Skip to main content

Navajo Surgeon Dr. Lori Arviso Alvord.

Dr. Lori Arviso Alvord is the first Navajo woman surgeon. She is the author of the new book "The Scalpel and the Silver Bear." (Bantam) In her practice, she combines modern surgery with ancient Navajo healing practices. Born and raised on a reservation near Gallup, New Mexico she now serves as an assistant professor of surgery at Dartmouth Medical School in Hanover, New Hampshire.


Other segments from the episode on June 30, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 30, 1999: Interview with Lori Arviso Alvord; Interview with Kevin Bales.


Date: JUNE 30, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 063001np.217
Head: The First Woman Navajo Surgeon
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest is the first Navajo woman to become a surgeon. Dr. Lori Arviso Alvord says that puts her in the rare position of being able to see clearly two different styles of medicine, and relate to them both. One style relies on technologically advanced Western medicine, in the other people are healed by songs, herbs and ceremonies.

Dr. Alvord grew up on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico just one mile from the Gallup Indian Medical Center where she later practiced for several years. She studied medicine at Stanford University after doing her undergraduate work at Dartmouth. She recently returned to Dartmouth to serve as associate dean of student and minority affairs and associate professor of surgery.

She's written a memoir called "The Scalpel and the Silver Bear." I asked her what kind of medicine she was brought with as a child, traditional healers or Western doctors.

DR. LORI ARVISO ALVORD, AUTHOR, "THE SCALPEL AND THE SILVER BEAR": We were treated through the Indian health service, which is a component of the public health service and is a system of healthcare that is very similar what you see in the Veteran's Association hospitals now; run by the government.

At times it was not as sophisticated a type of medical treatment as many people would expect. We had very meager facilities, doctors who were only there for a couple of years and then left. So, there was no buildup of a doctor-patient relationship often times.

But -- but our family consulted traditional healers once or twice during the time that I was raised, but not on a regular basis. We were not raised in the most traditional fashion.

GROSS: Now, you say that at the basis of the Navajo philosophy of healing is a concept called "walking in beauty." Would you explain what that is?

ALVORD: "Walking in beauty" is not beauty in the sense that you think of it in the Western definition, which is normally an aesthetic sort of beauty. It is more easily defined as something like walking in harmony or in balance.

And what it means is that a person's illness or health is really defined by whether they're in harmony or in balance with all of their world. And so being out of balance can cause illness or a community being out of balance can cause an illness, or a nation.

So that can apply to your physical body, it can apply to your mind or your spirit. Any of those things which are not in harmony can cause illness as well as your relationships to your family, to your tribe and community; to the environmental world; the world of the animals, which we consider to be brother and sisters; or any part of the planet.

And it's a whole way of looking at a worldview that encompasses illness and wellness in many different aspects. This is a worldview where medicine and religion are -- are almost the same. They are not separated in the minds of the people.

GROSS: When you started off as a surgeon did you originally plan to integrate aspects of traditional Navajo healing with what you had learned about medicine in your studies at Stanford and Dartmouth?

ALVORD: Absolutely not. In my mind my Navajo beliefs, my traditional ways of thinking about life and medicine were in one part of my mind and they were separated completely from what I was learning in medical school and what I was learning at Dartmouth and Stanford.

And I think that it took me a degree of maturity and a degree of awareness of being in medicine probably after I finished my surgical training. It took me probably another three or four years before I began to realize that they had meaning for one another and that one could learn a lot from the other.

GROSS: Was there any one case that was a turning point for you?

ALVORD: I describe that in the book, actually. Yes, there was a case that brought it all home for me. And this was a case where I was asked to step in at the last minute to operate on a patient. And it was another surgeon's patient. I didn't know this person at all. I had not created a relationship with her.

She was afraid of Western medicine. She was a traditional Navajo woman who came -- who do not understand our technology and did not speak English. And she came and I operated on her gallbladder, and it was a very difficult operation.

There was incredible various problems that happened during the case, we had too much bleeding, we had a very difficult dissection. And there were problems in the operating room between the team members; between myself and the nurse -- nursing staff. Arguments, voices raised, swearing; all of the bad things that can sometimes happen in an operation.

