Featured Slavery

Slavery: It’s All Bad

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Elizabeth Weiss
Written by Elizabeth Weiss

It is commonly asserted that slavery in America was created by White settlers, or at least that transatlantic slavery was different from all other slavery, and far worse. The evidence shows otherwise, and, furthermore, it is ethically dubious to suggest that there is good slavery and bad slavery.

As politicians grapple with ways to apologize and pay reparations to black Americans for slavery, one group is attempting to expel descendants of slaves from their tribes: American Indians, such as the Muscogee Creek and the Cherokee.

The Cherokee were not anti-slavery and were in fact slaveowners. In 1835, 15,000 Cherokee owned 1,592 African slaves; by the Civil War onset, 17,000 Cherokee owned 4,000 African slaves (see William G. McLoughlin’s 1974 article “Red Indians, Black Slavery and White Racism: America’s Slaveholding Indians”). Cherokee, Seminole, and other American Indian tribes bought, stole, and sold slaves from one another and from whites. And, as Christina Snyder (2007) points out in her article “Conquered Enemies, Adopted Kin, and Owned People: The Creek Indians and Their Captives”, after the Revolutionary War was won, southern American Indians began to hold African slaves in transgenerational bondage. William G. McLoughlin (1974) wrote that although there is evidence that Indians may have initially welcomed escaped slaves because they had skills that helped the Indian tribes survive, by 1800 most southeast tribes were practicing the same slavery as whites.

According to the September 8, 2020, New York Times article, “Black, Native American and Fighting for Recognition in Indian Country”, by Jack Healy, thousands of people who were once enslaved by tribes were given their freedom when slavery was abolished in the US. American Indians promised the freedmen tribal citizenship and equal stakes in land and fortune. But many of these promises have been broken. Descendants of slaves won lawsuits to be included in the Cherokee Nation, yet they struggle to gain access to services. Their struggle is exacerbated by chiefs who want to kick the descendants out of the tribes. Another tribe that is attempting to oust slave descendants is the Muscogee Creek Nation located in Okmulgee, Oklahoma and the fourth largest tribe in the US with 86,100 citizens. The chiefs of the Muscogee Creek Nation, for example, argue that determination of who belongs in the tribe is core to its sovereignty. Tribal leaders want to protect their bloodline. However, this attempt to exclude freedmen descendants is not just a protection of sovereignty, it is also an attempt to erase history. For instance, the 1827 Cherokee Constitution “explicitly denied political rights to Blacks or African-ancestored people” (see Lolita Buckner Inniss’s 2015 article “Cherokee Freedmen and the Color of Belonging”). And the Muscogee Creek freedmen lived in “colored” towns segregated from the “real” American Indians. Anti-black racism is a stain on the history of American Indians, and they want to wash it away.

This denial of an ugly past is an aspect of American Indian activism that anthropologists often deal with when discussing controversial topics, such as warfare, interpersonal violence, and cannibalism. With James W. Springer, I wrote a book about these issues: Repatriation and Erasing the Past (2020). Remarkably, few people outside specialized circles of anthropologists and historians know or care. Many of the readers commenting on Healy’s New York Times article mention that they had never heard that Indians held slaves. Considering that this article was published just one year after The 1619 Project, a flagship Times project on slavery in America arguing that the United States was founded on the transatlantic slave trade, this ignorance is quite revealing. The narrative, however, is that the transatlantic slave trade and the slavery that resulted from it was different from all other slavery, and it was far worse.

Transatlantic slavery is said to be worse because it introduced racism into slavery, because it was chattel slavery, and because of the brutality that was involved (see for example Roy Brooks’ argument for reparations “Ancient Slavery versus American Slavery: A Distinction with a Difference” [2002]). I would argue that tribal slavery was just as bad as transatlantic slavery and, furthermore, that it is quite absurd to suggest that there is good slavery and bad slavery.

One myth is that when they engaged in slavery, American Indians emulated whites and would not otherwise have done so (the Smithsonian’s Slavery, Within and Without — Indivisible — African-Native American Lives in the Americas is one of many works that support this myth). Yet there is ample evidence that slavery among American Indians was present before European contact. Africans, Europeans, and American Indians all accepted slavery as a legitimate fate for captives of war, even when these captives were noncombatant women and children (see Dirk Bezemer, Jutta Bolt, and Robert Lensink 2012, “Slavery, Statehood and Economic Development in Sub-Saharan Africa”; Kathryn E. Holland Braund 1991, “The Creek Indians, Blacks and Slavery”; Christina Snyder 2007, “Conquered Enemies, Adopted Kin, and Owned People: The Creek Indians and Their Captives”). American Indians were not shocked by the enslavement of Africans by whites; they had a long history of enslaving enemies. Snyder notes that the Creek took in slaves for hundreds of years before Europeans arrived. American Indian tribes captured, brutalized, and commodified people that they defined as the “other.” In 1928, almost a hundred years ago, William C. MacLeod wrote “Economic Aspects of Indigenous American Slavery” about the Northwest tribes that engaged in intertribal slave raiding, which was practiced regularly; tribes who were perceived as weak were targeted primarily to capture slaves.

