Histories of Indigenous Slavery:
A Roundtable Hosted by the Myaamia Center at Miami University
by Cameron Shriver

Myaamia people and their younger siblings, the Peewaalia ‘Peoria,’ have featured in historians’ research about Indian slavery in the colonial period, ca. 1500-1800. However, our tribal community and researchers have not been deeply involved, until recently, in discussions or research related to Indian slavery.

On April 13, 2018, the Myaamia Center hosted a roundtable discussion with the goal of increasing Myaamia engagement with this important topic. Invited participants were Dr. Margaret Newell, professor of history at Ohio State; Dr. Andrew Offenburger, professor of history at Miami University; Dr. Cameron Shriver, postdoctoral fellow at the Myaamia Center at Miami University; and George Ironstrack, Assistant Director of the Myaamia Center at Miami University.

Dr. Newell discussed her recent book about Indian slaves living in New England. Algonquians there–such as Pequots–became important laborers in Puritan New England households, and colonist leaders quickly codified laws allowing enslavement of Indians during wars.

Dr. Offenburger explored the question of why historians seem eager to categorize servitude, unfreedom, or captive-taking practices as “slavery.” In his own research on Yaquis and the Mexican state of Sonora, Offenburger talked about a theme Myaamiaki will know well: the dispossession of Native (in this case, Yaqui) land. But U.S. corporations and entrepreneurs also appropriated Yaqui labor in their agricultural plantations, growing crops through irrigation agriculture in Sonora, and through henequen plantation systems with Yaqui labor in Yucatan. Offenburger notes that Yaquis experienced forced labor, although other features we commonly associate with slavery, including the sale of bodies, did not occur in this time and place.

To be clear, none of the participants equated this kind of slavery with the common image in our popular imaginations. Most Americans believe that slavery was a race-based and hereditary system particular to Southern plantations and synonymous with African-American chattel slaves. This was only one kind of slavery; historians view “slavery” as part of a broad spectrum of freedom and unfreedom. In our popular history, we often think of past Native American societies as egalitarian and lacking the kind of coercive power and class distinctions common in other regions of the world, but a closer examination of the Myaamia past pulls this stereotype apart. Looking more closely at the evidence of the lives of unfree people within Myaamia society helps us better understand the complexity of our ancestors’ experiences and the lives of those forced to live within Myaamia communities.  

Indian slavery forces us to consider the disadvantaged and deprived in Native America, while recognizing new shades of difference in the broader story of slavery, which too often is painted in black and white.

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In many historical works readers encounter the term Twigh Twee as one name for Myaamia (Miami) People.  So where did this unique name come from?  The short answer is that we don’t know for sure, but the name probably came from the Cherokee or the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois).  The longer and more complicated answer is a little more interesting.

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Myaamiaki neehi Meehtikoošia Meehkohkaatiiwaaci
The Myaamia and French Encounter Each Other

In our last post we took a look at the two foundational elements that bound together the independent Myaamia (Miami) villages of the Waapaahšiki Siipiiwi (Wabash River Valley). We found that a common language and a shared landscape helped to maintain a shared identity amongst these villages. We also summarized the extended “family” with whom we peacefully shared our homelands: our close siblings the Inoka (Illinois) and our elder brothers the Ojibwa, Potawatomi, Shawnee, Ottawa, and Wyandot. Outside of our homelands, we found groups that we often made war on: the Osage, Quapaw, Lakota, Dakota, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Cherokee, and Haudenosaunee (Iroquois).

In this post we are going to examine the Myaamia experiences in the early years of contact with Europeans and the massive disruptions of our ancestors’ lifeways that accompanied these new arrivals. During this period, our ancestors were forced to flee from their homelands in order to survive. Together with our near neighbors and relatives we formed an alliance with one group of newcomers, the Meehtikoošia (French). The formation of this alliance required substantial change in our ancestors’ lives, but this new “family” also allowed them to return and rebuild their villages within their beloved homelands.

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Individual independence was highly valued in Myaamia village communities and examples abound of leaders informing Europeans that they could “order” nothing and that in fact the more they gave orders the more they diminished their status.  In 1721, Father Pierre Francois Xavier de Charlevoix stated: “These chiefs generally have no great marks of outward respect paid them, and if they are never disobeyed, it is because they know how to set bounds to their authority.  It is true that they request or propose, rather than command; and never exceed the boundaries of that small share of authority with which they are invested.”

The daily stuff of life, the boring humdrum that fed, clothed, housed, and educated the community didn’t require governance.  Individuals and family groups worked this stuff out for themselves. In short, leaders had no control over the lives of their people. Instead, leaders were perceived as servants, and it might be more aptly stated that their people controlled them. Additionally, no village could dictate to other villages.  A particular village might be more influential than others, but there was no control exerted. Below, is a list of Myaamia leadership positions that would have existed in a typical village in the 1700s.

akima (male civil leader) – Within each politically autonomous village there was typically one akima, although at times some villages were known to have civil leaders working in pairs or triads.  The akima served his community as an ambassador and as a mediator in disputes or discussions that the community desired to create consensus around.

akimaahkwia (female civil leader) – Each village also had one akimaahkwia, though just like their male counterparts there could be more than one.  There was usually a family relationship between the akima and akimaahkwia. The akimaahkwia served her community as a mediator in disputes or discussions that the community desired to create consensus around.  She worked with female heads of families in this endeavor.

kaapia (the chief’s assistant) – The kaapia was responsible for advising the akima and for equitably dividing things that the village had gained collectively.

neenawihtoowa (war party leader) – they served their villages primarily as the leaders of war parties, which were small groups of 30 men who sought to attack an enemy villages to take captives for adoption or for killing in reprisal for a death within their home village.  War leaders also served as village police, who enforced restrictions regarding disruptions of group hunts and abuse of resources important to the group.

maawikima (council chief) – the maawikima was selected when multiple villages came together for negotiations and needed to send a representative to speak for the whole group.  This role became increasingly important during the decades that followed the Treaty of Greenville (1795).

maamiikaahkia akima (large scale war leader) – this war leader worked to coordinate the efforts of many war party leaders from many villages.  Sometimes this leader coordinated war efforts between Myaamia villages and near neighbors like the Wyandot, Shawnee, Delaware, etc. The maamiikaahkia akima is a newer position that evolved during the heightened conflicts of the 1780s and 1790s.

Many histories apply the label “sub-tribe” to groups like the Atchakangouen, Kilatika, Mengkonkia, Pepikokia, Piankeshaw, and Wea.  Each of these names are, for the most part, Miami-Illinois speaking village groups.  Each of these villages operated as its own largely independent community. They all shared the same language; stories; ecological patterns and behaviors (culture); and the same or very similar landscapes.  Most of these village groups literally descend from each other like family.  As a village grew too large to support itself, a group would split off and form a new village downstream.  These related villages could come together in times of war and to negotiate the group peace required to end a conflict.

What Europeans called “Nations” and later “Tribes” and or “Confederations” were originally groupings of villages that shared common traits.  These groupings could work together and achieve goals, but for the most part they lacked any firm hierarchical political structure.