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. https://mashpeewampanoagtribe-nsn.gov/powwow-info.

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.

Welcome and Update!

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. 

Land Acknowledgement 

A cove along Narragansett Bay, from a path in the park. Aug 2020 - Picture  of Rocky Point State Park, Warwick - Tripadvisor
Image: Cove along the Narragansett Bay

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. 

Our Team

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. 

Feel free to follow this blog and look us up on Twitter: @stolenrelations

A brief introduction and update (2017)

Greetings, and thanks for visiting this site. The idea for a database that centralizes all known biographical information about known instances of indigenous slavery in the Americas has been percolating for some time. In 2015 I began to slowly apply for small amounts of funding internally here at Brown to take the first steps towards amassing data and building a website. I’m grateful that the Center for Digital Scholarship here at Brown has been willing to generously help out in terms of computer programming and tech support. We have applied for significant outside funding both internally and externally and hope to be able to make more concrete headway soon.

At the moment, we do have a core database and a back-end interface for us to enter data. Although there is not yet a front-facing portal to the database, we are hoping to have a prototype of that by early 2018, especially if funding comes through.

In the meantime, I’d welcome any and all submissions to the project! If you have any instances of indigenous slavery anywhere in the Americas, in any linguistic context, please contact me! We have researchers who can enter this information into the database.