An American Secret

All countries have national myths. The story of the first Thanksgiving, for example, evokes the warm glow of intercultural contact: European settlers, struggling to survive in the New World, and Native American tribes eager to help. As many of us learned in history class, this story leaves a lot out. This week on Hidden Brain, we explore a national secret: that from the time Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World until 1900, there were as many as five million Native American people enslaved. We’ll learn about this history, and the psychological forces that kept it unexamined for so long.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.


This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam.


VEDANTAM: All countries have national myths. Here in the United States, Thanksgiving evokes the warm glow of intercultural contact. European settlers were struggling to make it in the New World and Native American tribes were eager to help. If we were to think a little more deeply and a little more critically, we might remember other stories from history classes. These are tales of exclusion and expulsion, of Native American tribes pushed out from their homelands as settlers colonized the continent. But there's a third story you might not have heard. Many Native Americans came to know the settlers not through happy Thanksgivings or even through war and colonization but through slavery.

ANDRES RESENDEZ: We say that there have been 12.5 million Africans forcibly transported across the Atlantic as slaves into the New World. That is a very powerful thing to say. And I wanted to get a rough sense of how Indian slavery compared to that. So I came up with a figure of 2.5 to 5 million Native Americans enslaved throughout the Americas since Columbus to 1900.

VEDANTAM: 2.5 to 5 million people. This week on HIDDEN BRAIN, we explore this hidden history and the psychological reasons it's remained submerged for so long.


VEDANTAM: Andres Resendez is a history professor at the University of California, Davis. He's the author of "The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story Of Indian Enslavement In America." Andres, welcome to HIDDEN BRAIN.

RESENDEZ: It is a pleasure to be here. Thank you so much for having me.

VEDANTAM: I want to begin by having you paint a picture for us. And I want to start in 1495 when Christopher Columbus sends five ships back to Spain from the New World. On board are 550 captives, mostly from the Caribbean. Who are these people and where is Columbus sending them?

RESENDEZ: Well, Columbus has mounting problems because the riches that he thought he would find in the lands of Asia, where he was hoping to go, were non-materializing. And in the meantime, the costs of sending more fleets to the New World were mounting. And so he decided that one good way to pay for these costs was by sending some Indians back to the slave markets of the Mediterranean, in this case in particular, to Spain. And they selected, out of close to a thousand Native Americans, the best ones, crammed them into these ships and shipped them back to the Old World.

VEDANTAM: Besides the idea that the slave trade was part of a business model, there were also other elements of it. You cite a letter that one of Columbus' childhood friends sends that reveals another aspect of how this famous explorer viewed the slave trade. What was in that letter?

RESENDEZ: Well, this is a letter by a childhood friend, Michele da Cuneo, an Italian, a fellow Genoese, who traveled with these indigenous slaves bound for Europe. And Columbus had actually given his friend a young Native American woman as a gift. And Cuneo is very explicit about the fact that, in seeing her naked, he wanted to have sex with her. It reveals the very terrible fact that the vast majority of these conquistadors were males and many of the indigenous victims ended up being both women and children. And so this is one instance of that.

VEDANTAM: You mentioned something in the book that I found surprising when I first read it, which is that women and children were often valued more highly as slaves than were men. Is sexual slavery part of what explains that?

RESENDEZ: It is surely one aspect of it. The price differential that you are referring to was very surprising to me when I discovered that because, in some instances, it could be that women were worth 50 or even 60 percent more than adult males. So the scale was generally - adult women were the highest valued slaves, followed by girls, followed by boys and followed by grown men. And there was a big drop off for the adult males. Maybe you can think about it as the antecedent of modern day forms of sex trafficking. That was certainly a part of it. Another part of it had to do with women's reproductive capabilities, so they could produce yet more slaves. So that was another factor. Children were especially versatile because they could learn languages more easily than adults. They could, even in the fullness of time, identify with their captors. So masters were especially keen on having children.

VEDANTAM: Contrary to what we might think, slavery in America did not begin with Columbus or other European conquerors. The roots of slavery run much deeper, but the large-scale operations that Europeans put in place dramatically increased the scale and the scope of the practice.

RESENDEZ: We really don't know when slavery began in the New World - probably from the very beginning of the occupation of the continent. What we do know is that there is plenty of archaeological and pictorial evidence, as well as some of the early chronicles of the New World depict the enslavement of natives prior to the arrival of Europeans. In the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, Iroquois peoples waged wars on neighboring groups for the purpose of avenging their dead and replacing them with captives. In the Pacific Northwest, elite marriages were often sealed by providing slaves. So we know that these activities went on. And they were however very bound in specific cultural context. And so what changed with the arrival of the Europeans was that these culturally bound activities became commodified and expanded in scale until becoming something closer to what we would recognize as modern-day human trafficking.