And yet we got through it. We didn't cause any harm. We finished the case. Then over the next 24 hours the patient went on to have a major stroke. And she was paralyzed on one side of her body and she couldn't speak.

And it became so clear to me that many of the things that I had done had caused disharmony for this patient. That it caused her to be in a situation where so many -- so many of the philosophies of Navajo ideas about harmony and trying to create healing were violated.

And I was -- I was devastated. I decided that I would change my practice. I would change the way that I behaved as a surgeon. I looked at all of the things that I was doing as a Western practitioner and realized that they were many, many things that I was not doing in the best way that I could; particularly with my relationship with other staff members, the nurses.

And I made a promise to myself that I would respect them. That I would treat them as equals and as team members. And that I would create relationships with my patients so that they trusted me. They understood the operation. And they were mentally and physically and sometimes spiritually ready for the surgery.

GROSS: My guest is Dr. Lori Arviso Alvord. She is the first woman of the Navajo tribe to become a surgeon. She's written a new memoir called "The Scalpel and the Silver Bear."

When you were working in Gallup, New Mexico in a clinic that treated Navajo people, I'm wondering if you ever worked in conjunction with a medicine man.

ALVORD: We had many medicine men that referred patients to the hospital. We would have our patients come and they would tell us that a certain medicine man had said, for instance, that they had gallstones and that they could only treat them so far, but then the patients would have to come and have an operation.

And the patients were quite clear before they walked in the door what was wrong with them, and they were almost always right. So, we had referrals back and forth. And when I had a patient who practiced in the traditional fashion, who -- because there are Navajos of all different sorts these days. There are very modern, progressive Navajos. There are Christian Navajos. There are Navajos who believe still in the traditional ways.

But if I had Navajo people who still lived and believed in their traditional belief systems, then I would encourage them to be prepared before their surgery to visit their own medicine man. And to perhaps have a ceremony before the surgery to put them in the best possible place in their minds and their spirits before they went on to have an operation.

GROSS: Now, did most of the medicine men who you were familiar with approve of high-tech modern medicine?

ALVORD: You know, they're fairly astute, and I think that they feel that some of these diseases were brought by white people and that they are best people treated by white people's medicine. And so, yes, I think that they don't have a major problem with it.

There are some very traditional people who still believe that to cut a person, to do an operation, is a violation of the body of the person, and a violation of the beliefs. And I do come across that from time to time.

GROSS: Well, you talk about cutting a person performing surgery as being perhaps the most intimate physical relationship you can have with another person. So...

ALVORD: ... yes.

GROSS: I'm not sure what my question is but -- no, it really is quite a responsibility when you're performing surgery on somebody.

ALVORD: Yes. The -- to be allowed to put your hands inside another person's body is to me one of the -- one of the most sacred things that you can do, and it should be respected. And you should do it in such a way that you show honor and respect for the person that you're operating on.

And that you are doing it in the way that is least harmful, and we've done that for centuries. "First do no harm" is our Hippocratic oath, but it goes on. It goes on to a deeper level, that perhaps in order to do things in the way that is best for the patient that we really do take a different attitude to what we're doing.

GROSS: Now, you say that a lot of Navajo people don't like to, for instance, talk about death because there's this fear that you can speak something into existence. And if there is this fear about talking about death, did that make it difficult for you to address certain things that you felt needed to be addressed before a major operation?

ALVORD: That was a very difficult problem. And it's actually been written about in the Journal of the American Medical Association by some of the doctors who worked out on the Navajo reservation. Because the medical profession is, as I'm sure you're probably aware, has been advocating the use of DNRs, which is the do not resuscitate clauses. And DNR statuses or living wills for patients when they come into hospitals.

And it is just something that Navajos do not expect to be asked about. What I did, because there was this belief that I should not ask them, for instance, "well, what would happen if you were seriously ill, would you want us to let you die or would you want us to put you on life support?"

What I would say, rather than talk directly about them as the patient it was happening to, would be to say, "sometimes when we do this operation there are certain things that can happen that might go wrong. And if this happened to a certain individual these are some of the things that might happen to them."

And I might go through the different scenarios and then tell them what we would like to know is that if this happened to a particular individual, what do you think should be done with that person? And then if they told us that then we could say, "and would that also be something that you would also believe for yourself."

