Captives and Adoption


The capture of children and adults in war and by raiding parties was and still is a fairly common practice. They were occasionally intended as food, sometimes used as hostages, more often as slaves, and sometimes also adopted into the victorious tribe.

For example, the Nuer of the Sudan regularly raided the neighboring Dinka people for captives, but a high proportion of these were later adopted into the Nuer tribe by a formal ceremony and became totally integrated into the society and kinship structure, to such an extent that their Dinka origin was never mentioned, and their origin was completely undetectable to outsiders.

One of the very few differences between these Dinka-Nuer adoptees and the Nuer was that the Dinka-Nuer were not subject to the full extent of the exogamy rules for marriage. There are a number of examples in this directory of captives between different Native American tribes, Indians captured by whites and whites captured by Native Americans, as well as some from other places.

In some cases, for example the Janissaries and the Dinka, one group of people would become a regular source of captives for a specific purpose; often two tribes would raid each other for captives for years or centuries. The European and Arab enslavement of Black Africans is undoubtedly the most notorious and historically significant example of this practice (see Slaves).

In some societies an individual adopted captive was intended as a replacement for a dead adult or child, and would assume the identity and status of the dead person. This is a particularly famous aspect of the culture of the nations of the Iroquois League of the northeastern USA, where for centuries "mourning wars" were fought almost continually between the member nations and between them and other tribes, to obtain captives to adopt as replacements for dead tribal members. Following the introduction of European diseases and the terrible plagues these caused, with death rates of over 50% in the 1630s epidemics alone, mourning wars led in some areas to quite amazing adoption rates: some missionaries in the 1660s estimated that over 60% of the population of some villages were captive adoptees. The rate was so high that socialization of the new adoptees became impossible and the very fabric of the society was undermined.

In other cases captives were simply a source of exogamous marriage partners (i.e., women from outside the husband's own tribe or sub-tribe). Sometimes captives would manage to escape or be rescued, even after many years. In other cases however, the captives became settled in their new identities with their new families, and would refuse to be uprooted even when offered the opportunity to rejoin their tribe of origin. In case the reader thinks this activity is confined to "primitive tribes", recent large-scale government-sponsored kidnappings of children include the Nazi Germany kidnappings of "Aryan"-looking Polish children, the organized abduction of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children in an attempt to destroy Aboriginal culture, and the Kinder der Landstraße scandal of 1926-73, when Roma children were stolen from their families in order to wipe out nomadism in Switzerland. The difference between these and the large-scale removal of children from Native American and Canadian Native homes is that in these latter cases the children were not simply stolen or kidnapped, but taken either after social services involvement or with parental consent. But any such distinction is academic:

-The government objective of cultural genocide was identical, if often hidden.

-The social workers and government officials who obtained "consent" from the parents or court orders alleging neglect were often deceitful or applied unfair pressure on the families.

-The children were subjected to similar levels of physical, mental, sexual and cultural abuse by their so-called benefactors in boarding schools and foster-adoptive families.

-The amount of dislocation to the native societies by removal of large numbers of children was similar.

-And the level of individual suffering to parents, siblings and the child victims was the same.

Below is a list of individual captives (excluding slaves) found in this directory.


Flood, René S. Lost Bird of Wounded Knee: Spirit of the Lakota. (New York: Da Capo Press, 1998) [A Native American captured by whites] Halowell, A. "American Indians, White and Black: The Phenomenon of Transculturalizaton," Current Anthropology, 4 (1963) Evans-Pritchard, E.E. The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940) "Indian Captives Book List." Available at: [1] "Kiowa." Available at: [2] Rousseau, David L.; and Mueller, Karl, "Peaceful Democrats of Pragmatic Realists: Revisiting the Iroquois League" Available at: [3] Colley, Linda. Captives: Britain, Empire and the World, 1600-1850. (London: Jonathan Cape, 2002)

See Also:

John Bemo James Caddell Cockenoe Sherman Coolidge John Davis Joseph Griffis Gülnüs Ummetüllah Henry Jackson Jumping Bull Henry Lehmann Mabon mab Modron William Mariner Alexander Michelowski Loki Mo Keen James F. O'Connell Pitt River Charley Pryderi Shenandoah Frances Slocum Aloizy Twardecki Helena Valero John Ystumllyn