Sunday, March 24, 2024

Slaves in New Spain.

There's a room in the 17th century placita at El Rancho de las Golondrinas called "el cuarto de cautivos" -- the captives' room. It's a small room that contains a fireplace, a couple of wooden bins, and a Navajo loom. It's meant to depict the sort of accommodations that Spanish settlers would have provided for their captives at the ranch in the 1600s.

The room is usually gated -- that is, you can look in, but there's typically no one inside to explain what it's about. Slavery is difficult to discuss. But here's one fact: the captives held by settlers here, in the northernmost outpost of New Spain, were not Black. They were Native American.

How is it that 17th century Spanish settlers held Native Americans in bondage, but in much of the rest of America, slaves were imported from Africa? 

Tinnakom | Deposit Photos

During volunteer training for our upcoming season, we heard a presentation from Jon Ghahate (Laguna Pueblo/Zuni Pueblo), an educator for the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Cortez, CO. Ghahate explained that slavery was not unknown in the Americas before the coming of the Europeans; after all, people are people everywhere, with the same urges to be both bad and good to one another. What was different among the Europeans was the Catholic Church. Christianity teaches us to be kind to other people -- with the emphasis on people. If the creature in front of you isn't a person, then no matter how you treat that creature, it won't keep you from getting into heaven. In essence, the church indemnified those who held slaves. And just as the church allowed Christians to see Africans as less than human, it also gave them the same excuse when it came to Native Americans. (Not-so-fun fact: The United States didn't grant citizenship to Native Americans until 1924.)

The year 1492 was a big one in the history of what was to become Spain. Ferdinand and Isabella married and combined their kingdoms into one, Castile and Aragon. Pretty much immediately, they set about kicking the Moors out of Andalucia in southern Spain and taking the land for themselves. And in that same year, they gave their okay to Christopher Columbus to sail west in search of a more direct, and less fraught, trade route to Asia. But Ferdinand and Isabella didn't grant the funds to Columbus outright -- they gave him a loan that he was supposed to pay back with the spoils he gained from his adventuring. (The later conquistadors got the same deal, which explains why they were so hot to find gold here.)

Columbus never made it to continental North America. His ships landed on the island of Hispaniola, which today is split between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. People were living there when Columbus arrived, but very little of their DNA survives today, for a very good reason: Columbus and his men basically slaughtered them. We know this because among the Spaniards who traveled to the New World with Columbus was Bartolom√© de las Casas, who chronicled the treatment of the Natives at the hands of the explorers. De las Casas petitioned Charles V of Spain to grant the Natives some rights. 

But all this meant that there weren't enough workers for the plantations that were beginning to be set up in the West Indies. So de las Casas got a bright idea: why not bring in Africans?

Eventually he realized what a bad idea that was, in terms of human rights, but by then the damage had been done. And that's how the idea was planted to bring Africans to the New World ... by any means necessary.

By the time the Spanish made their way north to New Mexico, they had "perfected" their system of dealing with the Natives. In 1510, the church approved a document that was to be read to any Indians the conquistadors met, advising them that they were now subjects of the Spanish crown and of the Pope, and they had better behave as set forth herein or they could be forced to behave. Of course, this document, the Requeremiento, was in Spanish, which the Natives had no way of understanding. (The text at the link is in English.) 

One begins to understand why the Pueblo Indians rose up and drove the Spaniards out of New Mexico in 1680. It didn't last -- the Spanish returned in 1692 -- but the Pueblo Revolt remains, as stated on the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center's website, "the only successful Native uprising against colonizers in North America."

In practice, Ghahate told us, the Spaniards didn't so much take slaves as they impressed Natives to work for them. But they required tribute -- food and supplies, as well as a guide to show them where that gold was -- and forced the Natives to convert to Christianity. In that sense, the system of slavery here in the Southwest was different than that practiced by plantation owners in the Deep South. Also here, some slaves were more like indentured servants and could eventually buy their freedom. They and other outcast people -- Jews and poor Spaniards who came to the New World to find their fortune but never did -- were known as genizaros and lived apart, in their own villages. Intermarriage with Mexican settlers was common, though. Eventually the Mexican government declared all citizens equal, including the genizaros and others of mixed race -- but in society, as you might expect, prejudice lingered. Even today, Hispanic folks here will say they're Spanish, even if their DNA tells a different story. 

DNA is causing a lot of trouble everywhere, am I right?

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On a completely different topic: The Social Security Administration this week that it's making big changes in the way it claws back overpayments from recipients. This comes after news reports indicated that the existing draconian system was impoverishing some people -- even causing them to lose their homes. The two biggest changes: 1) Instead of taking 100% of a recipient's benefit until the overpayment is satisfied, the reduction will now be capped at 10% per month -- and the SSA is instituting a longer time frame for people to pay the overpayment back; and 2) instead of forcing recipients looking for relief to prove why they need it by providing a boatload of financial information, the burden is now going to be on the government to prove why the recipient needs to make reimbursement.

The changes are coming too late to help me -- I finished my penance this month -- but I'm very glad to see that others won't have to go through the same thing I did.

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One more update, and then I swear I'm done: Surprising absolutely no one, Congress took the latest budget brouhaha down to the wire, approving the final six continuing resolutions yesterday. The approval technically came after the Friday night deadline, but the several-hour delay created no damage (other than to Americans' faith in government working for us and our reputation overseas and all the rest). Immediately after the vote, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (GQP-Georgia) moved to remove Speaker Mike Johnson because he, y'know, had to get help from the Democrats to keep the government running through the end of September. It's unclear whether her motion will go anywhere when the House comes back from yet another freaking recess -- but Johnson, apparently having decided that Greene has done her worst, reportedly plans for the House to take up funding for Ukraine when it returns to work after Easter.

That sound you hear is tens of thousands of pairs of eyes owned by rational Americans rolling so far back into their heads that they can see their brains.

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These moments of indentured blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Stay safe!

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