In that way it is so directly aimed at them as the possibility in their mind that those things would happen to them.

GROSS: My guest is Dr. Lori Arviso Alvord. She is the first woman of the Navajo tribe to become a surgeon, and after having worked at a medical center in Gallup, New Mexico that served the Navajo populations she is now Dartmouth's dean of student affairs and assistant professor of surgery.

Her new book is called, "The Scalpel and the Silver Bear." Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Dr. Lori Arviso Alvord. She's the first woman of the Navajo tribe to become a surgeon, and she has tried to incorporate aspects of traditional Navajo medicine along with the latest advances in high-tech medicine. Her new memoir is called "The Scalpel and the Silver Bear."

Now, you were at the clinic in Gallup working on the Navajo reservation when a mysterious flu that many of us read about in newspapers around the country -- this mysterious flu was actually killing people. It was later diagnosed as a hantavirus that was being spread through, I think, mouse feces.

As the doctors were trying to figure out what was going on, medicine men were trying to diagnose the problem too. And before it was diagnosed as a hantavirus what did the medicine men come up with?

ALVORD: Some of the Navajo physicians actually went to the medicine men to find out what they thought was happening. We were seeing young people in their 20s contracting an illness and dying of that illness within 24 hours, and none of us knew what was causing the problem.

There was an element of fear. There was an element of sometimes hysteria because people would start to contract flu symptoms and the next day they were dead. The Navajo physicians went to the medicine men, and the medicine men said that they saw too much rain in the season. And the Navajo physicians probed them even further and they said, "well, what imbalances will that cause."

And they said, "the rain will lead to an overgrowth, an overabundance of pinyon nuts. And the overabundance of pinyon nuts will lead to an increase in the mouse population. And the medicine men said, "look to the mouse."

And so one of the Navajo physicians, Ben Yanetta (ph), worked for the CDC. He went back to the CDC, and I suspect they may have thought he was crazy. But he said, "we need to look at the mouse." And so, they did.

And they found the hantavirus was actually being harbored within the mouse, and that's how they were able to break the case. And it was very strong epidemiological and observational skills on the part of the medicine men that led them to make the correlation. And they said that historically they remembered two previous outbreaks just in exactly the same cycle.

I believe in 1933 and in 1918 when people died of a mysterious illness very similarly and the same sequence of events had happened.

GROSS: Now, you are the first woman of the Navajo tribe to become a surgeon. I imagine being a Navajo treating Navajo people was a very good thing because you understood certain customs, you understood certain beliefs and could just work with that without making a big fuss about it.

I'm wondering though if being a woman was an obstacle in any way. If there was any element of sexism that you had to face among Navajo on the reservation.

ALVORD: The sexism that I've had to face has come from working with the non-Navajo patients, actually.

GROSS: Mmm-hmm.

ALVORD: Our culture is matriarchal and matrilineal. And for those that don't know what that means, it means that the women have a very strong position in society that you take your identity from your mother's family almost as though you took your last name from your mother's family.

You take your clan, which is like a mini tribe within the tribe, from your mother's side. You're -- all of the children belong to the women. There is never a custody dispute. That is known within the culture. The woman own the land. The women own most of the major resources and livestock.

So, to be powerful as a woman in the Navajo world is to be -- is the expectation. But in the non-Navajo world, yes, I've seen that time -- not as much actually as I thought I would see it. But I do come across it once in a while.

GROSS: Now, you mentioned how powerful women are within the Navajo community. Your mother is white, your father was Navajo. But your mother, since she was in her late teens, lived on the reservation.

ALVORD: Correct.

GROSS: With your father. And I'm wondering if that affected your stature within the Navajo community that you were raised.

ALVORD: Yes. To be in between, to be part of one culture and part of another was -- did effect us in the sense that there were times when I felt on the margin. There were times when -- a large number of Navajo children at the time that I was being raised were told to abandon their language, were not -- or not taught the language.

The schools were teaching assimilation. And this happened actually to my father and even somewhat to my grandmother. The children were told to forget anything they learned at home regarding their culture.

And so, it was with a sense of despair sometimes that when we didn't -- we were not raised initially to speak the language that I felt as though I didn't understand everything that was happening when people were speaking Navajo.

