be highlighting an integral collaborator who has been a friend to the project and has served on the Tribal Advisory Board for many years— Lorén Spears.

Spears is a leading educator, museum professional, and Indigenous rights activist in Rhode Island. Growing up as a Narragansett-Niantic individual, she learned traditional values from her culture that continue to steer her career. With deep conviction in the importance of artistic Indigenous representation, Spears has taught traditional art practices to her community while encouraging their contemporization. She additionally works to preserve characteristic Narragansett practices such as basketry and beading by teaching them to the general public and through her leadership at the Tomaquag Museum.

Photograph of the Tomaquag Museum. Tomaquag Museum.

Founded in 1958 by Eva Butler, an American anthropologist, with the help of Princess Red Wing, a Narragansett/Wampanoag activist and historian, the Tomaquag Museum began as a grassroots, volunteer-run organization dedicated to honoring Indigenous culture in the Northeast. When Butler passed away ten years after its inception, Spears’ grandparents gave it a new location and supported Red Wing in the continuation of the museum. Ever since, her family has guided the organization through a rollercoaster of progress and change; in 2003, Spears herself opened up a school for sharing Narragansett heritage as part of the museum. She has also led countless on-site and off-site public programs, ranging from professional development seminars on college campuses to educational workshops in K-12 schools. The museum is currently located in Exeter, Rhode Island, but is working on a new location adjacent to the University of Rhode Island and hopes to move into this new facility in a few years. Under Spears’ leadership, it has received multiple awards and grants, been recognized nationally for its community work, and has expanded its vision and impact. 

Though maintaining a mission of amplifying Indigenous heritage, the Tomaquag Museum recognizes the importance of lending their voice to other marginalized cultures, oftentimes partners with other culture-based organizations.“There’s a blessing of working in a museum setting where we’re inviting culture-bearers in to share their knowledge with the Native community and also with the public at large,” details Spears.

With her personal connection to and expertise in Indigenous culture, Spears has been a guiding part of Stolen Relations since 2018. Explaining her initial interest in the project, she states, “Rhode Island is just coming to grips with the fact that they participated in slavery, they like to remember themselves as abolitionists… the idea of uncovering this history– it’s already there, it’s just being brought to the surface to see the impact of the choices that were made on people’s lives.”

As a member of the Tribal Advisory Board, her input sparks and molds different initiatives within the project, oftentimes intended towards furthering decolonization. Spears emphasizes that even something as simple as changing Stolen Relations’ past title from Database of Indigenous Slavery in the Americas (DISA) to its current one (Stolen Relations) can remove remnants of colonialism in the research. Similar efforts include the placement of a “decolonizing note” in the database for different Eurocentric terms, such as the use of “Indian” rather than the individual’s distinct tribal nation. Modifications such as these humanize the history, attaching souls and stories to the database and reminding users of its lasting legacy on present-day Indigenous peoples.

“It’s things like this we can have a voice in, to create visibility where invisibility once resided,” explains Spears.

Her duties don’t end there. Spears is on several subcommittees of Stolen Relations, including the Development Subcommittee, providing her support on projects from grant applications to summer institutes. Spears and the Tomaquag Museum also play a central role in the August 2022 three-year grant from the National Endowment to the Humanities, since funds are set aside for a Brown-Tomaquag Fellow each year to work in the Tomaquag’s collections, as well as a a jointly-designed exhibition on the Stolen Relations project and settler colonialism in New England that will be displayed at Brown and the Tomaquag Museum in the third year of the grant (2024-25). To her, the work is both necessary and exciting for the future of scholarship and for Indigenous knowledge. “The database isn’t just for academics, it’s for everybody. And it’s for the Native communities to have access to these records,” describes Spears. 

As the project moves into new territory through the grant, including going public in 2024, Spears knows it will continue to work towards decolonizing public history, eventually presenting a database that not only recognizes but is guided by Indigenous perspectives. And, indeed, it is the involvement of community members like her that will hopefully allow this project to be recognizable and usable by Indigenous peoples. 

Laurie Tamayo

Behind the Scenes of Stolen Relations: Highlighting Zoe Zimmermann, Research Assistant Coordinator

“Libraries and Collections.” Brown University.

Behind the clean minimalism of a straightforward website and future accessibility of our historical database, a lot goes on. Years of strategic planning, hours of meticulous research, endless development Zooms— they’re all integral parts of the process. Today, we’ll be highlighting the backbone of the project: our research assistants. Throughout the years, we’ve had countless students, including undergraduates, MA and PhD students, and even high schoolers, contributing their time and efforts to conducting research on the history of Indigenous enslavement in America. They’ve scoured archives, combed through thousands of documents, and delved into countless online books and volumes that build their understanding of Indigenous peoples’ presence and importance on these lands. 

