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Horrors Pile Up Quietly In 'The Other Slavery'

"I preferred a country where I should be absolute master."

In 1839, Captain John Sutter arrived in California and began acquiring Native American slaves from several nations to work the land he purchased. He eventually owned several hundred "Indian slaves," whom he treated notoriously badly even by the standards of fellow slave-owners. The circumstances that let Sutter keep these slaves in an ostensibly free territory are part of the complex political and social forces that Andrés Reséndez sets out to unpack in The Other Slavery. But if the book makes anything clear, it's that the single organizing force was simple: greed, and an absence of empathy that meant a slow genocide for the victims.

The Other Slavery is a necessary work that occupies a loaded historical landscape; Reséndez keeps a deliberate scholarly distance from the material, bringing forth evidence and constructing careful — even conservative — arguments. But that evidence speaks for itself, and the horrors quietly pile up. The enslavement of communities from North America and the Caribbean broke down entire nations, and irreparably erased cultural and political ecosystems. American schoolchildren are taught that smallpox was the epidemic that gutted Native American populations after exposure to Europeans; an illness to which they had no immunity ravaged their numbers. Reséndez suggests nothing less than that the epidemic was actually the Europeans themselves.

American schoolchildren are taught that smallpox was the epidemic that gutted Native American populations after exposure to Europeans ... Reséndez suggests nothing less than that the epidemic was actually the Europeans themselves.

A singular aspect of the enslavement of indigenous populations is the subterfuge involved: Several laws passed over the centuries forbade outright slavery, and much of the energy of slavers and governors went toward intricate justifications. "Explorers" — who often explicitly hoped to trade in human capital — claimed holy wars to bring heathen slaves to Christianity; provincial governors invented punitive indentures to staff their gold and silver mines. Systems sustained themselves through legal justifications and relied on social collusion that made emancipation more difficult — how could you emancipate someone who wasn't technically a slave? (However, this isn't just a study in victimization. Reséndez makes sure to note resistance within the communities; Indians who sued for their freedom, the Pueblo uprising of 1680, even Geronimo.)

It's unfortunate, though inevitable, that some of the facts under discussion have lost historical resonance amid the long-standing cloud of white defensiveness. The fact that some Native American nations sought to maintain autonomy by adapting European horse culture and becoming slavers themselves is an object lesson in the trickle-down horrors of colonialism, rather than "self-contained billiard balls colliding with one another on the frontier," as Reséndez puts it; sometimes he writes as if he knows that any engagement with Indian slavers is doomed to erase some of the nuance of his research. It's an unenviable task, handled well.

Many of us know the broad strokes of the early decades of this wretched history, and the later history between the newly-minted America and the way it treated those whose land the newcomers stole. But even if you know some of the embarrassing details (Native Americans only legally became citizens of their own country in 1924), The Other Slavery's understated just-the-facts reportage will likely surprise you. It's a study in the abuse of power that lays bare a shameful history, and suggests a clear, chilling line to our present. Everybody's guilty, and while The Other Slavery isn't a call to action, it makes an intellectual and emotional demand of its readers as its scholarship echoes the lament of nineteenth-century Navajo leader Armijo, who appealed to the American government for the return of his people's lost children: "Is it American justice that we must give up everything and receive nothing?"

Genevieve Valentine's latest novel is Persona.

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