And I made it a lifelong goal to learn Navajo, and I'm not fluent but I do understand much more Navajo than when I was a child. Yes, that did affect my stature.

But I will say that my mother was greatly respected by the Navajo people and greatly loved. And I think that in the truest Navajo tradition of family, she was the strong one in our family, whereas my father was, if you will, the weaker sex. Because he struggled with issues of alcoholism and other stability issues.

And my grandmother, my father's mother, was also another tower of strength, if you will. She was a schoolteacher, very responsible woman in the community.

GROSS: Now that you're dean of student affairs at Dartmouth, which is your alma mater, do you find yourself often thinking back to confusing experiences you had as a young Navajo woman at an Ivy League college. You went from the reservation to an Ivy League college.

Do you think about those experiences and try to imagine what your students are going through now? I'm wondering if there was any one experience you went through that really crystallizes what you think some students are up against now.

ALVORD: I think that there are -- particularly there are Native American students who are coming into colleges all across the nation who are having immense degrees of culture shock when they leave their reservation and come into the world. There are differences in values. There are differences in the way that the social atmosphere that exists. Any number of things that they have to relearn or accommodate to.

And for me, it was very traumatic. I came from a very small modest town. People that had very, very little -- many people were in poverty. Our family -- our parents both had jobs and I don't think that our income was ever threatened.

But we didn't have the type of wealth that I saw here. These students mainly came from upper middle-class to upper class families. They were from a different world altogether. And I had a great deal of difficulty.

I was -- as I say in the book, I felt invisible. I felt that they did not even see me, that I was completely ignored, as did most of the native students here. We did get any sense of friendliness from this group of people. And there were class differences. There were racial differences. There were educational differences even.

We lived in two completely different worlds. I think that's a problem for students still.

GROSS: Dr. Dr. Lori Alvord, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

ALVORD: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Dr. Lori Arviso Alvord is the first Navajo woman to become a surgeon. She is now assistant dean of student and minority affairs at Dartmouth. Her memoir is called "The Scalpel and the Silver Bear."

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, D.C.
Guest: Dr. Lori Arviso Alvord
High: Dr. Lori Arviso Alvord is the first Navajo woman surgeon. She is the author of the new book "The Scalpel and the Silver Bear." In her practice she combines modern surgery with ancient Navajo healing practices. Born and raised on a reservation near Gallup, New Mexico, she now serves as an assistant professor of surgery at Dartmouth Medical School in Hanover, New Hampshire.
Spec: Women; Minorities; Medicine; Lifestyle; Culture; Dr. Lori Arviso Alvord

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: The First Woman Navajo Surgeon

Date: JUNE 30, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 063002NP.217
Head: Modern Slavery
Sect: News; Internationl
Time: 12:30

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

One way to make big profits in the global economy is to use slave labor. Unfortunately, there's a plentiful supply of slaves. My guest Kevin Bales estimates that about 27 million people are enslaved, more than all the people stolen from Africa during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Bales serves on the council of the group Anti-Slavery International, and has been appointed to the UN Human Rights Commission Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery. He teaches sociology at the University of Surrey in England.

Bales has traveled around the world documenting the new slavery, which he says is concentrated in Southeast Asia, Northern and Western Africa and parts of South America. Although there are some slaves in almost every country, including the U.S.

He's written a new book called, "Disposable People." He's found that the new slavery differs in several ways from the slavery of earlier centuries.

When the United States had slaves in the South slavery was legal here and in many other parts of the world. Slavery is illegal around the world now, so how does that affect the nature of the relationship between the owner and the slave?

KEVIN BALES, AUTHOR, "DISPOSABLE PEOPLE: NEW SLAVERY IN THE GLOBAL ECONOMY": It affects it in many ways. A lot of times slave holders will -- and notice I use the word "holders" instead of "owners" because owning slaves is illegal and people tend to avoid any kind of piece of paper or legal ownership. They want to keep that ownership, or that holding of slaves, secret.

But they'll often use some kind of a legal mechanism to hide people who are in slavery. They'll often have work contracts, which are completely false but kept so that they can show them to people if they come around to -- if any kind of inspectors or officials come around.

But of course the real differences between the slavery in the United States 150 years ago and those today, aren't so much to do with illegality. They're more to do with the real glut of potential slaves in the world today.

