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Setting the Record Straight About Native Peoples: Kidnapping

Q: Did American Indians really steal people's children, or was that just something white people made up to scare their kids?
A: No, unlike many tales of Indian savagery, this one has a real basis in fact. It was common practice throughout the Americas to capture and adopt people from enemy tribes (particularly children, teenagers, and women). In a few tribes this was a traumatic kidnapping, sometimes involving a violent hazing ritual prior to adoption. In other tribes it was a mere formality, with eligible young women going out to a rendezvous point at night to be "carried off" by a neighboring tribe so they could find husbands there. In most tribes, intertribal kidnapping fell somewhere in between those two extremes--a well-established convention of war that simultaneously encouraged exogamy (new blood in the tribe) and ensured the safety of women and children on both sides. Most Indians tried to avoid being captured, but few captives tried to escape and there were few rescue attempts by their kinsmen, who could reasonably expect them to be well-treated and well-cared for. Mistreating someone once he or she had been adopted into a tribe was considered evil (many Indian legends and folktales revolve around some villain who abuses an adoptee and is punished for this misdeed). Adoptees usually also had full social mobility, and often wound up in leadership positions or married to an important person in their new tribe.

So was this a barbaric custom? Well, the Europeans were certainly horrified by it (particularly the English, who tended to consider a white woman being married to a nonwhite man offensive). On the other hand, the Indians were equally horrified to find that the Europeans routinely killed women and children while raiding Indian villages, and that when they did take captives, they were frequently treated as slaves. Each side definitely came away with the impression that the other was dishonorable at war and couldn't really be trusted. When both sides are in mutual understanding about it, the adoption of prisoners-of-war is a reasonable system that preserves life as well as ransoming them back does (and much better than taking no prisoners). When only one side assumed it was the standard, though, the end result was a lot of dead Indian civilians who had incorrectly assumed their safety would be guaranteed and a lot of grieving English families who had no way of maintaining contact with their loved ones or even knowing if they were still alive.

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