One of the myths about human trafficking is that it’s not traditional. However, the phenomenon of human trafficking, particularly that of children and women from Indian Country, is entwined in the histories of indigenous peoples all over, including those in North America. That we’ve put them ‘out of sight, out of mind’ physically, educationally, and historically does not help modern victims, perpetuates the roles of traffickers and law enforcement, and negatively impacts those rescued who are not believed or cannot find resources for healing and recovery in their communities.
Long before the Spanish flooded Mexico and other Europeans made it to the mainland of what is now the United States and Canada, indigenous peoples stole women and children for labor, for sex, and for trade for goods–to other tribes and then to the Spanish, French and English. We can’t approach the healing of communities or eradication of the modern practice without understanding the larger and historical context. The methods of abduction and modes of travel may have changed but the basics remain the same; exploitation of vulnerable communities and individuals, the routes used to transport, and sale to the highest bidder for the maximum profit.
Andrés Reséndez’s work called The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America, from which I’ll be quoting heavily, traces the historical movement of Indian slavery across the Caribbean and North America. It’s a fascinating, mind-numbing (not the prose but the scope) and heart-breaking accounting of how so many communities were decimated, not just by the diseases that we are told about in history lessons but by the theft and sale, particularly of women and children.
He begins with this:
The beginnings of this other slavery are lost in the mists of time. Native peoples such as the Zaptocs, Mayas, and Aztecs took captive to use a sacrificial victims; the Iroquois waged campaigns called “mourning wars” on neighboring groups to avenge and replace their dead; and Indians in the Pacific Northwest included male and female slaves as part of the goods sent by the groom to his bride’s family to finalize marriages among the elite. Native Americans had enslaved each other for millennia, but with the arrival of Europeans, practices of captivity embedded in specific cultural contexts became commodified, expanded in unexpected ways, and came to resemble the kinds of human trafficking that are recognizable to us today.
By historians estimation, based on a variety of documents available to them, in the America’s alone, between 1492 and 1900, there were between 2.5 and five million Indian slaves. These numbers do not include those shipped from the east coast of what’s now the United States to Europe; the numbers of which are not known beyond estimates. What is known is that this particular phenomena began by Indians offering their own slaves to Europeans in exchange for goods like food, weapons, metalwork and more. Reséndez shares this: “What started as a European controlled enterprise, however, gradually passed into the hands of the Native Americans. As Indians acquired horses and weapons of their won, they became independent providers….In the Southwest, the Comanches and Utes became regional suppliers of slaves to other Indians as well as to the Spaniards, Mexicans, and Americans. The Apaches, who had early on been among the greatest victims of enslavement, transformed themselves into successful slavers.”
Things were only slightly different in the Eastern part of the new country. “Between the period between 1670 and 1720, Carolinians exported more Indians out of Charleston, South Carolina, that they imported Africans into it. As the traffic developed, the colonists increasingly procured their indigenous captives from the Westo Indians, an extraordinarily expansive…militaristic slaving societ[y]….” The Westos and others roamed from Virginia to Florida taking captives to sell to other Indians and to Carolinians.
I knew when I was in the desert two years ago some of the historical context but sometimes when Ancestors attempt to explain things in a manner for which I have no context, I can’t grasp the Bigness or Oldness of a thing. Then, I was thinking 40 years ago, going back maybe a half a century, not four or five centuries. I remember driving south on Arizona Highway 85 into Ajo, feeling similar to how I’ve felt at other places; the slow-slog travels of long ago, the feeling of lostness and displacement from the places and people that mattered most, much newer fear layered on top of that, and only then began to recognize the length of time they were trying to express. It didn’t begin to become clear until I began researching.
It was not lost on me that the center of this network, though it may stretch to Australia and South Korea, is in the Phoenix metro area. Phoenix has only been a city since 1868 but the history of those who lived and moved through there predates our written recordings. Maps before modern borders came into being show trade and seasonal migration routes from what is now Central Mexico and into Colorado, Idaho, California, Illinois, and more. Linguists trace the same from Western Mexico along the Gulf Coast as far east as Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. Before we carved up the land with imaginary lines and paved highways, people moved much farther that we’ve been taught in school and, in doing so, stole, traded and sold much than we’ve been taught as well.