GROSS: What do you mean?

BALES: Well, since the Second World War, you know, we've had this population explosion. We've also had a kind of modernization and globalization of the world economy that's pushed a lot of this large number of new people into economic vulnerability.

Now, you get literally billions of people into a position of vulnerability and they become much easier to enslave if the governments in which they live simply don't enforce the laws against slavery. So, if there's corruption in a state, in a government, and there are plenty of people who are economically vulnerable, people who will use violence can use that violence to enslave others.

And that's exactly what's happening.

GROSS: In this global economy a lot of multinationals produce their products in developing countries where the labor is really cheap. Do you have any reason to suspect that any multinationals actually benefit from slave labor?

BALES: Well, yes, I do. It has to be said that it would be very rare, and I can't say that I know of any multinationals that are directly using slave labor. What's happening is that multinationals subcontract in developing countries and they subcontract people who do use slave labor.

And those bits of raw material that might be processed up and then sold on to multinational companies can sometimes use slave labor. The best example of that is probably in Brazil, where the international steel industry of Brazil uses charcoal, which is produced primarily with slave labor in Western Brazil.

GROSS: So, the multinationals don't necessarily directly hire the slaves, but they subcontract to people who do.

BALES: That's right.

GROSS: And therefore the multinationals benefit from the cheap or free labor, yeah.

BALES: I think we have to face up to the fact there's a good chance we all may be benefiting, because if multinationals are benefiting from cheap raw materials because they're subcontractors are using slave labor then any of us who've got stocks and shares or pension funds, that sort of thing -- investments in these multinationals; it means that we're profiting from it as well.

GROSS: And it probably also means that sometimes when we buy a product that seems astoundingly cheap one of the reasons might be slave labor somewhere along the line.

BALES: Yeah, it's possible. Certainly, the situation in India is another example of this because in India in bonded labor, which is a kind of slavery, is used very extensively in agriculture. Now, this means that the price of food in India is incredibly low.

And it means that workers in and India, and in Pakistan it's the same situation, can be paid much less than workers in the West.

GROSS: What is bonded labor?

BALES: Bonded labor is when you're -- it's when someone takes a debt, borrows money, but as collateral against the debt they put up basically their whole life. And unfortunately, it's true that these debt bonds are accounted in a sort of fictitious way.

And it means that the debt can even be passed on for generations. So, a classic example of this would be an agricultural worker in India needs money perhaps to buy medicine for his children. So he goes to a landlord and says "I've got to borrow some money."

The landlord says, "I don't -- I can loan you the money but you don't have anything to put up for collateral except your own effort, your own work. So what you have to do his in a sense become a slave to me until this debt is paid off."

Now, the accounting on the debt is completely controlled by the landlord. The worker is usually illiterate. And this means that interest can be added, extra charges can be added. And at the end of the day the debt will grow, never shrink, against the work of the bonded laborer.

So, for example, in India I met people who had been bonded laborers all their lives, and the debt that they owed to the landlord was not one that they had contracted or their fathers, but their grandfathers had contracted the debt.

GROSS: Wow. So, they're still paying it off, and they probably never will pay it off.

BALES: It's very unlikely that they will. They -- in fact, usually the debt increases.

GROSS: Well, does the slave holder charge for room and board even though the person is being forced to stay there?

BALES: Usually not charged for room and board. But what they will do is that any other kind of emergency that might come up, another need for medicine for their children or perhaps some fertilizer or some new clothe or the cost of a funeral; the debt bonded slave will have to go back and say, "I need a little more money." And that will be added to the debt.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kevin Bales. And he is the author of the new book called, "Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy." We'll talk more after we take a short break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Kevin Bales is my guest. He's the author of the new book "Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy." He serves on the council of Antislavery International, and he's a member of the UN Human Rights Commission Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery.

You make some very interesting comparisons between slavery as it was managed back in the days when slavery was legal in many parts of the world, and slavery as it's handled now. You say that slaves used to be owned for life and now slavery is a much more short-term proposition, and a lot of slaves are considered disposable.

What do you mean by that?

BALES: Well, I have to say I mean that quite literally. Slaves are now so cheap that they've stopped being any kind of investment, and they're really more like buying, you know, a plastic pen or a throwaway lighter.