No student knows this process better than the subject of today’s post— Zoe Zimmermann, Brown student and Stolen Relations Research Assistant Coordinator. Graduating this winter, Zimmermann has been a critical part of the project team since her sophomore year in 2020. After reaching out to Dr. Linford Fisher, the project’s Principal Investigator, and hearing about Stolen Relations’ early stages, she initially joined as an aide to Dr. Fisher’s ongoing book development. When the pandemic hit that year and archives closed for visitors, Zimmermann transitioned her efforts to the creation of the Stolen Relations database as a research assistant.

The gravity of unraveling and publicizing underrepresented narratives of enslaved Indigenous peoples became increasingly clear throughout her time on Stolen Relations, as she learned more about prominent aspects of our past that had been rarely mentioned in prior education. Whether it was the various forms of unfreedom that existed or the sheer number of enslaved Indigenous individuals, Zimmermann felt she was being introduced to a new terrain of American history. “I really liked the research I was doing— I felt that having a digital, public-facing, accessible website like this was really important and I found the work to be incredibly interesting. So I stuck with it,” counts Zimmermann about her early involvement.

After months of working on the project, Zimmermann took on a leadership role as the Research Assistant Coordinator in the spring of 2021, in which capacity she continues to operate. She highlights that the research being conducted largely looks the same as it did when she first began— the only difference is that she now guides others through it.

The process starts with finding sources from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries (most often recommended by a Stolen Relations team member or community partner), both secondary and primary, that are suspected to contain references to enslaved Indigenous individuals. A source is then assigned to a research assistant who either reads the source in its entirety or, if online, searches using a range of keywords. When the students come across evidence of an enslaver or enslaved Indigenous person, they take down the full transcription and information in a research document that is created for that source. The final step is to input all related information into the Stolen Relations database for permanent documentation. In most cases, a second set of eyes eventually double checks the entries for accuracy and to ensure that faulty information has not been introduced into the process.  

The research and database entry process can be time consuming and slow. Currently we have records for more than 4,500 individuals, mostly related to New England, but also drawn from records related to California, the US South, and the Caribbean. Our RAs are pursuing over twenty projects, each grounded in a more profound comprehension of Indigenous enslavement but focused on a region, theme, or specific source of documents. With a mission of being as comprehensive as possible, Stolen Relations maintains a team of research assistants whose information-seeking is never ending— there are always more stories to be told. The challenge moving forward will be to try to expand the networks and researchers to other regions, since the scale of the project is so large. 

Part of the Stolen Relations team activity during this first year of the NEH grant cycle is also to continuously be in conversation with our tribal representatives. They have access to all of the information we are collecting and ultimately get to decide if there are materials that are too sensitive for public consumption. This is the last and final vetting of the information in the database before it is released to the public (hopefully a late 2023 launch). 

A recent snapshot of our Principal Investigator and a few RAs, after enjoying a team lunch together.

Zimmermann, who now ensures that the organizational structure and execution of research prioritizes productivity and breadth, wouldn’t have it any other way. “This project has made it really clear that our research does have implications for living people. There are real stakeholders for this history, so it’s really important that it gets done and that we do it right,” she emphasizes.

Laura Tamayo

A Brief Background on Indigenous Enslavement

The reality that Indigenous people were enslaved in large numbers was new to me when I first learned about it, and it may be to you, too. This is understandable, since it is a topic that is not really taught at all in secondary schools and even many college level classes. Most people know something about African slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade, although even then, specific details are fuzzy. But Indigenous enslavement? That is news to most people. Even if the scholarship on Indigenous enslavement is growing rapidly, academic research on any topic takes time – years, a generation, at times – to filter into textbooks and classrooms in ways that shifts the conversation (please see our growing bibliography for a larger listing of suggested resources; we’ve also listed a few resources as a starting place at the end of this post). That is one of the goals of this project: to bring visibility to a history that has for too long been overlooked.

Wagner, H. R. “Manuscript Atlases of Battista Agnese,” Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, XXV (1931), p. 1-110.

