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.