Did slavery exist among Native Americans prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus? Yes. Did Europeans make slaves out of Indians? Also yes. In our next conversation with Dr. Thomas Murphy, we’ll talk more about the dynamics of Indian slavery. It’s a story most people don’t know.
GT: There’s a story in [the book Establishing Zion] of a Native American that had two Native American children that were captured from a war and he tried to sell them to the Mormons. The Mormons said, “No, we’re not going to do that.” So he executed the one child in front of them, and said, “If you had any heart, you would have saved this child’s life.” So then they were like, “Oh!” So there was some slavery as well, at least in Native American cultures, wasn’t there?
Thomas: These stories where Mormons say, “Oh, the Utes made us do it.” Wait a minute. Mormons were doing this in Nauvoo before they came West. So Peninah was a servant. Danny Wood describes her as orphaned in his autobiography. It’s kind of wishy washy about the details of how she got into the household. Some of the later accounts call her a hired girl. But very clearly, she was a servant, to take care of his first wife, who was sick and bedridden. So, in the household there’s this caretaker. She converts to the LDS Church, one of the first Lamanite, they say, converts to the Church. Her descendants, my wife’s family, say that she was the first Lamanite to enter into plural marriage. She went through the Nauvoo temple, married Daniel Wood. She went from the servant to the second wife. Then she came West with the Mormons, or with that second wagon train coming West. When we try to say, “Okay, the Utes made us do it,” how do we explain Peninah? How do we explain that there was already a slave trade in Illinois, also, with relationship to the Spanish, who temporarily controlled the St. Louis area? There were struggles between the French and the Spanish for this area. So when Mormons came into Illinois, there was a similar slave trade in Indian women and children. So that practice, nobody was threatening Mormons to do this. They were already participating in a larger cultural practice.
GT: So it sounds like the eastern Indians were different than the western Indians. And maybe the western Indians were more into slavery than the eastern. Is that a fair statement?
Thomas: Yeah, because of that Spanish influence, because both in Illinois and in the Great Basin, there had been Spanish colonization. So, the Spanish influence created a market for slaves.
GT: So did the Spanish bring slavery to, I guess, what was Mexico? Can we blame the Indian slave trade on the Spanish?
Thomas: The slavery of Indians?
Thomas: Absolutely. Yes. Oh, yes. Now the English did it too.
GT: What about before the Spanish got here? Is there any evidence for Indian slavery before the Spanish arrived?
Thomas: I don’t really like to use the term slavery to describe that. It certainly wasn’t chattel slavery. People were not bought and sold. It was more like what Mormons did in the Mormon Indian Student Placement Program, fostering, adoption.
We’ll talk more about how Europeans created a market for Indian slaves, a story not told in the history books. This also has implications for the Gospel Topics essay.
Following his brush with Church discipline, Dr. Thomas Murphy was surprised to get an invitation to discuss his DNA research at BYU! Tom tells more of this surprise meeting, and how BYU reacted to his scholarship.
Thomas: I get an email asking me if I’d come to BYU and present an article on DNA and the Book of Mormon. Now, I remembered what happened back in 2002. I remembered that.
Thomas: As I’m making this strategic move back into Mormon studies, do I want to be defined as the DNA guy? I did not really. I don’t want that to define me because my work is much broader than that. I also thought, “Well, I’m a little bit uncomfortable with the idea of BYU editors editing my article on DNA and the Book of Mormon. So, my response was, “I’m not really interested in writing about DNA.” But instead, I proposed a different topic: an article that was called “Other Scriptures: Restoring the Voices of the Gantowisas to an Open Canon.” So, this basically follows my Haudenosaunee ancestry, the Mohawk ancestry and the Seneca as well. It looks at the Book of Mormon through the lens of Mohawk and Seneca oral tradition. I proposed that instead of the DNA article.
Thomas: Brenden Rensink and Jane Hafen actually enthusiastically accepted that. So then they turned to Ugo Perego, and asked him to do the DNA article.
Thomas: Now, shortly after I had accepted this invitation to BYU, I get an email from Matt Harris and Newell Bringhurst…I get this invitation from [Newell], and now he’s asking me to write an article on DNA and the Book of Mormon, and I had just said no to BYU. I’m like, “Okay, I’ll take this one on.” But I gave them conditions.
Thomas had some interesting interactions at BYU.
Thomas: Matt Harris and Newell Bringhurst were very patient with us. But that was not what they were looking for. Ironically, if we had submitted that same article–if I had accepted the BYU invitation, I think if we had submitted that same article to BYU, they would have accepted it. And I would have never predicted that. I would have never predicted that. I had misconceptions.
GT: So is BYU liberal now? Is that what you’re trying to tell me?
Thomas: I don’t–committed to engaging in the academic disciplines more broadly, I think is the way I would put it.
GT: Because there is a movement that says BYU is going too liberal. They’re too secular and they need to become more conservative.
Thomas: I can see why people might say that. It surprised me. I think that article would have been, as it was written, would have been acceptable, whereas…
GT: You know the conservatives are going to watch this video and they’re going to say, “Look, even Thomas says that BYU is too liberal.”
Thomas: I did not use those words. Those are your words. [Rick chuckles] But I do think there’s an opening to engagement at BYU that, I think is actually more difficult for people like Matt Harris and Newell Bringhurst than it is for Brenden Rensink and Jane Hafen. It’s puzzling and interesting why, and I’m not sure I know all the answers. They need to speak for themselves on these issues.
Is BYU becoming too academically liberal? Were you aware Indian slavery was widespread? Did you know Mormons held Indian slaves in Nauvoo?