Native American Slavery


headFellow member of Women Writing the West, Alethea Williams is the author of Willow Vale, the story of a Tyrolean immigrant’s journey to America after WWI. Willow Vale won a 2012 Wyoming State Historical Society Publications Award. In her second novel, Walls for the Wind, a group of New York City immigrant orphans arrive in Hell on Wheels, Cheyenne, Wyoming. Walls for the Wind is a WILLA Literary Award finalist, a gold Will Rogers Medallion winner, and placed first at the Laramie Awards in the Prairie Fiction category.

“In sofar as the taking of captives and reducing them to slaves was concerned the Apache acquired this custom from the Spaniard or Mexican, and it is safe to say that during the period of which I write there was not a settlement in the valley of the Rio Grande that did not number among the inhabitants a large number of Apache and Navajo Indian slaves.”

—Ralph Emerson Twitchell, The Leading Facts of New Mexican History, Torch Press, 1917

The primary female character in my novel, Náápiikoan Winter, is abducted as a child and later traded into slavery. She is abducted by Apaches, sold by Utes, and enslaved by other tribes including the Piikáni. Was it true that Native Americans learned this practice from contact with the Spaniards, as the quotation that opens my book asserts?

Although it’s true Christopher Columbus started an unholy tradition by enslaving over 500 Indians, an article on the website Oxford Research Encyclopedia: American History by Christina Snyder says, “The history of American slavery began long before the first Africans arrived at Jamestown in 1619. Evidence from archaeology and oral tradition indicates that for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years prior, Native Americans had developed their own forms of bondage.” Indians captured women and children to replace the up to 90% of their people killed by war and diseases they had no defense against. In an article for Slate, Rebecca Onion says “Native types of enslavement were often about kinship, reproductive labor, and diplomacy, rather than solely the extraction of agricultural or domestic labor.”

All Native tribes that I know of were called “The People.”

photo of a Blackfoot by Edward Curtis, hairstyle described in Naapiikoan Winter as a similar one worn by the character Saahkómaapi (Young Man), Beaver Bundle Man to the Inuk’sik band of the Piikáni, the band’s Dreamer

photo of a Blackfoot by Edward Curtis, hairstyle described in Naapiikoan Winter as a similar one worn by the character Saahkómaapi (Young Man), Beaver Bundle Man to the Inuk’sik band of the Piikáni, the band’s Dreamer

What this common nomenclature implies is that the people of one’s tribe were People, and all others were something less. Captives were outside society, but slaves were even further outside the social order. So as a slave passed from tribe to tribe, my character Buffalo Stone Woman would have had many instances of rejection and neglect. For most of her adult life, she would not have been accepted by anyone as a true person, but a creature somewhere on a level with a dog or other tamed animal.

There were ways to escape the status of captive, enshrined in solemn ceremony, that could make of a mere captive a real person by adoption or marriage. Slaves were of a different nature, “distinguished by the extremity of their alienation from captors’ societies and the exploitation of their labor to enhance the social or material life of the master,” according to Snyder. Slaves often had a lot of freedom to come and go in the performance of their duties. And slavery wasn’t a hereditary condition: children of Indian slaves were not themselves enslaved.

So in Náápiikoan Winter, when Buffalo Stone Woman finds a home at last among the Piikáni at the base of the Rocky Mountains where although a slave she has attained the status of a distant wife to the powerful Orator, she wants never to have to leave this safe haven. She is tolerated, even accepted. She brings to her new people her skills and her knowledge, which makes them, already powerful, an even more potent force on the Plains.

Alethea has graciously agreed to give away one copy of Náápiikoan Winter to one person who leaves a comment.  And the winner is Barbara Bettis.  Congrats!

Naapiikoan Winter CoverAt the turn of a new century, changes unimagined are about to unfold.

THE WOMAN: Kidnapped by the Apaches, a Mexican woman learns the healing arts. Stolen by the Utes, she is sold and traded until she ends up with the Piikáni. All she has left are her skills—and her honor. What price will she pay to ensure a lasting place among the People?

THE MAN: Raised in a London charitable school, a young man at the end of the third of a seven year term of indenture to the Hudson’s Bay Company is sent to the Rocky Mountains to live among the Piikáni for the winter to learn their language and to foster trade. He dreams of his advancement in the company, but he doesn’t reckon the price for becoming entangled in the passions of the Piikáni.

THE LAND: After centuries of conflict, Náápiikoan traders approach the Piikáni, powerful members of the Blackfoot Confederation. The Piikáni already have horses and weapons, but they are promised they will become rich if they agree to trap beaver for Náápiikoan. Will the People trade their beliefs for the White Man’s bargains?

Excerpt:     CHAPTER 1
ISOBEL, A LIGHT SLEEPER, woke in darkness to the sounds of her parents’ habitual nighttime dispute.
“Will you do nothing? Stupid, lazy bitch! No better than a dog in heat—you breed bastard children from different men and leave them to raise themselves. You’re like a mangy cur bitch on a leash of gold. I wish I’d never set eyes on you!”
Graciela, Isobel’s mother, said something too low for the child to decipher.
In reply, Isobel’s father, Armando, growled, “It won’t work this time, Graciela. Have you no pride? You resemble the commonest prostitute on the streets of Cádiz!”

Suddenly Graciela cried out in pain. Isobel, listening, shivered, imagining that her father perhaps twisted her mother’s arm, or pulled a handful of her long hair, both of which she had seen him do.
“Whore! Look at the paint smeared on your face.”
The sound of slaps to bare flesh resounded down the hallway. A tear slipped down the listening child’s cheek.
Then a brief silence ensued, soon replaced by the rhythmic creak of bed ropes emanating from the room of her parents, and Isobel dared to think another truce called between the combatants. Armando and Graciela often scrapped late into the night, frightening Isobel, their unintentional eavesdropper. Sometimes she thought Armando might kill Graciela, but the rasp of their bed against the wall usually signaled that her father had once more been pacified. Now that she had found out how to connect the sound to its corresponding action, she began to wonder why the act of the making of babies should cause adults to stop fighting. She thought long and hard on it, until she decided that the exertion must surely make her parents too tired to continue fighting.
At last all sound ceased, and Isobel concluded her parents must be settled in for the night at last. She had just about returned to slumber when she became aware of the sound of harsh breathing inside her small room. Her father stood over her bed, his boots in one hand, shaking with an apparent effort to stifle his emotions. He whispered, “Get up. Get dressed. We’re leaving.” She started to say, “But where are we going?”
Her father put a shaking finger to his lips to quiet her. “It’s a…an aventura. Just you and I. We will ride out of here tonight, and you will come back an educated lady someday—and show them all. No one will ever be able to look down on my daughter, Isobel Ochoa! Now, get dressed. Quietly! Don’t wake your sisters.”

NOT Happy Trails

Patti Sherry-Crews

Patti Sherry-Crews

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