Scholars now estimate that between 2.5 and 5 million Indigenous people were enslaved in the Americas between 1492 and 1900. (Andrés Reséndez, in his terrific book The Other Slavery, has some excellent educated estimates in the appendices for those who are interested in seeing where those numbers come from region by region.) This is an enormous figure, by any measure. Although the comparison is imperfect, it is helpful to realize that between 10.5 and 12 million enslaved Africans were forcibly brought to the Americas as a whole. So, no, Indigenous enslavement was never as large in scale as African slavery, but it was equally important in terms of the processes and ideologies of settler colonialism.

As recent scholarship has decisively shown, coerced labor and knowledge of Indigenous people were central to the colonization of the Americas. Europeans met, traded with, fought, and enslaved Native people everywhere they stepped foot in the Americas. Indigenous labor and land were made to be essential components of European colonial pursuits in every colony. By the time English merchants dropped anchor in a land they called Virginia in 1607, the Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, and English had been crisscrossing the Atlantic for over a century. They routinely stole Indigenous people off of the coasts in some locales, and—in the case of the Spanish and Portuguese—decimated entire populations and enslaved hundreds of thousands of Native people to perform the hard work of mining silver and gold and working sugar plantations and large farms.

Each European colonizing power in the Americas enslaved Natives or in other ways coerced their labor over time. In Brazil, Indigenous people were enslaved by the tens of thousands and forced to work on sugar plantations, as scholar John Monteiro has shown. In the Spanish Caribbean, Central, and South America, conquistadores and colonial administrators commandeered the labor of Native Americans to work the land (on encomiendas, for example, but also larger plantations) as well as to work in the dangerous gold and silver mines. French colonists used enslaved Natives in households in New France and on plantations in the Caribbean. The same was true for the English and the Dutch, who had colonies in North America and the Caribbean.

Each colonial context had a different set of laws that either licensed or tried to regulate Indigenous slavery over time. In some cases, this was in conjunction with African slavery; in other cases, it was handled separately. The most famous debates about the enslavement of Natives was in Spain, where officials, jurists, and priests debated how the Indigenous populations of the Americas should be treated, and whether enslavement or coerced labor should be permitted. This led to a series of New Laws in 1542, but as Andrés Reséndez and others have shown, these laws were not effective over time.

Indigenous peoples were enslaved through a variety of processes – outright warfare against them; slave raids; incentivizing other Indigenous nations to slave raid for Europeans by offering high prices or desired trade goods; slavery as a punishment for crimes; slavery as a means to pay off debt; bounties in wartime; and, in some notable cases, receiving enslaved Indigenous peoples as a sign of an alliance with other Native groups.

Indigenous slavery did not perfectly map onto African slavery; it had its own origins, rising and falling, and resurfacing over time. In North America, for example, although the outright and active enslavement of Native Americans had mostly ceased on the East Coast, the ongoing westward American colonialism under the United States brought a whole new round of Native coerced labor in New Mexico, Utah, and California, as Americans enslaved, bought, and sold Indigenous populations, even in supposedly free states. Although the Thirteenth Amendment ended legal Black slavery in the United States, it was not until a 1867 separate act of U.S. Congress that the various forms of Indigenous servitude and slavery were officially outlawed as well.

Even so, some Indigenous scholars and elders have noted that the various forms of coerced labor continued on well into the twentieth century in other forms, including the forced residential schooling system.

Powwow — Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. “Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe.” Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. 2014.

One of the most important aspects of this history, and one that we hope to highlight with this project, are the perspectives and experiences of Indigenous nations. For them, enslavement was integral to the process of the invasion of Europeans. Whenever Europeans stole or captured individuals or whole groups from their homes, it had a devastating effect on individuals, families, and communities. When Europeans enslaved and stole Indigenous people, they were chipping away at the sovereignty and political autonomy of those same tribes. Enslavement led to smaller populations over time, and land loss, which made it harder for Native nations to adequately stand their ground in the face of settler colonialism. All of this has directly contributed to the historical trauma that so many Indigenous people and communities experience today. And yet, despite all of this, Indigenous peoples today have survived; they remain culturally vibrant, and are still here, fighting for their sovereignty and rightful place on these continents.

In this way, then, these stories that we are recovering in this project are not just about the past; they are also about the present, now, and about the kinds of futures that are possible when we together start fully acknowledging the past.

Linford Fisher

For further reading:

Gallay, Alan, ed. Indian Slavery in Colonial America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009.

Monteiro, John M. Blacks of the Land: Indian Slavery, Settler Society, and the Portuguese Colonial Enterprise in South America. Translated by James Woodard and Barbara Weinstein. Cambridge, United Kingdom ; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Newell, Margaret Ellen. Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American Slavery. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015.

Reséndez, Andrés. The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.

Rushforth, Brett. Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012.