The beginnings of Indian enslavement in the Southwest have direct ties to sex trafficking today and The Fuckery’s hub in Phoenix. The relationships built over time by families, lawful businesses, criminal organizations, militaries, traders and travelers, particularly along the country’s borders, have been evolving since long before white faces showed up on the continent. However, the Spaniards discovery of silver and the labor necessary to mine it and refine it, created a mass-commercialization of trafficking that survived it’s illegality and royal antislavery activism and has morphed into it’s current state. The illegality that made it difficult for Spanish slavers to work created an avenue for Indian traffickers to fill the void. “Thus new traffickers, new victims, and new slaving routes emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.”
One incident cited by several historians seems to exemplify in rather gross way how these factors came together. “In 1694, barely two years after the Spaniards had retaken control of the province, a group of Navajos arrived [in a market in New Mexico] with the intention of selling Pawnee children. The Spanish authorities initially refused to acquire the young captives [because Indian slavery was illegal by royal decree]…The traffickers proceeded to behead the captive children within the Spanish colonist’s sight. In the short term, the Utes lost their “merchandise”. But in the longer term, the stratagem prompted New Mexican officials to reconsider the ban against “ransoming” Indian captives…In effect, the Navajos, Utes, Comanches, and the Apaches forced New Mexican authorities to break the law and accept their captives.” Reséndez adds, “By the middle of the eighteenth century, these commercial and diplomatic relations had become normalized.”
Archives like government treaties and mission and military communications related how the expansion for more human ‘goods’, particularly by the Comanche, refashioned the livelihoods and ‘neighborhoods’ of desert, Plains and Plateau tribes. As horse-heavy Comanches and Utes repeatedly raided, people moved to escape and, when family was captured, often moved to join other bands. And those that were captured, if not sold, were married into or enslaved for life in other communities. “The Comanches took many of their captives to New Mexico, where…in the absence of money or silver, women and children constituted a versatile medium of exchange accepted by Spaniards, Frenchmen, Englishmen, Pueblos and many other Indian groups in the region.” The flow of the Indian slave trade then saw Apaches sold by Comanches to French colonists in Quebec to the extent that the Apaches came to comprise as many as one quarter of all Indians slaves of known origin in New France.” The opening up of California and the expansion of Europeans across the West only expanded the practice again with new traffickers, new routes and new victims. Navajo, Utes and others sold captives to those moving westward and resupplied traffickers when they made their way back to the east.
Now as then, multigenerational rivalries, intertribal animosities, military history, other ties to ancients and lost ties to lands and resources still fuel the trade.
Stolen and sold for labor and to increase tribal populations, Indian women and children were the most often taken. Their value was nearly double that of adult males. I don’t know how much a young woman’s ‘value’ is determined by traffickers these days. I’m going to assume it’s a lot more than the $150-200 from the 1850s. I do know that the ‘return on investment’ now exceeds what anyone imagined then. With the advent of modern technologies, the ease of intercontinental travel, and the myriad of ways and number of times a young person’s sexuality can be exploited, the amount of money brought in by thousands of disappeared young people is staggering.
And, in my opinion, the trafficking of women and children for the labor of sexual exploitation, is indeed, normalized. It’s so ‘normal’ that when someone sees something, they don’t say something. It’s so ‘normal’, that the political infrastructure of bringing new Indian casinos into being, long before construction has begun, includes plans for how to incorporate the sale of sex by slaves in new communities, with new victims, new routes and notso new traffickers.
Human trafficking in Indian Country is, in many parts of the continent, traditional. Now though, maybe, people will stop long enough to say something; say something to their tribal council and white legislators, say something to victims, those who pimp and pander, ask questions, demand accountability, and openly challenge the practices and people that allow it to flourish and rip communities apart. This is one tradition that needs to be eradicated.