VEDANTAM: You mentioned that by, you know, the 19th century, Brigham Young, one of the early leaders of the Mormon Church and the founder of Salt Lake City, he has to decide whether Mormons can buy and sell slaves. What does he do?

RESENDEZ: When the Mormons arrived in Utah, they found that the entire region had already been turned into slaving ground by natives themselves and by Hispanic merchants who were operating in the area. So from the very beginning - from the time they arrived, they found slavers offering them slaves, often children who were tortured or kept outside in very cold conditions as a tactic to force Mormons to acquire these Indians. And by 1850 or 1851, Young and other leaders - Mormon leaders - decide that the best way to deal with this situation is to actually - their term was to buy these Indians into freedom.

VEDANTAM: Eventually, groups like the Mormons found ways to rationalize their beliefs in slavery and to reconcile it in some ways with the mission of the church. And, of course, this has parallels with other ideas and ideologies that that you describe in the book. European settlers and colonists apparently had long linked character with latitude, and they used this as a justification for slavery.

RESENDEZ: That's right. So these are very ancient beliefs about the character of people depending on where they lived on Earth. So they believe, for example, that the people who lived in the cold regions of Earth were very bold and intrepid, but they lacked intelligence, and conversely that the people close to the equator were intelligent - and therefore would make great slaves - but lacked in courage and boldness. And, of course, the perfect balance of these two traits existed in the temperate areas. And by that, you have to read the European-Mediterranean region where Spain, England, France, et cetera, existed and had a perfect blend of these characteristics. And so that was one way to rationalize the enslavement of natives - and other peoples in sub-Saharan Africa for that matter.


VEDANTAM: Andres has many examples to challenge how we think about slavery in America. We might think of the West Coast as largely being uninvolved in slavery. In reality, the Gold Rush ignited a need for labor and enslaved Native Americans were brought in to meet it. Two brothers who set up a cattle and mining operation north of what is today San Francisco were especially sadistic owners. Sometimes they used slaves for target practice. During the Civil War, Union soldiers stationed in New Mexico used systematic violence to address what the federal government saw as a law and order issue - the so-called Indian problem.

RESENDEZ: The method to solve this problem was to essentially relocate the entire Navajo Nation from western New Mexico to eastern New Mexico in what was known as the Long Walk. And this process essentially put a very large population in very vulnerable situation.

VEDANTAM: Andres describes the work of an investigative journalist John Kenneth Turner. He uncovered many of the ways that plantation owners worked around the ban on slavery well into the 20th century.

RESENDEZ: And he went to the Yucatan Peninsula posing as an American investor. And so Turner had access to these plantations, was able to look at this. Slavery was completely forbidden in Mexico at that time. But he was able to gain the confidence of these owners who said, well, you know, we know that Indian slavery is prohibited. But we have a way to get around this problem, which is that these Indians are indebted to us. And as long as there's a debt, they are unable to leave the premises - the plantations. And you could buy them in the market. And the way the planters rationalized this is that you're not really buying the person, but you are buying the debt. And the person goes with the debt.


VEDANTAM: Many people, over many generations, helped enable the vast scale of enslavement of Indigenous people. So why are there only scattered records of this history in our textbooks at public consciousness? Stay with us.


VEDANTAM: Andres, you call your book "The Other Slavery." Why do you describe the history of the enslavement of native peoples in contrast with the experience of African slaves in the United States?

RESENDEZ: Because unlike African slavery, which was legal for centuries and sanctioned by states and empires around the world, Indian slavery was very early on made illegal. Even eight years after Columbus first set foot in the New World, there were questions about the legality of the enslavement of Indians. And as early as 1542, the Spanish crown outlawed Indian slavery under all circumstances. However, because Native American labor had been essential to all of the economic activities going on during this first generation of colonialism, it was unthinkable for the European colonists to do without native slaves.

And so they very quickly devised all kinds of subterfuges and euphemisms in order to continue to profit from the coerced labor of natives by calling it different names. So I call it other slavery in the sense that not only that it targeted Native Americans as opposed to Africans but also in the sense that it encompassed a multiplicity of institutions or labor practices that we really need to put together and understand together if we want to gain a sense of the scope of this other slavery, as I call it.

VEDANTAM: So I think the point that you're trying to make is that slavery, in some ways, is an adaptable concept. So in some cases, people, of course, are chained and tortured. But in other cases, coercion can take on different forms. At the same time, it's obviously important to distinguish between somebody who's enslaved and somebody who's working in, for example, just difficult labor conditions. In the way that you have gone about your study, how are you defining who constitutes a slave?

RESENDEZ: This definitional problem came from the very beginning of the project. So I came up with a list of four characteristics that made this other slavery fit the bill of what I call slavery. And so one of them was that natives usually were forcibly moved far away from their place of origin. And this may not have occurred at the very beginning. But very quickly, the owners came to realize that enslaving natives who live very close to them could open themselves to retaliation. And so the way to do it was to send them to the faraway places. So displacement to faraway places was one of the characteristics that I early on realized was common to many of these labor practices.

