MacArthur ‘Genius’ Dr. Tiya Miles Talks Cherokee-African American relations
Cherokee Indians disowning black tribe members forces look at slavery
Last week, University of Michigan history professor Dr. Tiya Miles was surprised when she got the call from the MacArthur Foundation that she would be a 2011 recipient of their highly coveted “genius” fellowship grants — a $500,000 no-strings-attached sum that is dispersed to fellows and stretched out over five years. The professor had been excavating many long-buried stories about the relationships between Cherokee Indians, enslaved African-Americans and free blacks over the the past few centuries in America. She is the author of several books, chapters and articles on the subject, including her first book “Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom,” which tells the story of a young African-American woman who was married into a Cherokee tribe, and also about how Cherokee women fought for her and her black children to have rights among the Cherokees. Miles plans to use the grant to further her studies, but delving into new subjects considering northern slave-holding states such as Michigan.
The award also came at an apt time given the citizenship status of black “freedmen” — the descendants of enslaved Afro-Cherokees — has been in question and was only just recently settled. Their citizenship will impact voting for a new Cherokee Principal Chief — a process that began September 24 and will collect votes through October 8.
The Loop 21 had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Miles, about the state of relations between African Americans and Cherokee Indians, the history behind it, and what the future brings.
Loop 21: The expulsion of the freedmen in 2007 — would it be accurate to describe that in terms of pure racism towards the descendants of slaves, or is it more complex than that?
Dr. Tiya Miles: I think that one aspect of this is a latent anti-black prejudice. And I have to say, Cherokees aren’t alone in this. What group in this country has not been affected by the anti-black prejudice that proliferates within our culture and has for our whole history? I think everyone is affected by this. And native people have really been targeted to be drawn into a heightened awareness of racial hierarchy and where they sit in that hierarchy. That’s an aspect people might not want to address directly. I think another issue is also a fear of depleted resources. This is a moment when everyone is concerned about economics and thinking about whether or not we’re going to see a double-dip recession, and how long the downturn will last. In this kind of environment I think people want to tighten their fist. And they want to think about how they can better their own small group. Perhaps to the detriment of minorities in that group — I think that’s going here too. And also the Cherokee Nation has legitimate reason to feel resentful — not to the descendants of freed people; I think they ought to be grateful to them since their ancestors helped build that nation — but resentful to the United States government. I think that the Cherokee’s feelings of resentment is legitimate when it’s directed toward the federal government, and I think it’s illegitimate when turned toward the descendants of slaves who helped the Cherokee nation to survive, who helped them to move across the Trail of Tears, who did the labor to make their journey that was awful, to make their journey less horrific, and who really built their wealth in Indian territory.
Loop 21: What are the moral problems with the Dawes laws that started this separation between Cherokee and black freedmen?
Miles: I think that most people who have looked at the Dawes laws and thought about them would acknowledge that these are really flawed lists of not only the Cherokee nation but also all Native nations. They are flawed in more ways than we can even talk about right now. First of all, Native people, for the most part, didn’t even want to be involved in the process. Of course that was a process started by the United States federal government to divide up tribal lands and individuals. This was a policy on the part of the government to break up native peoplehood, and to get them to feel like private property was all important to them, as opposed to communal property, or betterment of the entire group. From the very beginning this was something that native people protested and didn’t want. So it’s saddening that — and ironic — that right now in 2011 these lists that Native people didn’t even want to be involved in are now being used to legitimize things like taking away citizenship status from descendants of slaves — that’s only one part of the problem.
Loop 21: What other problems are there?
These rolls have no way of making a notation of the deep cultural relations between the freed people and Cherokees. These were black people who connected deeply with their Native American context. They thought of themselves as Cherokee men and women as opposed to thinking of themselves as American blacks. They even referred to black people who were moving in from the Southern states moving into Indian territory as “state Negroes.” They used this term as a way to distinguish between their own cultural context, which was the Native American one, and the cultural context of the Exodusters, people who were coming West, which was really an African-American one, one that connected them to a larger American context, not a Native American one. So these rolls have so many holes in them that it’s really a shame that we rely on them today to decide who should or should not be included in these nations.
Loop 21: Has there ever been a point in your research where you became so discouraged that you wanted to leave the subject altogether?
Miles: Yes, I’ve been discouraged. One time during a graduate seminar on Native American history, a colonial historian named James Merrell came to talk about his book about the Catawba Indians of South Carolina. I asked him about his research about blacks and Catawbas and he told us that he had been asked by the members of Catawba Tribal Council not to publish materials that gave evidence of black-Catawba intermarriage. I have to say, that to me was very disheartening to think that members of Native American nation would ever want to disavow that they had ever allied with or been intimate with African Americans when this was an important part of that history. To me it was a signal that native people just like all people in this country have been caught up in the racial hierarchy. It was very disheartening, but it was also discouraging because it made me want to keep digging and keep finding the information and perhaps start to rebuild those bridges. But my mother in that moment helped me straighten my back and get back to work, by telling me that that maybe I didn’t choose this topic, maybe it chose me. And I do feel like all of these people who are doing scholarship or creative work and remembering the experiences of our ancestors are helping us to respect them and bring back for them in their memory the regard that they should have had in their lifetimes but didn’t have in this country.
Loop 21: The U.S. Housing and Urban Development froze $33 million from the Cherokee nation. Did that move undermine Cherokee sovereignty?
Miles: I am no legal scholar, but my own personal opinion about this is that I would have been very disturbed if the U.S. Supreme Court came out and told the Cherokee Nation that you must do x, y and z. Because I think that would have definitely undercut Cherokee sovereignty. That’s not what happened, though. What happened was the U.S. government told the Cherokee government that they might be withholding funds. And that sounded to me like a nation-to-nation discussion, and that’s what sovereign nations do. So if China told the United States they were going to withhold funds from us would we say they are undercutting our sovereignty? Probably not. We’d be very upset, but we would say they have a right as a nation to do that. So while I think even though this whole situation and the way it was played out was ugly, and you have to admit that it was, it could have been much worse, if the United States government did in some direct way said you Cherokee nation must do x, y or z, but that didn’t happen. The Cherokee nation made a decision.
Loop 21: Was winning the MacArthur ever a dream or goal of yours when you were younger?
Miles: When I was much younger — and I have to say that I grew up in an amazing family that was really all about education — but even so I didn’t know that being a professor was a job that somebody could do! I didn’t know that until I went to college and one of my roommates was a child of professors. Let me tell you, I felt pretty intimidated then because I thought this was a whole world that I never knew about or had access to growing up. So even just to have this job being able to read, write and teach, think to me is a great privilege that I am very grateful for. In terms of the MacArthur Fellowship, of course, I knew that the people who had won it in the past, I was aware of it, but frankly I never thought I would be someone who would be considered for this. I was completely shocked when I got the phone call. I am so honored, I feel like the foundation and the anonymous nominators were just so generous to consider me for this.