It is almost common knowledge in Mexico and the U.S. Southwest that a significant number of indigenous persons in North America were forced or otherwise coerced into involuntary servitude. Modernly, since the 1970s, fourth grade students in California have been taught, reductively, that the Spanish mission system was bad because the Franciscan friars enslaved the “Indians.”
The history of the indigenous, mestizo and Hispanic populations of North America, however, remains largely ignored by U.S. East Coast book publishers. Big narrative history in the U.S. is usually told from East to West – not West to East – not from Mexico to New Mexico. Race is usually discussed in terms of “black” and “white,” with African persons often times described as objects. In such a marketplace, Andrés Reséndez’s book on Native American slavery begins:
“The very word ‘slavery’ brings to mind African bodies stuffed in the hold of a ship or white-aproned maids bustling in an antebellum home.”
Perhaps, Reséndez wrote this sentence as a point of reference for a ‘white’ audience. His title The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America may have been crafted for the same audience. It is an odd title. When slavery resonates as close family history, it is “our slavery” or maybe “another slavery”, rather than the “other slavery.”
Many talented scholars and writers have explored the subject of Native American slavery, as Reséndez’s endnotes show. Yet, given the marketplace, Reséndez pitches his book as the never-before-told story on slavery in the Americas. He should not have to do this.
Reséndez’s book is a big deal. It is a big deal not because of the big event pitching. It is a big deal because Reséndez effectively and creatively synthesizes the many sources on the important subject of Native American slavery. It is a difficult task to encapsulate five hundred years of unruly, complex, insane circumstances into one tight book. Reséndez does this well.
In broad stroke, Reséndez writes about certain indigenous nations in the Americas who practiced captive-taking and slavery, and engaged in slave trading with other indigenous nations and with Spaniards. Despite the prohibitions of the Spanish monarchy, Spaniards imposed slavery and indentured servitude on Native Americans working in households, mines and on farms. Later, other Europeans and U.S. citizens, who encroached into Spanish and Mexican territories, engaged in the same activities.
The strongest parts of his book are those that tell the stories of individuals: the “Indians” Maria, Pedro, Beatriz, Catalina and others who moved (or were taken) to Spain and filed lawsuits in the hope of gaining their freedom; the Spanish monarchs Philip, Mariana and Charles who each issued orders prohibiting Indian slavery.
Reséndez considers New Mexico as having been a focal point of North American slave activity, with the territory infiltrated by Spaniards for the purpose of finding slaves for the silver mines of northern Mexico. Several governors of the province, he explains, were involved in the slave business. Reséndez posits that the 1680 Pueblo Revolt in New Mexico was, to a large extent, a revolt against slavery. This is a credible characterization.
Readers may find it troubling that Reséndez concludes that the [Pueblo Revolt] “rebels did not engage in … indiscriminate killing,” when he summarizes the killing of women, children, and servants by the same rebels. A few speculative assumptions may also annoy. Reséndez uses a 1680 muster roll of New Mexican households to suggest that most of the survivors of the revolt were slave owners. He makes no distinction between slave and servant, and assumes that all servants in New Mexico were indigenous (none being Spanish or part Spanish). By ignoring the details and distinctions, Reséndez has missed an opportunity to bring even more depth to his work.
A research copy of the 1680 muster roll of New Mexican families (from Hackett & Shelby, Revolt of the Pueblo Indians), cited by Reséndez is available HERE.
Sonja Sonnenburg de Chávez