Indigenous Slavery Day?

Michael Metzger

October 10th used to be Columbus Day. Many now call it Indigenous Peoples’ Day. But does this ignore what many indigenous communities worldwide have done for eons?

In 13 states today there is no Columbus Day. It’s instead Indigenous Peoples’ Day. One website says this is part of a growing movement to honor indigenous communities and their resiliency in the face of enslavement by European explorers like Christopher Columbus.

The New York Times is a big driver behind this. It’s the publisher of “The 1619 Project” (that’s the year the first slaves arrived in America) based on the book The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones. She claims the purpose of the American Revolution was to perpetuate slavery.

Many reputable historians have been critical of The 1619 Project, but not because it centers slavery in U.S. history. In a letter to The New York Times they wrote: “None of us have any disagreement with the need for Americans, as they consider their history, to understand that the past is populated by sinners as well as saints, by horrors as well as honors, and that is particularly true of the scarred legacy of slavery.” They’re critical because they feel the project “offers a historically-limited view of slavery” and “asserts that every aspect of American life has only one lens for viewing, that of slavery, and its fall-out.”

This narrow view is typical of a bias for the left hemisphere of the brain. Only the right hemisphere has an “understanding of the complex.”[1] The sordid history of slavery is more complex than European colonists bad, Native Americans good. For example, many indigenous people in North America had slaves. Native Americans enslaved members of their own and other tribes, usually as a result of taking captives in raids and warfare, both before and after Europeans arrived. This practice continued into the 1800s.[2]

In some cases, especially for young women or children, Native American families adopted captives to replace members they had lost. Enslavement was not necessarily hereditary. Slaves included captives from wars and slave raids; captives bartered from other tribes, sometimes at great distances; children sold by their parents.[3]

Another example of The 1619 Project’s single-lens view is the inconvenient truth that there were in fact many American revolutions—plural—with many purposes. Take Maryland. The first English settlers was a select group of Catholics and Protestants. They came to Maryland seeking religious liberty, not to perpetuate slavery.

That doesn’t mean subsequent colonists didn’t trade slaves. Many did. But the first came to Maryland seeking religious liberty, including Catholics who for the most part abhorred trading slaves since the Catholic Church since the seventh century had campaigned against slavery. Her campaign effectively abolished slavery in Europe by the Middle Ages with Thomas Aquinas writing that slavery is a sin. A series of popes upheld his position, beginning in 1435 and culminating in three major pronouncements against slavery by Pope Paul III in 1537. This makes it difficult to imagine that every European colonist, especially Catholics but including many Protestants, came to America with the sole intent to perpetuate slavery.

The 1619 Project is terrible history because it conveniently overlooks the terrible truth that slavery is indigenous in almost all societies throughout history. Indigenous communities worldwide have enslaved their own people for eons. Makes me wonder if it’d be closer to the truth if we had a separate holiday called Indigenous Slavery Day.


[1] Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, (Yale University Press, 2010).

[2] Almon Wheeler Lauber, Indian Slavery in Colonial Time Within the Present Limits of the United States, (Columbia University Press, 1913), 25–48.

[3] Alan Gallay, “Introduction: Indian Slavery in Historical Context,” Indian Slavery in Colonial America, (University of Nebraska Press, 2009), 1–32.


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  1. The 1619 project is sloppy history as well as bad history. I stopped reading it when I read “Thomas Jefferson had 100s of slaves”. Picky, perhaps, but if you can’t verify that Jefferson was lucky to have 100 slaves on his plantation, you are not doing accurate history. (He was not that wealthy.)

    One of my pet peeves is using 21st century to condemn past behavior. As you put so well, slavery was common throughout history and the church was actively involved in its abolition, but it did not happen overnight.

  2. “This narrow view is typical of a bias for the left hemisphere of the brain. Only the right hemisphere has an “understanding of the complex.”[1]”
    Mike, I’d like to explore this claim you credit to McGilchrist further. Is reductionism really attributed to “left brain thinkers” alone?
    I am sensing that reductionism is shared by a huge part of our culture that has not demonstrated the inclination (or attention span) to truly get in the mindset of the holders of the viewpoint that is largely different than their own. I am including both red and blues on the political spectrum and the echo chambers to which they ascribe and subscribe. One of my significant concerns about our culture is its inability to appreciate that truth is often loaded with nuance. It sure seems to me that in our fallen world it is taking a great deal of wisdom and discernment to garner an accurate assessment of both history and current events.

  3. When I listened to the 1619 podcast, I enjoyed and appreciated it. The host was trying to understand why her father loved this country even though he had been treated so poorly as a black man. While seeking answers to that question, she realized in a new way that black people, in many ways, built this country and its culture. They played a central role, even while being treated unjustly. She was in pursuit of a lens that would help her understand the tensions she observed from childhood. It may not be a perfect work of history, but it contains a lot of valuable and relevant observations about history and existing realities in the U.S., even though it doesn’t address other issues related to slavery amongst indigenous people. I see it as a valuable project, and worth listening to and discussing. In regard to Tom’s comment about Thomas Jefferson, I can find several sources that state he owned hundreds of slaves, including PBS. But that’s even beside the point. The heart of 1619, in my experience of it, is to show that the African American community can take pride in our country because they’ve played such a central role in making it what it is on so many levels… and that we still have a long ways to go in regard to racial justice. Mike, your post here points out that slavery has been a pervasive problem on the planet, and yes we overlook that in some ways, but that doesn’t mean we should celebrate what Christopher Columbus did and reject 1619 wholesale. Like you said, it’s more complex than that.

  4. Tim: If you want to explore McGilchrist’s claim I recommend you read his book. I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s powerful. And yes, you’ll discover voluminous research on how the left hemisphere is narrowly focused. Its limited vision is not necessarily wrong (just as “The 1619 Project” is not entirely wrong) but it is limited. It doesn’t see what it doesn’t see. Now, for those disinclined to read a voluminous book, I recommend McGilchrist’s abbreviated work, “Two Ways of Attending: How our Divided Brain Constructs the World.” Same conclusion: the left hemisphere is narrowly focused. It’s given to reductionism.

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