Thursday, July 1, 2010

Christina Snyder's "Slavery in Indian Country"

Christina Snyder is an assistant professor of History and American Studies at Indiana University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Slavery in Indian Country: The Changing Face of Captivity in Early America, and reported the following:
Page 99 deals with perhaps the most famous and lurid aspect of captivity: torture. My book explores captivity practices among Native Americans of the South from pre-Columbian times through 1840. Page 99 falls in my discussion of the 18th century, when captives faced fates ranging from death to adoption to slavery. Although these fates seem disparate, all served to enhance the power of captors’ societies. The clan mothers who decided such matters divided captives by gender and “closely examined male captives’ chests and arms for tell-tale blue pictographs—the tattoos that graphically told the stories of their exploits against enemy people. Very accomplished warriors could expect to ‘atone for the blood they spilt, by the tortures of fire’” (93). Reserved for adult men, torture quieted what Southern Indians called the “crying blood” of grieving relatives and helped release the souls of murder victims into the afterlife.

Although Europeans and colonists still flocked to see criminals and slaves publicly tortured and executed in their own societies, white observers were quick to condemn Indian practices as “barbarous,” and some urged Native people to give it up. “Resident traders, for example, routinely offered money to ransom the condemned captives, especially if those captives happened to be white.... James Adair related that during the Franco-Chickasaw Wars, the Chickasaws put a number of Frenchmen to death in their fires: ‘The English traders solicited with the most earnest entreaties, in favour of the unfortunate captives; but they averred, that as it was not our business to intercede in behalf of a deceitful enemy who came to shed blood, unless we were resolved to share their deserved fate.’” Torture continued until the late eighteenth century, when the United States became the first empire to seriously contest Indians’ control of the interior South. To deal with an increasingly powerful American state, Native chiefs began to centralize political power in their own nations, sapping the traditional prerogatives of clans and taking control of warfare and justice.

Page 99 explores why Native people killed some captives “to fulfill essential social and spiritual needs,” but it also situates torture at one end of a very broad spectrum of captivity. The entreaties of the resident traders reveal how captivity brought North America’s diverse peoples together. With their white and black neighbors, Indians participated in cross-cultural dialogs about the meanings of race, slavery, and freedom.
Learn more about Slavery in Indian Country at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue