With my PhD in English Literature at Edinburgh University about to begin, I will be reading lots of stuff this year. Do not expect weekly reviews, I do not read quickly. But I will share with you anything interesting I do read, whether it’s a novel that’s in vogue, or something from my course that I think is worth knowing that broadened my horizon. I’ll be reading a lot of things about transgender discourse, but hopefully, a lot of things which aren’t, as well.
The Other Slavery by Andres Resendez
My first feelings about the Native or First Nation Americans come in waves of visualizations. The names different tribes gave to the months: Geese Flying Moon; Strawberry Moon. They conjure up colours and movements come alive upon infinite midnight plains.
The cruelty of European settlers intervenes. My reading on the topic of the traumatic loss of land and life of the Native Americans is not expansive; having read classic historical texts like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, or novels like Lousie Erdrich's Tracks, however, patterns repeat from the conquest of Africa: Christian missionaries and dehumanization, setting up camp to save the indigenous savages from themselves. I knew about the repetitive nature of broken deals as the Native Americans steadily got pushed further and further into deadening reservations, while sadistic officials used white Western legalize to manipulate one illusion of mutual benefit after another, leaving the indigenous tribes eventually with nothing.
However, I didn't know about the slavery, and for Andres Resendez's The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America, I'm grateful. Resendez notes the 'neat historical package' that most people grow up with: 'Africans were enslaved, and Indians either died off or were dispossessed and confined to reservations'. The myth of the dying off is one Resendez addresses early: he notes of the central American islands where Columbus first landed, that before the intervention of smallpox from the explorers, most of the population had already been wiped out: 'one year before Europeans began reporting smallpox, Espanola's Indian population had dwindled to five per cent or less of what it had been in 1492. Clearly, the Native islander were well on their way to a total demographic collapse when smallpox appeared to deliver the coup de grace.'
The indigenous peoples, we learn from Resendez's research, had been worked to death, as Columbus tried to justify the massive expenditure on travelling to the 'New World.' Native populations, across what we consider north America and the Caribbean basin, eventually saw their populations collapse by as much as 90%. Much of this tragic narrative is created through the greed and cruelty of the settlers: silver mines in Mexico, the gold rush in California, and more generally, domestic and agricultural servitude, all contributed to an estimate of 2.5-5 million Native Americans enslaved. Adding complexity are the traditions of enslavement that occurred between tribes before European colonization, but they had been nothing on this scale before. With the advent of the Europeans, slavery went industrial.
Issues of gender in this narrative are also interesting to note: Resendez shows how female and child slaves were worth much more than male, in opposite to African slaves where the majority shipped over were adult males, 'Indian women could be worth up to fifty or sixty percent more than males'. Yet both male and female slaves appear to have suffered horribly: '[men and women were] led away in chains, bound for central and southern Mexico. The most dangerous were shipped to Cuba. The sight of these lines of Indians tied to one another became all too familiar to contemporaries . . . They also forced the Indians to walk for hours on end in order to wear them down and prevent any escape attempts. Terrible abuse arose from the fact that the majority of the prisoners were women and children, at the mercy of male soldiers . . .
Resendez tries to find positive outcomes from this horrific history in terms of general policy making. One is understanding the durability of slavery in its myriad different forms. The kind we associate with 'chattel' slavery, like that suffered by Africans, is just one expression; others forms include indentured 'peonage' and criminalization which allow those incarcerated to work for free, for convenient fixed terms of wage-less labour. These kinds of slavery happen today, not least in the USA's prison system, as well as with some forms of sex work and with illegal immigrants. Resendez says we have to understand that slavery didn't come and go between a few centuries, in one particular way. His conclusion, difficult to deny given his documentation of its different, recognizable structures, is that it's always been there, and its dynamic, many-headed forms mean our protection of people against slavery also has to be dynamic and fluid.Finally, though, what of the Native Americans themselves? Resendez doesn't come up with a positive note – perhaps there is none? But perhaps they'll re-emerge from this historical trauma, if enough research and recognition emerges for the universal apology they deserve, and for this, Resendez's work is doubly important.