They're the cheapest they've been in the entire history of the planet as far as I can tell looking through all the histories. There's such a glut of potential slaves since the population explosion since the Second World War that slaves have just fallen in value to the point that you can buy a slave for a tiny fraction of what a slave might have cost 150 years ago.

Shall I give you an example?

GROSS: Sure, please.

BALES: Well, if we went back, say, to 1850 in the state of Mississippi you could buy a slave for -- an average slave would cost about $1,000. Now, in modern money $1,000 in 1850 is about $60,000 to $80,000. So, you can see that they were making a sizable investment.

Today, you can buy a slave similar to the one you might have bought in Mississippi in 1850 for, say, $50 to $100. And that's current money. The price of slaves is so low that they're no longer investments. They're simply additions to the money making process.

And it means that when you're slave gets sick or gets unruly or simply isn't needed any more, you can just dispose of them.

GROSS: What does "dispose of them" mean, fire them or something worse than that?

BALES: Well, usually something worse. Sometimes not, but often something worse. The -- you know, many slaves when their usefulness is gone are just abandoned. That's certainly the case in Brazil, people are just left out in the forest. People drive away and leave them out in the forest and they have to find their way somehow, sometimes more than a 1,000 miles back to their homes.

In other situations though, particularly when slaves are troublesome, often it's easier just to kill them. And certainly there are slaves around the world who are killed because they don't really want to be in slavery.

In Thailand, where I visited -- I looked carefully at the working-class brothels in Thailand where young women are enslaved, you know, the dumping of these young women usually occurs when they test positive for HIV.

GROSS: And by "dumped" that means they're just...

BALES: Thrown out.

GROSS: Mmm-hmm.

BALES: They're just thrown out onto the street. And...

GROSS: ... I mean, that sounds like it could be a change for the better.

BALES: Well, yes, it's possible. I suppose -- yes, it could be a change for the better. And sometimes it is. I have to say sometimes it is. It's a kind of -- it's a kind of liberation. It's probably not the best kind of liberation, but it's a kind of liberation.

Of course, now they're trying to deal with the fact that they're HIV-positive for these girls in Thailand. And it's a pretty tough challenge for them.

GROSS: And I imagine having been in servitude and prostitution doesn't exactly help them get new jobs or even reunite with family.

BALES: That's exactly right. And you know, it's curious that we have in the Western countries, in the northern countries, a lot of thought and time has been given to developing ways to help people who have been traumatized, say, through domestic violence or from exposure to other forms of violence.

But there is no sort of discipline for the counseling of liberated slaves. No one's actually working on the best ways to help counsel or bring therapy to people who have been liberated out of slavery.

GROSS: Now, another interesting comparison you make between what slavery used to be and what it is now, you say that slaves used to be, "the other." And they were considered "the other" either because they were from a conquered population or they were from a different country or different ethnic group -- they looked different. And that would help the slave owners rationalize and justify the fact that they owned slavery.

But now you say it's just purely an economic proposition, there's not necessarily any kind of, you know, ethnic or racial difference.

BALES: There is some ethnic and racial differences, but they've ceased to be very important. And a lot of times those ethnic and racial differences are in fact just standing in for economic differences. So that, you know, if we go back to India for a moment or to Pakistan -- but Pakistan is a good example.

A large number of the people who are enslaved in the brick making industry are Christians in Pakistan. But there are a lot of Christians who are not enslaved. You know, they're not being enslaved because they're Christians and because they're ethnically different for that reason, they are being enslaved because they're economically vulnerable.

And of course in many countries of the world there are people enslaving people of their own ethnic group. So that in West Africa people are enslaving people of their own ethnic group. And the same is true in Thailand or India.

GROSS: Now, you say that a lot of the new slaves are slaves because they're so economically vulnerable. In many parts of the world women are particularly vulnerable both economically and sexually. Do you think that women are more vulnerable in terms of getting sold into slavery?

BALES: Oh, I think that almost goes without saying. The economic vulnerability of women. And particularly the way they are -- women are seen in some cultures means that they are -- their value is diminished. And so you have -- and again, Thailand is a perfect example of this; families selling young girls into slavery in a way that they would never do with boy children. They'll sell girl children into slavery.