Second of all, they were unable to leave their place of work. Whether you were talking about indebted workers or people serving out their sentences or people entrusted, et cetera, they could not willingly leave their place of work. Third characteristic was the use of violence or at least the threat of use of violence in order to seek compliance. And finally there was the question of payment, which was often nonexistent. Or if it existed, it was so low that it was practically symbolic.


VEDANTAM: One of the ideas in Andres' book has less to do with history and more to do with psychology. It has to do with how our minds tend to categorize historical events. When I talk about enslaved people in America, you might think of people brought over from Africa. But if I talk about Native Americans, you're more likely to think of dispossession and exclusion.

RESENDEZ: We are so focused on these categories that have been drilled into us from childhood that we seem unable to escape our historical myopia, as I call it in the book. And this is especially difficult to break in the case of Native Americans because, as I have explained, this was not a legal institution and it was not a single institution, but it was a multiplicity of labor practices. And so that has conspired to prevent us from realizing both the scale and even the very existence of this other slavery.

VEDANTAM: One of the things that put your work into context for me is that you pointed out that West Africa saw a population decline of about 20 percent as a result of slavery. And, of course, the scale of that is just incomprehensible. Indigenous people in the New World also suffered catastrophic declines in population as a result of slavery. Could you talk about that for a second?

RESENDEZ: I don't want to make this into a race to the bottom. I mean, both Africans and Native Americans lost immeasurably as a result of this nexus of epidemics and enslavement. And I can talk about that relationship. But the point that I make is that in the case of Native Americans, especially in the Caribbean and some regions in the Gulf of Mexico, the level of decimation was staggering. I mean, it was much greater than 20 percent. It could be 80 percent, 90 percent. So it is good to bear in mind the staggering numbers.

VEDANTAM: What is the relationship between enslavement and the spread of epidemics and infection?

RESENDEZ: It's one of synergy. But what I found in the case of the Caribbean is that epidemic disease essentially reduced the number of slaves, which prompted slavers to launch raids into other islands. And the launching of these raids in turn spread epidemic disease. So it was a complete reinforcing circle that resulted in great devastation in the case of the Caribbean.

VEDANTAM: We have Thanksgiving coming up in the United States. And, of course, it's an occasion where we express gratitude and thanks to one another. But it's also a moment of historical reflection. And we give thanks, in some ways, for native peoples who helped the early settlers through a very difficult winter. I'm wondering as you sit down at Thanksgiving, knowing the history that you do, how do you see Thanksgiving? Have you come to think of it differently?

RESENDEZ: Well, I have come to think of the whole early colonial period of the Americas differently as a result of this book. I have gained a newfound appreciation for the difficulty of surviving in this tough environment, the ruthlessness with which all human groups pursue these goals and were willing to avail themselves to other humans in order to achieve their goals. As I said, this is not a history of good people and bad people. I did find some Indigenous groups who did not take captives or slaves oftentimes because they were too small or because of environmental reasons. It made no sense to acquire more people because they would also mean more mouths to feed. But other than that, I found that everybody who was in a position to do it and profit from it did it. And in some ways, it's a difficult book to write because in the final part of the book I mentioned that these forms of enslavement were not very dissimilar to the forms that we now call modern forms of enslavement. In the sense that slavery is today prohibited all over the world, yet some - over 45 million people, according to the latest estimates of the Walk Free Foundation, are in a condition of modern-day enslavement. And the ways in which these people are enslaved are in some ways reminiscent of what Native Americans experienced for a period of 400 years.


VEDANTAM: Andres Resendez is a history professor at the University of California, Davis. He's the author of "The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story Of Indian Enslavement In America." Andres, thank you for joining me on HIDDEN BRAIN today.

RESENDEZ: Thank you so much for having me.

VEDANTAM: This episode of HIDDEN BRAIN was produced by Maggie Penman and Rhaina Cohen. Our team includes Tara Boyle, Renee Klahr, Parth Shah and Jenny Schmidt. For more HIDDEN BRAIN, you can follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You can hear my stories on your local public radio station on Morning Edition. HIDDEN BRAIN is also now a radio show that's airing on many stations across the United States. If you liked this episode, please share it with a friend and tell us about it on social media.

Our unsung hero this week is Jack MacCarthy of Swansea, Mass. He passed away last week, but he was a high school history teacher, a football and baseball coach and superintendent of schools in Swansea for nearly two decades. In 1985, he made national headlines by allowing a child with AIDS to attend public school at a time when school systems across the country were turning such children away. In his obituary, people noted that he had strength, conviction, fortitude, courage and Irish stubbornness. We know Jack because he was the grandfather of our own Maggie Penman. And I can attest he gave Maggie all those qualities. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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