Many Native American tribes practiced some form of slavery before the European introduction of African slavery into North America; but none exploited slave labor on a large scale.
Native American groups often enslaved war captives whom they primarily used for small-scale labor. Others however, were used in ritual sacrifice, usually involving torture as part of religious rites, and these sometimes involved ritual cannibalism.
Some Native American tribes held war captives as slaves prior to and during European colonization, some Native Americans were captured and sold by others into slavery to Europeans, and a small number of tribes, in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, adopted the practice of holding slaves as chattel property and held increasing numbers of African-American slaves.
Pre-contact forms of slavery were generally distinct from the form of chattel slavery developed by Europeans in North America during the colonial period.
There is little evidence that the slaveholders considered the slaves as racially inferior; they came from other Native American tribes and were casualties of war. Native Americans did not buy and sell captives in the pre-colonial era, although they sometimes exchanged enslaved individuals with other tribes in peace gestures or in exchange for redeeming their own members.
Most of these so-called Native American slaves tended to live on the fringes of Native American society and were slowly integrated into the tribe. The word “slave” may not accurately apply to such captive people, for all the Iroquoian peoples (not just the Iroquois tribes) adopted captives, but for religious reasons, there was a process, procedures and a couple of seasons when such adoptions were delayed until the proper spiritual times.
Such delayed adoptees, were held to add to the spiritual power of the clan group, and while performing forced labor as part of their ritual rebirth, were actually the antithesis of slaves in the white mans world.
In many cases, tribes adopted captives to replace warriors killed during a raid. Warrior captives were sometimes made to undergo ritual mutilation or torture that could end in death as part of a spiritual grief ritual for relatives slain in battle. Adoptees, ironically were expected to fill the economic, military and familial roles of the departed loved one; to fit societal shoes of the dead relative and maintain the spirit power of the tribe.
Some Native Americans would cut off one foot of captives to keep them from running away. Others allowed enslaved male captives to marry the widows of slain husbands. The Creek, who engaged in this practice and had a matrilineal system, treated children born of slaves and Creek women as full members of their mothers’ clans and of the tribe, as property and hereditary leadership passed through the maternal line.
The children did not have slave status. Cultural practices of the Iroquoian peoples, also rooted in a matrilineal system with men and women having equal value, any child would have the status determined by the womans clan. More typically, tribes took women and children captives for adoption, as they tended to adapt more easily into new ways.
Several tribes held captives as hostages for payment. Various tribes also practiced debt slavery or imposed slavery on tribal members who had committed crimes; full tribal status would be restored as the enslaved worked off their obligations to the tribal society. Other slave-owning tribes of North America included Comanche of Texas, the Creek of Georgia; the fishing societies, such as the Yurok, who lived in Northern California; the Pawnee, and the Klamath.
When the Europeans made contact with the Native Americans, they began to participate in the slave trade. Native Americans, in their initial encounters with the Europeans, attempted to use their captives from enemy tribes as a “method of playing one tribe against another” in an unsuccessful game of divide and conquer.
The Haida and Tlingit who lived along southeast Alaska’s coast were traditionally known as fierce warriors and slave-traders, raiding as far as California. In their society, slavery was hereditary after slaves were taken as prisoners of war. Among some Pacific Northwest tribes, as many as one-fourth of the population were slaves.
European colonists caused a change in Native American slavery practices
For decades, the colonies were short of workers, and they created a new demand market for captives of raids. Especially in the southern colonies, initially developed for resource exploitation rather than settlement, colonists purchased or captured Native Americans to be used as forced labor in cultivating tobacco, and, by the eighteenth century, rice, and indigo.
To acquire trade goods, Native Americans began selling war captives to whites rather than integrating them into their own societies. Traded goods varied among the tribes such as axes, bronze kettles, Caribbean rum, European jewelry, needles, scissors, but the most prized were rifles.The English copied the Spanish and Portuguese: they saw the enslavement of Africans and Native Americans as a moral, legal, and socially acceptable institution; a rationale for enslavement was “just war” taking captives and using slavery as an alternative to a death sentence.
The escape of Native American slaves was frequent, because they had a better understanding of the land; whereas the African slaves did not. Consequently, the Natives who were captured and sold into slavery were often sent to the West Indies, or far away from their home.
The first African slave on record was placed in Jamestown, before the 1630s indentured servitude was dominant form of bondage in the colonies however by 1636 only Caucasians could lawfully receive contracts as indentured servants. The oldest record obtained of a permanent Native American slave, was a native man from Massachusetts in 1636.
By 1661 slavery had become legal in all of the 13 colonies. Virginia would later declare that “Indians, Mulattos, and Negros to be real estate”, and in 1682 New York forbade African or Native American slaves from leaving their master’s home or plantation without permission.
Europeans also viewed the enslavement of Native Americans differently than the enslavement of Africans in some cases; a belief that Africans were “brutish people” was dominant while both Native Americans and Africans were considered savages, Native Americans were romanticized as noble people that could be elevated into Christian civilization.
Little is known about the thousands of Native Americans that were forced into labor. Two myths have complicated the history of Native American slavery; that Native Americans were undesirable as servants and that Native Americans were exterminated or pushed out after King Philip’s War. The precise legal status for some Native Americans is difficult to establish in some occasions as involuntary servitude and slavery were poorly defined in the 17th century British America.
Some masters asserted ownership over the children of Native American servants, seeking to turn them into slaves. The historical uniqueness of slavery in America is that European settlers drew a rigid line between insiders “people like themselves who could never be enslaved” and nonwhite outsiders “mostly Africans and Native Americans who could be enslaved.”
A unique feature between natives and colonists was that they gradually asserted sovereignty over the native inhabitants during the seventeenth century, ironically transforming them into subjects with collective rights and privileges that Africans could not enjoy. The West Indies developed as plantation societies prior to the Chesapeake Bay region and had a demand for labor.
In the Spanish colonies, the church assigned Spanish surnames to Native Americans and recorded them as servants rather than slaves. Many members of Native American tribes in the West would be taken against their will for life as slaves. In the East, Native Americans were recorded as slaves.
Slavery in Indian Territory across the United States used slaves for many purposes from work in the plantations of the East, to guides across the wilderness, to work in deserts of the West, and to be soldiers in wars. Native American slaves suffered new European diseases, inhumane treatment, and death.