GROSS: What would parents get for a girl, for a daughter, they were selling into slavery?

BALES: In Thailand for -- I'm sorry to have to say it in these ways, but for a nice looking young girl, say of 13, 14; something around $1,000. Or sometimes merchandise, sometimes a new refrigerator or color television.

GROSS: Have you never spoken to a parent in Thailand who sold their daughter into slavery?

BALES: Yes, once. I had a conversation with the mother of a 15-year-old girl who had been enslaved into prostitution in Eastern Thailand.

GROSS: What did she tell you about it?

BALES: Well, you know , she said that, she rationalized, I mean, and this is of course the case with, I have to say, with slave holders as well. They have tremendous powers of rationalization, but she said that, you know, the family needed his money and that it was unfortunate that she had to sell Seri (ph) in this way, the girl's name is Seri.

That she had known other families though who had successfully sold girls into prostitution and that she hoped that some day she would be able to come back and join them in the village. But I have to say she wasn't very forthcoming -- she wasn't very forthcoming. She didn't like the line of questioning.

GROSS: And have you spoke to young women who were sold into slavery by their parents?

BALES: Oh, yes. Though I have to say that, staying on these young women in Thailand, it's important to remember that they are fundamentally Buddhist young women. And as part of their religious orientation they move quickly to an attempt to accept what has happened to them.

So often by the time I would speak to them they would say, well, obviously this is my fate. This is my karma. I don't know what I've done in a previous life to lead to this turn of events, but it's something I'm just going to have to accept.

GROSS: And you interviewed slave owners; were you able to talk with them about their rationales for owning slaves?

BALES: Yes. Particularly in Pakistan and India. Again, I didn't say I'm here to study slavery. I tended to say I'm here to study agriculture. And I would get slave holders talking about their crops and their livestock and let them come around to the question of labor.

But, you know, the kind of rationalizations that I got were exactly the sort that you might read -- that were written by someone in Alabama in 1850. They would say, "you know, these people if we didn't take care them they'd just completely mess their lives up. You know, if you give them any money they'd drink it up, they're illiterate and they're really not educatable (ph). And they don't know how to control themselves, they don't know how to live their lives. And really, we're like fathers to them. We take good care them. If it weren't for slavery they'd be in big trouble."

GROSS: That has a familiar ring to it.

BALES: Yeah, didn't it? I was -- I was kind of shocked sometimes when my interpreter in India would come back with these words that sounded just exactly like things I'd read coming out of the deep South of 150 years ago.

GROSS: Throughout history there have been stories of slave rebellions. Are there equivalents today?

BALES: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Particularly in countries like India and Pakistan where bonded laborers have begun to work together to liberate themselves. Now, in many ways it's easier because remember that in the past we were talking about slave rebellions in a situation in which slavery was legal, now if those bonded laborers or slaves who want to get out of slavery can swing government support behind them it makes it much easier for them to get out of slavery.

That's a crucial question though, because one of the key ingredients to slavery around the world is governmental corruption.

GROSS: My guest is Kevin Bales, author of a new book about the new slavery called, "Disposable People." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kevin Bales. He is the author of the new book, "Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy." He also serves on the council of Antislavery International and he's a member of the UN Human Rights Commission Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery.

Do you have any suggestions on what the international community could do to try to stop contemporary slavery?

BALES: Well, I've got a few ideas. One of the things I did in this book was to look very carefully at the economics of new slavery, of contemporary slavery. Because we tend to think of it as a human rights outrage, and of course it is a human rights outrage, but people don't enslave others to be mean to them.

People enslave other people because they want to use them economically. And I think we've got to come to understand the economic links all along the product chain which tie possibly us in the Western world, in the Northern world, to slaves and the developing world. That's one thing.

That operates in a number of levels. So that you have an organization like the World Trade Organization, which is able to put economic sanctions on countries and governments. At the moment, the WTO charter doesn't include putting sanctions on a country because of human rights violations, only because of financial or commercial violations.

I think one of the things that we need to do right away is to move in that direction, is to include human rights, and particularly slavery, as one of those things that means that the WTO can use to impose economic sanctions on countries where slavery exists.

GROSS: Now, I know some -- some, I guess charities are trying to buy slaves away from their owners. But that's actually very controversial. What's the controversy about?

