Ties That Bind: An Interview with Tiya Miles

Tiya MilesTiya Miles, now age 36, came to the Program in American Culture at the University of Michigan in the fall of 2002.  She is an Assistant Professor in the Program in American Culture, Center for Afroamerican and African Studies, and Native American Studies Program.  Miles is the co-editor with Sharon P. Holland of Crossing Waters, Crossing Worlds: The African Diaspora in Indian Country (Duke University Press, 2006).  Miles’s first book, Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom  (University of California Press, 2005), is an historical narrative that explores complex issues of race, ideology, and hegemony in the development of capitalism and nation-state through the lens of Cherokee-Afro-Cherokee relations in early- and mid-19th-century America.

Ties That Bind crosses boundaries of cultural and racial prescriptions by arguing that, while “much of nineteenth-century Cherokee history has been written as a story about Cherokees and whites, it was an invisible third element, the presence of black people, on which the story often turned” (24).  Miles accomplishes a powerful and innovative integration of scholarship, literary fiction, and her own narrative voice, constructing a strong model for historiographical creativity.  The issues and dynamics of race, class, identity, and social violence Miles presents are of great consequence in terms of contemporary intercultural relationships and their possibilities.

In 2006, Ties That Bind was awarded the Frederick Jackson Turner Award from the Organization of American Historians.  What follows is an interview with Miles about her educational background, academic life, scholarship, and the complex political and cultural issues immanent in Ties That Bind.

Lisa Arrastía LA: First, is Tiya pronounced with a long “i” sound or a long “e” or neither?
Tiya Miles TM: Long i.

Lisa ArrastíaFirst, let me pose some questions of demographics and academic background: Where were you raised?  Did you go to public or independent high school?  Where did you complete your undergraduate and master’s work?  What is your latest book project?  I know that you had support for your doctoral work at the University of Minnesota from David Roediger, Carol Miller and Jeani O’Brien, et al, but before the project began, what moved you in the direction of American Indian studies?  From where did this passion come, and particularly in relation to the Ties That Bind (TTB) project?

Tiya MilesI was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, but it is amazing to me that I never fully felt the import of the Ohio River as a borderland space until I was writing the Slave Motherhood/Beloved chapter of TTB.  I attended public school through junior high.  Then I was accepted into the A Better Chance program, which matched me with a private school that offered me a full scholarship for three years.  This was Middlesex School in Massachusetts.  For college I attended Harvard-Radcliffe, where I studied African American Studies; I attended Emory for my M.A. in Women’s Studies.

Before I started my doctoral degree at Minnesota, I knew that I wanted to study Native Studies in conjunction with African American Studies; I expected that my focus would be literature.  My interest in this subject matter was rooted in personal relationships and family history.  The particular project that became TTB began in Jean O’Brien’s classroom with a reading and discussion of James Merrell’s work on the Catawbas.  I had never read about the history between blacks and Indians that Merrell described, and I was moved but also quite disturbed by what I was learning.  I pursued this interest in a second research semester with Professor O’Brien in which I worked on the 18th-century narrative of John Marrant, a black man who described his captivity by Cherokees.  (That paper, much revised, is included in the new book edited by anthropologist Ann Laura Stoler, titled Haunted by Empire.)  The conceptual and theoretical ideas that would frame my telling of the history emerged for me in race and history classes with David Roediger and in Native Literature classes with Carol Miller.

Lisa ArrastíaThere are some white American Indian historians as well as white academics who focus their scholarly work on the anthropology, history, literature, and languages of people of color who might ask, Does Miles have the right to tell this story?  The question implies the notion of territory and cultural/historical ownership, of course.  It’s really in some ways a projection — this may be the question they are painfully asking themselves each step of the work, because they may be uncertain of the intention or appropriateness of their own scholarly interests.  What do you think about the issue of theright to tell, and for those who might ask, why do you feel you have “the right” to tell the story?

Tiya MilesI have been asked this question before, and in my view there are several ways of answering it.  First, while I do feel that knowledge is shaped and constrained by standpoint and that what I can “know” about this subject will be different from what a Cherokee woman or Afro-Cherokee man will perceive,  I do feel that it takes multiple visions to create a full picture of any reality.  Many people, Cherokee and non-Cherokee, have written about 19th century Cherokee history before me, and a few people have written about slavery in the Cherokee nation as well, but I hope that my addition to that body of work can help to create a richer picture that takes on greater depth due to its collective nature.

