Rachael Devecka Kelley Lecture Commentary

The slavery of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and 12 Years A Slave is only part of the picture; there is a forgotten story. Native Americans didn’t all die from smallpox. As is typical of indigenous history however, their enslavement didn’t make it into American textbooks.

As Andrés Reséndez stated in this year’s Kelley Lecture, we picture “neat historical boxes… Natives died, and Africans were enslaved.” In reality, 2.5-5 million indigenous people––primarily women and children––were enslaved by colonizers and their descendents throughout the Americas by colonizers, beginning 26 years before the first recorded smallpox case.

The brutal conditions conditions and racist justifiations we recognize from African slavery were also true of this “other” slavery. But when the 13th amendment passed, indigenous slaves in the US were excluded from its protections. Native Americans did not become full citizens until the 1920s.

I am infuriated that I didn’t know any of this before the lecture. And if I didn’t know that as someone who has actively studied indigenous history, then the average American student has no clue at all. The way schools teach about indigenous history––if they mention it at all-–it is as though everyone died of smallpox and then the survivors were finished off on the Trail of Tears.

Native American culture is not restricted to the dead past, though, and it is clear from these statistics that the US government owes them the same visibility and justice that it owes to people of African descent.

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