Chapter 9: Ethnic Mixing & the Varieties of Slavery

(You can read the complete pdf of this chapter here: Blumenbach Ch9vW. The first few paragraphs of this chapter, without the footnotes, is presented below.)

The history of race and slavery in North America usually focuses on the Atlantic Slave Trade in which black Africans were the slaves, and Europeans or white Americans were usually their owners. However, there were cultures that practiced slavery in North America long before Columbus successfully crossed the Atlantic. One example was the Chinook people who lived on the north bank of the Columbia River in Washington State. The Chinooks were one of the Pacific Coast tribes who were visited by the Lewis and Clark expedition. Today there are only about 2,000 Chinook descendants scattered throughout the United States. They have not had a recognized chief for generations. Since 2009, Chinooks have been organizing hoping to be granted legal status as a tribe from the federal government. Back in 1986, when I was conducting research on the Morton collection of human skulls, I measured the internal volume of two Chinook skulls, which are illustrated in Figure 9.1 (See the pdf of this chapter). The skull to the left is a 40-year-old woman from Oregon. She has the normal rounded shape of any human skull. The skull to the right of hers was artificially flattened to make it more beautiful according to traditional Chinook standards. Morton described this skull as a 60-year-old “chief of Oregon.”

Morton frequently used the word chief describe old, male Native American skulls from his collection. I suspect he was exaggerating or else called any native man of authority a chief. However, Morton may have been correct in this instance. Traditional Chinook society was rigidly hierarchical with a ruling aristocracy who flattened the heads of their infants using two boards that worked rather like a large scale clothespin. A flattened skull indicated a high rank. Conversely, the naturally rounded head of the female was a sign of lower social standing. Morton described her as a “slave,” and indeed, Chinook society did include a hard pressed population of slaves. Modern, reliable sources report that this stigmatized underclass would be fed by having food thrown to them. When they died, other slaves would dump them in the woods to be eaten by scavengers. It was a cruel, inhumane system that enslaved people based on their caste rather than their race. In that respect, Chinook slavery was similar to that practiced by the noblemen of Kongo, or the Maori of New Zealand whose aristocracy (rangatira) ruled over both commoners (tutua or ware), and slaves (teurekarika). The two Chinook skulls I measured retained the marks of their caste system even in death. I suppose it is a bit of justice that for the last century-and-a-half, the slave woman has rested in a drawer next to the nobleman who in life would not have deigned to associate with her.

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