MacLeod was an anthropologist at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania; he focused on understanding the finances of aboriginal populations and thus held a position in the Department of Finance. His works, such as the landmark book The American Indian Frontier (1928), were aimed at deromanticizing both American Indians and European colonialists. His research remains very valuable. According to MacLeod, skin color didn’t differ between enslavers and slaves, but tribes had other ways of defining “other.” In “Some Aspects of Primitive Chattel Slavery” (1925) he discussed the practiced cultural modification of the crania among American Indians: along the Columbia River cranial modification in the form of flattening of the head was the mark of a freeman (a term not to be confused with the aforementioned term “freedmen”). In these Columbia River tribes, every freeman’s head was flattened. “Indians of outside or foreign tribes, or even white men when first met with, are reported by the early observers to have been considered something less than exactly human. The flattened head was considered the mark of the freeman; the round head the mark of the slave.”

In some tribes, such as the Creeks, nontribal members were regarded as less than human just because they were from other tribes. The Creeks, and many other American Indians, believed in polygenesis, which means different and separate origins for different people (polygenesis was disproved by Charles Darwin over 150 years ago). After the Revolutionary War, a Pan-Indian gospel spread that finetuned the concept of polygenesis in regards to race differences. American Indian spiritual leaders spread the word that Africans, Europeans, and American Indians had been created separately, and to each race the creator had given a distinct nature: Indians were the favored people; whites were “knowledgeable and greedy”; blacks “were the least lucky, for their lot was toil and hardship” (Christine Snyder, 2007). Ironically, polygenesis was a theory promoted by colonialists for the same reason — to explain why they were better than the other races they encountered. The Creeks considered Africans unadoptable and meant to be slaves, but they also had this perspective about other tribes. Christine Snyder retells, for instance, the story about a chief of the Okfusee (who are part of the Creek Indians), who stated to a southern diplomat in 1726: “I have heard that the Chocktaws makes [sic] as good slaves as Negros.”

This concept of the “other” among enslavers is a common thread in the history of slavery. In the 17th century, for instance, north African Barbary Pirates enslaved white English, going so far as to travel up the English Channel and the Thames to capture inhabitants of the coastal towns. In the 2001 article “Islam, Archaeology and Slavery in Africa,” J. Alexander notes that the Holy Quran allowed for slavery of non-Muslims; after the Islamic conquest of the North Africa in the 7th and 8th centuries, chattel slavery, which was legal before the Muslim victory, continued to be legal, but this time under Islamic religious (Shari’a) law. Well into the 19th century, non-Muslim communities in the savannahs continued to be raided as a source for slaves. Between the 4th and the 6th century B.C., Athenians referred to slaves as barbaroi, which means born outside of Greece or born from a foreign family; the Athenians considered these people essentially different and lacking proper intellect. In the Valley of Mexico, William MacLeod wrote in his 1928 article, there was evidence of the “purchase by Aztecs of slaves from abroad for sacrifices.” Even in pre-colonial Africa, slaves were considered outsiders — and ethnically different — by the enslavers. American Indian slavery was intertribal and involved the commodification of the “other”; to argue that it was not as bad as transatlantic slavery because they all had “colored” skin is like saying that all Asians look the same, feel the same, and are the same. Although some American Indians, such as the Creek, did not equate slavery with race until the late 17th or early 18th century, the concept of the “other” in slavery was already well-established in American Indian cultures (see Kathryn E. Holland Braund’s 1991 article “The Creek Indians, Blacks and Slavery”).

This brings up to the next reason some writers (such as Walter Rodney in a 1966 article “African Slavery and Other Forms of Social Oppression on the Upper Guinea Coast in the Context of the Atlantic Slave-Trade” or Tally Botze in a 2017 article “Myths and Misunderstandings: Slavery in the United States” for the American Civil War Museum, as well as writers in more popular sources, such as the blog page native-americans.com) argue that tribal slavery, either African or Indian, was not as bad as transatlantic slavery of blacks by whites. It’s the concept of chattel slavery. Chattel slavery is defined as the owning of humans, and often their offspring, as property, able to be bought, sold, and forced to work without wages. Common myths are that before the transatlantic slave trade, slavery was often not for life, it was not passed down, and people were not usually treated as commodities — in other words, it was not chattel slavery.

One argument that American Indian slavery was not chattel slavery was related to adoption. American Indian slaves were sometimes adopted into the tribes in which they were enslaved. Not all tribes engaged in this practice and even some who did, didn’t when different races were enslaved (as mentioned above, the Creeks considered Africans unadoptable). But even when adoptions occurred, the concept was different from that of adoptions in European civilization. For instance, the adopted slaves of the Northern Iroquois Indians would have the finger that is required for drawing a bow cut off (see William A. Starna and Ralph Watkins 1991 article “Northern Iroquoian Slavery”).

