Fears within fear
A friend sent me an email asking me what I knew about “genízaros.” I wasn’t aware, so I did a little research.
The first article I read was “U.S. Indian Slavery once Thrived in New Mexico,” written by Simon Romero and published Jan. 28 in The New York Times. Romero writes that, as many Latinos research their family histories in America, they discover they’re descended from slaves — their “captive forbears” were Native Americans sold to Hispanic families in what’s now known as the American Southwest.
“A growing number of Latinos who have made such discoveries are embracing their indigenous backgrounds, challenging a long tradition in New Mexico in which families prize Spanish ancestry,” Romero wrote. “Some are starting to identify as genízaros. Historians estimate genízaros accounted for as much as one-third of New Mexico’s population of 29,000 in the late 18th century.”
The reporter interviewed Gregorio Gonzales, an anthropologist and self-described genízaro who writes about colonial conquest and forced assimilation.
“We’re discovering things that complicate our history, demanding that we reject the myths we’ve been taught,” Gonzales, 29, told Romero.
Historian Andrés Resendez wrote about the slave trade in his 2016 book The Other Slavery. Almost immediately after the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, New Mexico — which was home to the largest populations of sedentary Indians north of central Mexico — became a significant region for slave traders.
“The trade then evolved to include not just Hispanic traffickers but horse-mounted Comanche and Ute warriors, who raided the settlements of Apache, Kiowa, Jumano, Pawnee and other peoples,” Romero wrote. “They took captives, many of them children plucked from their homes, and sold them at auctions in village plazas.”
The captives were sometimes allowed to earn economic autonomy. Some were allowed to take their master’s last name and practice Roman Catholicism.
Wrote reporter Marc Simmons in his 2014 piece “Trail Dust: Class of Indians once called ‘genízaros’ in New Mexico” for the Santa De New Mexican, children “were placed in homes of wealthy colonists, who were supposed to care for them and raise them as Christians. The children were really household servants but not slaves since upon marrying; they were free to go their own way. The problem arose of what to do with the adult genízaros. They were Indian by blood, but having lost all trace of their native languages and customs, they were, culturally speaking, thoroughly Hispanicized.”
Over time, genízaros assimilated into the general population.
“But who’s to say that the descendants of genízaros, of people who were once slaves, can’t reclaim their culture?” genealogist Miguel A. Tórrez asked The New York Times.
NPR reporter John Burnett wrote in his 2016 piece “Descendants Of Native American Slaves In New Mexico Emerge From Obscurity,” “After centuries in the shadows, this group of mixed-race New Mexicans — Hispanic and American Indians — is stepping forward to seek recognition.”
Before Europeans established African slavery in North America, some Native American tribes exploited some form of slave labor, and how captives were treated varied from tribe to tribe. They could be adopted, indentured, mutilated or slain.
The historical uniqueness of slavery in America is that European settlers drew a firm line between “insiders” — “people like themselves who could never be enslaved” — and nonwhite “outsiders,” “who could be enslaved,” wrote historian David Eltis.
In Indian Territory, slaves worked on plantations, as wilderness and desert guides and as soldiers during war. Many contracted European diseases, endured inhumane treatment and died in captivity. Some war captives were sold to whites in exchange for trade goods or to augment political and economic power, wrote scholar Tony Seybert in “Slavery and Native Americans in British North America and the United States: 1600 to 1865.”
Factions of Indigenous tribes throughout North America warred with Europeans and each other as slavery, disease and battle dramatically reduced the number of free Native American populations.
The daughter of a Shoshone chief, Sacagawea was born around 1788 in Lemhi County, Idaho. At about 10 or 12 years old, Hidatsa Indians (an enemy tribe) captured and sold her to French Canadian trapper Toussaint Charbonneau, who made her one of his wives. In 1804, she became the only female on Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s expedition into the American West as a Shoshone interpreter.
“Over the years, tributes to Sacagawea and her contribution to the Corps of Discovery has come in many forms, such as statues and place-names. She was even featured on a dollar coin issued in 2000 by the U.S. Mint,” according to a summary of her life on the Biography.com website.
This short narrative here does not do justice to the centuries of history but I thought it would trigger curiosity and additional research. There are volumes of data to read and, as you know, accurate records can be hard to find. It was fascinating to catch a glimpse of what Native and African-Americans struggles were and are. This is why I titled this column “Fears within fear.” The Wikipedia article “Slavery among Native Americans in the United States” is also a good place to start.
I just didn’t realize or know how slavery has affected Native Americans.
Some questions for thought: Are we still doing enough to reclaim our cultural identity like many other Native Americans? Are we active enough to pass on what we know forward? Are we erasing the scars from the past?
Thank you for allowing me to represent you and our great Nation.
Mnedobe (Sits with Spirit)
Representative, District 10
1601 S. Gordon Cooper Dr.
Shawnee, OK 74801