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Friday, July 27, 2012

excerpt from The Legacy of Navajo Slaves

Taking the point of the view of the slave, manumission by the state is commonly viewed as the most complete method. State manumission seemed to granted the slave, or newly freedman, the fullest integration into society, without the consent of his master. This is what occurred with the Emancipation Proclamation issued on January 1, 1863. It is crucial to remember that this proclamation was not applied to Indian slaves, because "[t]he system of servitude prevalent in the American Southwest—peonage and Indian slavery—. . .were never regarded as involuntary servitude, as in the case of Negro slavery." (p. 178, Bailey) Union soldiers reached Galveston, Texas, on June 19th,1865, bringing with them the news that the civil war had ended and slaves were freed— this date is still celebrated as Juneteenth, "the oldest known celebration commemorating the end of slavery in the United States"—yet Indian slaves, Navajos among them, were still being held in bondage. Even after Joint Resolution No. 65 was passed on July 27, 1868, five years after the Emancipation Proclamation, giving "General William T. Sherman power/authority to use the most efficient means at his disposal to reclaim from bondage the women and children of Navajo and other tribes; then held in bondage and return them to their respective reservations." (p. 186, Bailey) New Mexicans resisted and fought, successfully, to maintain their hold, culturally and legally upon their slaves. Revealing that "[l]aw . . .is merely that complex of rules which has the coercive power of the state behind it." (p. 26, Patterson)

"For the most part, Indians carried to Rio Grande settlements and sold into slavery were lost forever to both tribe and kinsmen—as no treaty clause could induce New Mexicans to release property they had paid as high as $200 per head for." (p. 126, Bailey)

In his book, Indian Slave Trade in the Southwest, Lynn Bailey articulates one of the arguments against manumission: "Often Mexican families held second and third generation captives. They had lost their native language, customs and habits. No longer were they Indian; in all respects they were like their masters. To uproot these individuals was indeed a crime, and to send them to an Indian reservation was virtually exiling them to an alien land and people. Many Indian children, taken captive in infancy, had been adopted into Mexican families, baptized and brought up as Catholics. The protestations of New Mexicans against giving up such Indians were loud— and not without some degree of merit. To release these children into the hands of the military to be placed upon a reservation, would do them great injustice. These peons were Indian only in blood—they were Mexican in habit, speech and tradition." Bailey's argument illuminates the principal philosophy at work in the slavery program.

New Mexican families argued that Navajos didn't have the same feeling for their children as more civilized peoples, that as primitives and heathens, we wer incapable of such attachment. Their argument fails in every area. They ignore the fact that Navajo slaves and captives were mentioned in every treaty and treaty negotiation between 1846 and 1868: the Treaty of Ojo del Oso 1846 (1.5 yrs before Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848, which required that Mexican slaves be returned but made no parallel demand for the return of Indian slaves held by Old or New Mexicans), the Newby Treaty 1848 (slave raids), the Treaty of 1849/Washington Treaty (first ratified by US), the Treaty of Laguna Negra 1855, the Bonneville Treaty of 1858, Canby Treaty of 1861 (slave raids/Mescaleros), and the Naaltsoos Sání of 1868 (Note to self: Also Treaty at Jemez, July 15, 1839 and the "worthless treaty at Santa Domingo "to alleviate any resentment Navajo Chieftans had against the Mexicans" on March 10, 1841). They also ignore the fact that for over 20 years Navajos sought permission to formally track down the women and children that were stolen and sold. Eventually United States investigators admitted that Navajos were not only capable of but clearly expressed love for and devotion to their children.

Bailey's words clearly reveal the colonial desire to eradicate Indigenous people and Indigenous ways, and expose the popular belief about the existence and character of an Indian race— a theory that continues to dominate popular, academic and legal minds today. This idea of an Indian race, and the particular nature of this race, is rooted in the desire to wipe this race from the earth, and nourished by a desperate and clinging certainty that Indians will ultimately disappear. The simple and widely accepted notion that you could transform Navajos into Mexicans, Mexicans into Hispanics and Hispanics into Americans shaped the backbone of this history and continues to shape relations between peoples in the southwest today. Now poof, they are gone.

This piece is excerpted from a talk I gave at the University of California at Berkeley on November 30, 2010. I offer it today to commemorate the passing of J.R. No. 65, today in 1868.

I believe we must admit that the process of creating slaves who become New Mexicans who become Americans through an immediate and irreversible deracination program is devastatingly comparable to what the United States is still engaging in today.

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I believe we can be more beautiful than broken. Devotion to language and literature, stories and storytelling, writing and reading will restore humanity and heal severed relations. There is no alibi in being.