- What's in a Name?
At a recent roundtable on Indian slavery at the Myaamia Center at Miami University, borderlands historian Andrew Offenburger posed two great questions: Is slavery the appropriate "container" for the variety of labor arrangements and captivities that indigenous people experienced? And why are scholars of Native American history suddenly using the term?
Certainly, Indian slavery is having a moment. A slew of award-winning works have discussed Indian slavery's scale and effects across the western hemisphere. But is slavery too blunt an instrument for analyzing the Native American experience? An institution that has existed in many eras and places, slavery would seem a capacious container. Still, in the Americas slavery remains closely associated with European colonization, with victims of African descent, with plantations, and with the racialized, heritable, chattel form that emerged between 1650 and 1750. This definition would appear to leave little room for pre- and post-contact indigenous practices, the non-economic aspects of captivity, and the nuances of peonage.
Another nomenclature controversy involves the use of terms like "human trafficking" in talking about the past. This issue has popped up at panels on slavery and has invited passionate "yeas" as well as naysayers who fear teleology. In Brazil, Sudan, Thailand, Syria, and the United States, to name a few, women and children are trafficked for sex, unpaid workers are held against their will, and regimes justify the enslavement of ethnic and religious minorities. Does establishing a link with the present help or hinder our understanding of the unique historical circumstances that produced eighteenth-and nineteenth-century slavery? Should our stories of slavery end with the Thirteenth Amendment? [End Page 24]
These two books speak to the question of what to call unfree Indians and why names matter. In The Other Slavery, Andrés Reséndez offers an emphatic "yes" to the question of whether slavery is the appropriate analytical tool for understanding colonization and the indigenous experience in Latin America and the U.S. borderlands. William S. Kiser offers a more ambiguous answer in Borderlands of Slavery, in which he explores efforts to end Indian bondage in New Mexico in the Civil War era, a fight that turned on whether captivity and peonage really constituted slavery.
A finalist for the National Book Award and a Bancroft Prize-winner, The Other Slavery is a tour de force. Reséndez combines synthesis and original research seamlessly, and since he draws material from Latin American and borderlands histories unfamiliar to many U.S. historians, it feels fresh. The scope is breathtaking, ranging over four centuries and covering the Spanish empire (including the Philippines and the Caribbean), independent Mexico, and the southwestern United States. At the same time, individual stories and often searing first-hand testimony give emotional heft to this persuasive account.
Not afraid to name names when it comes to slavery, Reséndez surveys an array of coerced labor regimes: the Mit'a, encomienda, repartimiento, and similar forced labor requirements; debt peonage; ransomed captives forced to labor to repay their benefactors; convicts and rebels sentenced to servitude; indentured servants; orphans and paupers bound to service; and ostensibly free wage laborers whose employers never paid them are all gathered under the same umbrella. The Other Slavery puts Indian slavery into dialogue with Atlantic African slavery, not to argue that they were the same but rather to convey significance and horror. Upping numbers first proposed by Brett Rush-forth, Reséndez estimates that between 2.5 and 5 million Indians experienced enslavement.
The numbers suggest that a higher proportion of Indians faced enslavement than did Africans, and The Other Slavery challenges common understandings of the Americas' demographic catastrophe. Slavery and slaving, not merely epidemic disease, bore significant blame. Traders kidnapped entire populations of some Caribbean Islands and stole able-bodied adults, especially women...