BALES: Well, gosh, you're right it is very controversial. In Sudan there has been the enslavement of Christian tribes in the south of Sudan by Muslim tribes from the north of Sudan. And it's all part of the civil war which has been going on in the Sudan for a long time

There are some American Christian organizations which have been involved in going to Muslim slave holders and buying back large numbers of these enslaved Dinka tribespeople. Now, of course, you know, it is controversial because if we look on the positive side, yes, they are buying people out of slavery. The people are being liberated. They are freed and able to return to the villages that they were captured from.

But on the negative side of course, and I've seen -- I've seen documentary footage of this, they're handing over a lot of money to people who are involved in capturing and holding and exporting slaves. In a sense, they are feeding into the slavery system.

Also, it has to be said that liberating people really isn't enough. You know, being enslaved is like suffering -- is suffering a very terrible trauma. And these people need rehabilitation. And they need, usually, counseling and therapy as well.

Buying them out of slavery is just the first step. If you really want to change their lives and make them secure against future enslavement, you've got to rehabilitate them financially as well. Now, I don't see that happening. And that's one of the reasons I worry about this process.

GROSS: I guess it doesn't really do much to change the slave system, because if you buyout, say, 15 slaves from this one slave holder he makes a profit and then uses the money to buy new -- to buy new slaves. And maybe he'd buy the new slaves at a cheaper rate than he was paid to liberate the old ones, so he still ends up making a profit and getting fresh blood.

BALES: Well, that's right. And of course, in fact, the introduction of this Western capital has been driving the price up not down. Though it has to be said that the other international pressure on Sudan has been causing that civil war to die back a bit. And diminishing the situation, in which violence can be used to enslave other people.

But it's still a very tricky situation in Sudan, and they're still a lot of people with guns who are happy to go out and capture others and enslave them.

GROSS: Were you ever put on the spot by a slave who asked you to help buy them out?

BALES: No, I'd say never. Never. Remarkably, I think I sort of had to think about it a lot before I went out to do the fieldwork. And I thought that this might happen. But in fact I find -- I found slaves remarkably resigned to the situations they were in, hoping for the best but understanding that it could be a long haul before they got out.

GROSS: What had you resigned to do if somebody did ask?

BALES: Well, it would have to be determined by the situation. There were certainly cases in Thailand where I would meet very young women who were enslaved into prostitution. The situation there was horrific to say the least. You know, these young girls were sold to 15 to 20 man per night and brutalized in the meantime.

And my -- any person, I think, any human being's inclination would be to try to take them out of that situation instantly. But it's also true that had I tried to do so my informants would have been under threat of violence if not death. And that it would have been probably about helping one person in a way that meant that I was not able to help, I hope, thousands by making an expose of the situation which is there.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for sharing some of your findings with us about new slavery. Thank you.

BALES: Certainly.

GROSS: Kevin Bales is the author of the new book "Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy." He teaches at the University of Surrey in England.

I'm Terry Gross.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, D.C.
Guest: Kevin Bales
High: Kevin Bales is a leading expert on the modern day practice of slavery. He is author of the new book "Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy." Bales is a principal lecturer at the Roehampton Institute, University of Surrey, England.
Spec: Human Rights; Economy; World Affairs; United Nations; Lifestyle; Culture; Kevin Bales

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Modern Slavery
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Private opulence, public squalor: How the U.S. helps the rich and hurts the poor

Pulitzer Prize winning author Matthew Desmond talks about the roots of American poverty and how he says so many affluent citizens benefit from government subsidies and exploitation of the poor. His new book is Poverty By America.


Songs by Iris DeMent, Sunny War and Margo Price speak urgently to the current moment

Whether it's the folk-protest music of Iris DeMent, the cutting-edge blues of Sunny War or the hard-charging Americana of Margo Price, these three artists create music that stands out.


From 'Almost Famous' to definitely famous, Billy Crudup is enjoying his new TV roles

Billy Crudup is an actor you've probably seen more than you realize. He won critical praise and an Emmy Award for his performance in the Apple TV series "The Morning Show" with Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon. His film credits include "Almost Famous," "Sleepers," "Jesus' Son," "20th Century Women" and "Watchmen," where he played a marvel comic superhero who's bald and blue.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue