conference projects

Another World Is Possible (2013), mural by Mike Alewitz


Click for papers on:

Andrés Reséndez, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America

Albert Hurtado, Indian Survival on the California Frontier

back to top




Noelle Iati on The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America, by Andrés Reséndez

Labor history, while traditionally focused on the history of white wage laborers in Europe and the United States, in truth encompasses all kinds of labor, whether bonded or unbonded, regardless of the racial or ethnic identity of the laborers. Often left out of American labor history are the enslaved. While the history of African slavery in the United States is more or less well-known, Native Americans were also enslaved on an institutional level in the Americas for hundreds of years. Historians Julius Scott and Andrés Reséndez have both recently published work on the forgotten laborers of American history. Julius Scott's The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution explores the different communication networks used by black slaves in the Caribbean, arguing that the exchange of knowledge and information in the late 1700s catalyzed slave rebellions throughout the Caribbean, the biggest of which being the Haitian Revolution. Andrés Reséndez's The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America surveys the history of the Americas from European contact to 1900 through the lens of indigenous slavery, showing how the enslavement of Native people was not anomalous in colonial history but rather systemic. Reséndez shows that Scott's arguments in The Common Wind applied not only to eighteenth-century Afro-Caribbean slavery, but also to indigenous slavery throughout the Americas and over centuries, underlining the similarities between these two groups of laborers despite their differing racial identities.

In The Other Slavery, Andrés Reséndez frequently argues that the possibility of communication between enslaved Native people in Spain's American colonies was the difference between becoming free and remaining enslaved. In 1542, after fifty years of legal and institutionalized indigenous slavery, the Spanish crown forbade it, giving Native slaves the power to sue their masters for holding them in bondage. While colonists in the Americas continued to enslave the indigenous population for their own benefit, gaining knowledge of the avenues available for them to free themselves was the only way in most cases that slaves had any chance of escaping bondage. While slaveowners had strategies to get around these "New Laws," including lying about the ways they obtained their slaves to fit the few allowed exceptions to the new legal order, slaves' connections to each other could convince the courts of the plaintiff's honesty in their claim to freedom. In such cases, other enslaved or formerly enslaved people could be brought to court as witnesses, perhaps claiming to have known the plaintiff since childhood or attesting to knowing their family or place of birth. The importance of the collective knowledge of these New Laws, and the connections among enslaved indigenous people that in many cases made the enforcement of them possible, parallel the claims made in Julius Scott's The Common Wind, which focuses on the ways that knowledge about the possibilities of freedom was shared between slaves under three different imperial jurisdictions in the second half of the eighteenth century. He argues that news about French, Spanish, and English changing policies towards slavery served to catalyze the Haitian Revolution and other revolutionary movements in the Caribbean, and that without these connections or collective knowledge of the activities of imperial powers, the organization of slave rebellions in the Caribbean and beyond may have been impossible.

While communication among Native people was important in terms of the ability of individuals to gain freedom, it also was key to the rebellion of indigenous people against slavery. While Scott highlights slave rebellions themselves, Reséndez includes an entire chapter on the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, a rebellion that, while not fomented by slaves, was certainly influenced by indigenous enslavement. In 1680, different Pueblo groups all over New Mexico rose up against settlers, intending to kill all civil and religious authorities. While epidemics, famine, and religious suppression were also catalysts for this revolt, Reséndez argues that the trafficking of Pueblo people to work in Mexico's silver mines was perhaps the most important breaking point for Pueblos. In his chapter on the Revolt, Reséndez explains the complex, covert ways in which groups of Pueblos with different cultural traditions and languages communicated to secretly foment a revolution that succeeded in pushing the Spanish out of New Mexico entirely. Connections among medicine men as well as runners allowed hundreds of pueblos in disparate regions all over New Mexico to come together. In the end, 20 percent of New Mexico's Spanish population was killed. As in The Common Wind, shared knowledge and networks of communication are integrally important to the success of this rebellion against slavery .

Like Scott, Reséndez also makes clear that the enslavement of Native people at all was the consequence of the settler-capitalist colonial project in the Americas. From the landing of Christopher Columbus in 1492, the use of slave labor and the selling of indigenous people into slavery were seen as key ways to keep voyages of discovery and conquest profitable to the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella. From the moment he landed ashore, Columbus "intended to turn the Caribbean into another Guinea" (24), a hub of slave trading that would bring him and his sponsors incredible wealth. The sale of human beings itself would have been incredibly profitable to Columbus and his contemporaries, but slavery seemed to become a necessity once gold was discovered in the Caribbean. A cheap labor force was necessary to extract it: hence, indigenous people were enslaved for the purpose. The practice of using indigenous slaves to mine precious metals continued on the mainland when Cortés and his men discovered silver. These silver mines continued to fund the Spanish empire for centuries. Slavery as the foundation of empire is also a central theme in The Common Wind, where in particular the responses of the British and Spanish to information about the French Revolution make clear their anxiety about the effects of emancipation on their colonial possessions. Both the British and the Spanish went to great lengths to control the flow of information from Europe and between slaves from French Saint-Domingue and their own territories, worried that the spread of this information would spark a slave revolution in the Caribbean, greatly damaging their access to wealth and power as empires dependent on the production of cash crops.

Julius Scott's The Common Wind covers a little-known aspect of a well-known history, arguing that communication among Afro-Americans in the Caribbean helped them to resist both slavery and colonial domination at the end of the 18th century. In this paper, I have discussed the ways in which Andrés Reséndez's The Other Slavery reinforces and expands upon Scott's central arguments, highlighting the application of these arguments to the little-known history of indigenous enslavement in the Americas and clarifying that the causes of slavery, regardless of the race of the enslaved person, are the funding and maintenance of empire, while resistance to these forces lies in the ability of marginalized people to communicate with each other, spreading both their own ideas and news from around the world. Without information, revolution is impossible.

back to booklist

back to top


John Denegre Jr. on Indian Suvival on the California Frontier, by Albert Hurtado

The throughlines of labor and land ownership can be used to uncover the often neglected, transitory history of the nineteenth-century (what is now considered American) Southwest. When we trace the fundamental changes to the economy, legislation, and territory of this period, an important image of cultural and social restructuring of Native Californians, and their fight against it emerges. This history of resistance and survival persists throughout both the Hispanic and Anglo frontiers, but is often ignored for a post-racialized, U.S. occupied story of the southwest. For this reason, when an author comes along and uses the cross-disciplinary perspectives of labor history and anthropology necessary to remove this insufficient, pacifying version of history, it is important to take note. That is exactly what both Albert Hurtado, in Indian Survival on the California Frontier, and Martha Menchaca, in Recovering History, Constructing Race, do with their studies.

The two books differ most extremely in size of subject matter. Hurtado presents a case study of the changes to Native Californian life during (as well as slightly before and slightly after) the shift from Spanish to Mexican to U.S. rule; while Menchaca offers an expansive, multi-century (1570-1898) account of race creation, erasure, and legislation of the Southwest as a whole. At times they overlap specifically, but even when this is not the case Menchaca's broad history, and interpretation of racist legislative restructuring, forms a larger network to place Hurtado's study into. For example, the Spanish colonial years take up less than 30 pages in Indian Survival, but Menchaca recounts them in detail, and with it she foreshadows many of the themes Hurtado writes about.

For instance, both books discuss the alteration of Native American households and family life by the hand of the Catholic Church. Menchaca cites "the marriage laws passed in Mexico," which, among other things, allowed low-ranking military men to remarry so as to have kids, as a defining moment in "the initial formation of a racial order where race and nativity become the basis of ascribing and denying social and economic privileges" (56). These privileges had not only to do with population but also with land, as she asserts in her treatment of the situational, and cultural pressures placed on native people to relocate during the Spanish mission system of California (1769-1834). Hurtado echoes this idea, claiming: "The missions converted Indians to habits of industry as well as Catholic piety" (24).

For both authors, then, the concept that those in power refashioned customs and households on the dual grounds of political and economic gain proves to be essential. Hurtado notes this in the lead up to the Mexican-American war, where he inserts into his chapter heading the expansionist, camouflaged as moral, rhetoric of Manifest Destiny, which President Polk used to justify the war. All to say that neither author treats land expansion and ownership as void of perspective.

Following the first chapter's brief history of the Hispanic frontier, Hurtado quickly moves on to the bulk of the book: the Anglo frontier. A focal point for him is the early exploitation of Native Californians' labor by John Sutter, whose administration of the stockaded New Helvetia colony that harvested wheat (beginning in 1847) took advantage of Indian labor through slavery, capture, and sometimes wage work. By this time, many native communities were already uprooted by the war and ever changing land reform laws, and Sutter's ventures proved only to expedite this process, by acting as something like a distribution network to other labor bosses. Beyond the physical spaces being rearranged, the advent of wage labor gradually eroded Native ideas of time (Sutter even introduced a work bell) and introduced monetary measurement--the introduction of wage labor came with the introduction of money and credit (note that debt peonage would later become a way that former slave owners would maintain their access bound labor). With relocation, and cultural washing afoot, Hurtado returns to marriage laws and household infrastructure to situate his book.

For perspective, he offers a treatment of pre-colonial family relations, stating both that "family ties bound native people to each other, to their communities, and to the land;" and that "family bonds defined social, political, and economic relationships in native cultures and were of paramount importance to Indian personal and corporate life" (14-15). With this framework, it is no surprise that the fundamental structure of native life was so averse to and ill-suited for the dawn of wage labor and the Anglo frontier in general. Again, Hurtado returns to Sutter, and cites his crimes against the Native household: taking Indian women out of their communities to marry white men, or relocating them to marry men closely associated with him. The result was a concentration in certain communities, and a void in others, creating a steady decline in healthy birth rates, and incline in spread of new sexual diseases. And it was not just Sutter; Hurtado sees this contortion of marriage and familial life as a defining part of the California frontier. Giving another example, Hurtado discusses James Savage, an employer of Indians in the southern district. He writes: "[Savage] learned that it was provident to use marriage as a diplomatic and economic tool," taking the Native view of marriage "as a powerful way to link distinct communities" (114).

It is no surprise, then, that the last chapter of Indian Survival is all about the household, in particular the devastating statistics and census from 1860; the results show steep depopulation, and geographically decentralized communities. Of course, 1860 comes after the introduction of forced reservations, the gold rush (which both authors see as a California Epoch) and the stipulations of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848); a document which did not guarantee Native residents of California recognition as U.S. citizens, or reimburse them in any way for the devastations to their communities. (As Menchaca notes, those the U.S. viewed as Mexican as opposed to Indian had different rights under the treaty.) By 1860 (if not in law, in effect much earlier), Menchaca writes, "[the] legal infrastructure was created to turn [Native Californians] into indentured slaves" (257), and, sadly, the results can be seen in statistics from that year.

Though the uprooting of Native American life in California is undeniable, both Hurtado and Menchaca are careful to note the resistance to these infrastructural and historical circumstances; Hurtado eloquently comments on this: "Indians could affect their destinies, but they were not the masters of the new California" (218). His goal from the outset of the book is to present Native people as active agents instead of as the passive bystanders they are so often falsely portrayed as. This same line of resistance runs through Menchaca's book as well, and is only furthered by the anthropological autobiography that bookends her book. Again, her scope is helpful here, as it shows that the idea that any group was passive during either the Hispanic or Anglo frontier is a fabrication and misremembering of history. Both accounts show that as early as the mission system and as late as the introduction of reservations (shooting all the way into the present) there were boycotts, raids, community organizing, banditry, deployments of legal loopholes, threats of war, and survival of communities against all pressures and odds. Even James Savage's meddling eventually caught up to him and got him killed by a rival businessman.

Indian Survival offers evidence for the thesis of Menchaca's Recovering History, Constructing Race: that race is essentially constructed as a means to gain labor and control land. Throughout Hurtado's study, the uprooting of community, removal of identity, and even the grounds for war are all presented as the results of capitalist, expansionist strategies. As he shows, community, land, and labor intersect indefinitely. So whether the cause is missions or wheat harvests, the result is not only a change in labor, but also a restructuring of the household, of population, of the land. Both books make it a point to emphasize that these reorganizing forces are met with resistance, and further make it a point to show why such resistance might get continually uprooted- as is the case here. Thus, the phrase Recovering History, is truly earned by the work of both authors.

back to booklist

back to top