Second, my scholarly work has always centered on African American women’s experience; in college and in my master’s program, this focus resulted in undergraduate and master’s theses on 19th century black women’s literature.  I followed through with the Shoeboots family project in large part because I wanted to tell Doll’s story, and I must say that she has remained close to my heart (and as the work progressed, her daughter, Elizabeth, began to share that space) throughout.  My next book project, which is turning into a history of the famous Vann plantation in the Cherokee Nation, began because I was drawn emotionally and intellectually to the stories of particular black women who were enslaved there: Pleasant, Patience, and Grace.  Slowly, the Cherokee-Scottish mistress of the plantation, Peggy, is beginning to share space with these original three women at the center of the story, which has changed the way that I perceive the place and will change the way that I attempt to reconstruct the history.

Once, at a women’s history conference, a (black) friend and I were asked why we had chosen to do research on Indians.  I have to say that my friend and I were flabbergasted.  We had never viewed our work as being solely about Native Americans or solely located in Native American Studies.  We saw our work as being solidly rooted in African American Studies and the history of black slavery as well.  Therefore we were surprised that a person who was newly encountering our work could not recognize its intersectional intention and focus.

Lisa ArrastíaIn representing slave agency as well as Indians, Blacks, and Afro-Cherokees, was it difficult to maintain that delicate balance between the plausible aspects of their lives together that were co-constructive, encouraging, or affirmative and Cherokee-Black/Afro-Cherokee/slave discrimination and inequity?  I’m so glad you did, but I think some might want to know why you felt obliged to maintain the balance?

Tiya MilesI felt a heavy responsibility to tell both “sides” of this story as respectfully and fully as I could because I was attempting to translate the lives of two groups of subjugated people.  It would not have furthered a holistic understanding on my part or on the part of readers, nor would it have restored dignity to the many people in this story who had been degraded historically, to reproduce this irreverent treatment in my own representation.  To the extent that I have succeeded in maintaining a balance, I did so in large part by engaging in substantive revisions of certain sections in response to feedback by dissertation committee members and readers and in response to my own inner sense.

Interestingly, the weight of the feedback that I received in this regard was that I needed to be tougher on Cherokee slaveholders in my representation.  I think that because I was a black scholar and not a native scholar, I was trying to be especially careful about respectfulness to the Cherokee experiences in the story.  If anything, I think I may have struggled hardest and fallen short in my attempt to maintain balance and respect when I tried to reconstruct and interpret the stories of white figures (like Clarinda Allington) who were differently subjugated than the black, Cherokee, and Afro-Cherokee figures.

Lisa ArrastíaWe can see from TTB that opportunities for liberatory cooperation between Blacks, Afro-Cherokees, and Indians were far fewer after the Trail of Tears.  The Cherokee Nation was divided and energies were focused on meeting basic human needs and endeavoring to resurrect a traumatized and devastated Cherokee society, and the march and the complex web of Euro-American-American Indian sociocultural politics precipitating it had produced a Cherokee Nation West that battled within.  Today, the American Indian and Black communities seem so politically and socially disconnected — our histories, historical interrelationships, and common structural struggles are invisible in the Black community and I suspect in the Indian community as well.  In the introduction to TTB, you discuss the idea of envisioning a “conjoined liberation” between our two communities.  I believe you mean it as a historiographical emphasis, but I wonder about possibilities today.  You are so skilled at seeing “how things might have been” — can you use that ability to comment on the idea of envisioning a contemporary conjoined liberation, and how things could be between these two communities?

Tiya MilesThis is an inspiring question, and it is exactly where I am headed with one of my future essay projects.  I would like to try to rely upon reconstructions of 17th, 18th, and 19th century historical social relations between blacks and native people in Southern native confederacies to build culturally viable models that may work today for mediating disputes between native people and descendants of freedmen and women.  I am interested in looking further into the formational period of the Creek and Seminole confederacies, for example, and considering how and where “others” (Indians and/or blacks) were incorporated into these rather loose social/political/economic formations.  And I am finding direction and encouragement in this line of thinking from Native Studies scholars in my home department who are working on deconstructing the fixed (and often imposed) notion of “nation” in Native American history.  This is a place where I think and hope that the past can be effectively “usable” in the present.  I must add, though, that this is a subject where your “right to speak” question really seems at issue to me.  I am still trying to work that question out in this case that has so much to do with complex relationships in communities of which I am not a part.

