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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