According to MacLeod (“Some Aspects”), throughout North, Central, and South America, captives were considered chattels of their Indian captors. Although some slaves were adopted or sacrificed, many were lifelong chattel slaves. Among the Northern Iroquois, slaves were sold, exchanged, and bought, and child slaves were the most sought after. By the 1670s, slavery began to erode the Northern Iroquois community because of the large number of captives who were continually trying to escape. The famous anthropologist Alfred Kroeber (the first anthropology doctorate at Columbia University and the first anthropology professor at University of California, Berkeley) noted that tribes in California and southwestern Oregon had debtor slaves who could turn into chattel slaves or who could provide their wives as slaves. Children who were considered illegitimate because the bride-price hadn’t been paid were often turned into lifelong slaves of a maternal male relative (see another article by MacLeod, “Debtor and Chattel Slavery in Aboriginal North America”). The blurring of lines between debtor and chattel slavery is seen in other cultures. In 17th-century Russia slaveowners resorted to every conceivable subterfuge to evade the requirement that limited services contracts (see Richard Hellie [1976], “Recent Soviet Historiography on Medieval and Early Modern Russian Slavery”). Some slaveowners even changed contracts to say that slaves would be freed upon their own deaths!

As noted in MacLeod’s “Debtor and Chattel Slavery,” it is acknowledged that hereditary chattel slavery wasn’t a common feature in American Indian slavery, but it was present among the non-agriculture Northwest Coast tribes and quite possibly on the Yucatán peninsula. The Creek Indians of the Southeast, on the other hand, allowed their slaves to marry and have offspring, and defined their children as free. Yet where hereditary chattel slavery existed, the intertribal slave trade resulted in a high proportion of slaves to the total population — on the Northwest Coast, as high as one-third. There slaves were considered personal property and slain and sold at the master’s will. According to MacLeod, slaves were slain at potlatches just to show off wealth. Slavery stopped among the Northwest Coast tribes when Americans and Canadians prohibited it.

The long history of treating people as property should come as no surprise since American Indians, such as southeast Seminole, were buying and selling slaves to the British by 1800. Snyder reported that in Florida, American Indians even started slave markets. The Spanish governor Arturo O’Neill wrote in 1783 that “some of the Talapuche Indians have brought here Negros for sale, [and] I have offered to continue this practice.”

Perhaps the biggest falsehood about the differences between transatlantic slavery and Indian slavery is the claim that American Indian slaveowners were not as brutal as whites. This sentiment echoes throughout writings about American Indians. For example, from the US Department of Agriculture we have statements such as “they had no major wars” and that they did not create the hydrogen bomb (yes, seriously!). It’s also claimed that their warfare wasn’t as bad as Europeans’ warfare (see Native American Warfare in the East: Mourning Wars from Encyclopedia.com, Native American Wars from Oxford Reference, and Warfare in Pre-Columbian North America). Among the Northern Iroquoian — who in the 17th century waged a war of extermination against the Hurons — noncombatant war captives were turned into slaves, who were mainly children and women, and were tortured if they were not ritually killed (see William A. Starna and Ralph Watkins’ 1991 article “Northern Iroquoian Slavery”). MacLeod (“Some Aspects”) discussed the mutilation that occurred among the Northwest Coast tribes: slaves had their noses split; they were also beaten, and amputations of fingers and toes was common. Among the East Woodland American Indians and the Chinook of the Columbia River, slaves’ feet were mutilated to make escape difficult and footprints easy to identify. Even adopted captives were mistreated and beaten. When Hernando de Soto invaded the Southeast in the 16th century, he noted that American Indian masters severed the Achilles tendon to make escape nearly impossible.

Brutality in slavery can be seen worldwide. In Ghana among the Trokosi cult slaves, for example, young virgin females are enslaved for the sins or misfortunes of family members. Suzanne Miers, in her 2000 article “Contemporary Forms of Slavery,” tells the story of a 7-year-old girl who was sent to a temple because her grandfather stole a few cents; she was used for agricultural labor, underfed, and sexually abused by the 90 year-old priest; when she resisted his advances, the girl was beaten. In a state of near starvation, she managed to escape at age 21!

Yes, some masters may have been crueller than others, but brutality was not unique to the transatlantic trade. History has shown us that freedom is taken with an iron fist, not a peace pipe. Let us view slavery not through a political lens that states or implies that some peoples’ enslavement was not all that bad — perhaps nearly harmless. The fact that slavery is nearly extinct is a remarkable feat of the modern world, but slavery still exists; and rather than arguing that some slavery in the past was worse than others, perhaps it is time to focus on the hundreds of thousands of chattel slaves who still live today, mainly in Africa, so that they too can live free.

First published by Liberty (June 2021) https://libertyunbound.com/slavery-its-all-bad/

About the author

Elizabeth Weiss

Elizabeth Weiss

Elizabeth Weiss is Professor of Anthropology, San José State University. Her most recent book, co-authored with James W. Springer, is Repatriation and Erasing the Past (2020).