Indigenous history is revealed in “The Forgotten Slavery of Our Ancestors”

Teaching Tolerance hosted a Q&A session with the filmmakers of “The Forgotten Slavery of Our Ancestors,” on Oct. 7. The film, which is approximately 12 minutes long, delves into the lesser-known history of the enslavement of Native American peoples on their land, which was colonized into what we now know as the United States.

Teaching Tolerance is an online database and magazine that provides inclusive and anti-racist resources for educators. The Q&A session fufilled a segment of their educational resource series called Teaching Hard History: American Slavery. 

The film disclosed that the baseline estimate of enslaved Natives ranged from 2.5 to 5 million. Studies produced for the film found new documents from that time period and discovered those numbers are still rising frequently. This was a “major phenomena that shaped history in the Western hemisphere,” said Andres Resendiz, who is a historian featured in the film. 

The Indigenous were enslaved under various imperial powers, who murdered millions of their people. The method of Native enslavement would eventually provide the model for the enslavement of African and Black people. 

“Natives were the charter generation of slavery,” Resendiz said.

In fact, while the Civil War raged across the Eastern United States, Native slavery was thriving in the West. It is necessary to introduce this topic to grades six through 12, because as Wampanoag journalist Paula Peters said when featured in the film, “If you don’t know the whole story, you’re gonna walk away with a fairytale.”

The Q&A was facilitated by Meredith McCoy and featured the film’s director and editor Howdice Brown III, producer and educator Marie Acemah and host of the “Coffee & Quaq” podcast, Alice Qannik Glenn. The session started with a land acknowledgment, where the panelists and Zoom participants all shared the names of the tribes native to the land they resided on. This practice is increasing in popularity because it honors those who came first and acknowledges that we live in a settler colonial state. 

The intention of the film was to “honor those who came before us in the fight for justice” said Glenn. The filmmakers discussed the importance of including active participation of Indigenous people in the creation of the film.

Many of the historians interviewed in the film first learned of Indigenous enslavement via oral history passed down through their family. A theme emphasized throughout their discussion was celebrating tradition as an act of resistance. Resistance includes love, family building, culture and art. Discovering one’s native roots and immersing themselves in the traditions of their ancestors can be healing for many. This history is deeply painful to talk about, but it is necessary in order to reclaim the roots of Indigenous stewardship of the land. 

Acemah said that as a white woman, there is a deep personal responsibility to tell these stories and honor the truth about colonial history. All the filmmakers touched on the vulnerability that came with learning about Indigienous stories when creating the film. They said that during the filmmaking process, they were new to learning about Native slavery, just as the viewers of the Q&A were. 

Brown mentioned that with the time constraints of the film, it was difficult to edit down the many informative interviews they conducted, as well as narrowing down the film’s themes. The national denial about the history of Native enslavement makes learning this history ever so important. Furthermore, teaching this history to young, developing minds provides optimism that eventually as a nation, we can reconcile with our crimes and provide restitution to the Black and Indigenous peoples whose generational trauma still causes harm to this day. 

Glenn’s wish in creating the film is not to vilify anyone living today over the crimes of their ancestors, but to move forward and be better. She hopes to open the conversation and rely on communal storytelling to ensure America’s first families can be honored in the history of this country. 

This film is a beautiful reflection of the community that has been working to uncover these stories. “It can be really hard to learn the truth of this history – think about how hard it is to live under this collective lie,” Glenn said.

Her final thoughts were that knowledge is power. As educators, there is a responsibility to expose and support students as they navigate through this difficult content. All the filmmakers agreed they were “eager to see where these seeds land and where they grow.” 

To view the film, or for more educational resources, visit teachingtolerance.org. 

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