Lisa ArrastíaTTB makes the argument that Euro-American attempts to force the cultural conformity of Indians were to sustain the hegemonic social ideology, capitalist ethos and practice in development.  How do you see Cherokee identity/racial formation as a direct product of white demands for social and economic participation in an Euro/Anglo-American hegemony?

Tiya MilesI think the history that I and others have reconstructed makes clear that an emerging capitalist ethos among a minority of Cherokees in the 19th century was propelled and compelled by European and Euro-American colonialism.  Before Europeans arrived, Cherokees valued relationships with tribal members, land, and animals over relationships with things or the unfettered pursuit of wealth.  As Europeans pushed the notion of “productive” work and wealth accumulation, relations among Cherokees began to change.  Cherokees became more stratified along class lines and even began to take family members to court over the distribution of wealth (especially “property” that existed in the form of enslaved blacks).  This stratification erupted into the violence of civil war for the Creeks and Cherokees both before and after Removal.  Recently, anthropologist Robbie Ethridge gave a lecture here at the University of Michigan on the Indian slave trade in 16th-17th century North America.  She argued that here, too, capitalist values (or lack thereof) distorted relationships among Indian tribes, leading native people to trade other native people to Europeans as slaves.  Cherokee (and native) cultural beliefs about kinship, shared resources, and the common good functioned as a brake system that slowed down the engine of capitalism, but still, a partial transformation of values, relationships, and behaviors took place.

Lisa ArrastíaHas TTB been read by a Black audience (i.e., a course in an African American Studies department or a predominantly Black high school)?  Not that you can speak for all African Americans, and I wouldn’t want you to, but how do you think the book would be received in southern Black communities?  In urban Black communities?  What do you foresee as potential hurdles and/or fluid associations?  In your preface, you discuss resistance to your project by a Great Plains elder.  Within this context, do you know what the response has been in Indian/Cherokee communities and among American Indian scholars since TTB’s publication?

Tiya MilesFor the most part I am still waiting to see responses from readers across the board, including Indian/Cherokee readers, so I cannot answer the last lines of the question at length.  I can say that a Cherokee activist who learned of my subject matter asked for a copy of the book while it was still in draft form.  He thought the model of Shoe Boots and Doll could potentially be helpful in his crafting of an argument in the Cherokee Court to support a lesbian couple’s marriage in the Cherokee Nation.  He wanted to refer to Doll and Shoe Boots’s partnership to indicate that, historically, Cherokees have had a flexible view of who could be married, even in the context of a larger American rigidity regarding marriage across certain racial lines.  These are the moments that I, and I’m sure many other historical researchers and writers, live for — an opportunity for our work to matter in the present by shedding light on the past.

In terms of reception by black readers: before the book was published, I gave a public presentation before a black/Black Indian audience in Oklahoma.  Audience members seemed to listen attentively while I spoke, but after the presentation I noticed that the listeners seemed to have misunderstood (possibly deliberately) my meaning.  They were resistant to the idea that the story of Shoe Boots and Doll indicated the enslavement and oppression of black people among Cherokees, as well as the presence of kinship alliances.  Perhaps they extrapolated from the story what they had expected or hoped to hear: evidence that close interracial relationships existed between blacks and native people, rather than a detailed and often disturbing description of how those relationships actually played out.  Last summer I was interviewed by Black Issues Book Review for an article on Afro-Native genealogy research; there again the focus was on discovering ancestral kinship links to Indians that would be inspiring and self-shaping for black people today.  This approach of affirming self and community certainly has some value, but in addition to the negative potential for objectifying and appropriating Native people and cultures, the search for an over-simplified “red-washed” history for African Americans is problematic.  This kind of approach minimizes the hardships and conflicts that our ancestors and cultural forebears faced, and I think we need to know the whole picture of the past in order to fully respect the experiences of our predecessors and in order to learn how to face the challenges of the present.  This is an aspect of the African American experience that Sharon Holland and I are trying to elucidate in our forthcoming edited collection — the meaning, potential, and problems of black Americans’ desire for connections with Native Americans.

Lisa ArrastíaIf you could ask one question of your readers that causes them to self-reflect before they begin the book, what would it be?  One question while reading TTB?  One question after?

Tiya MilesI think the questions I would offer at any stage of someone’s reading would be: What has race really meant in the history of what we now call the United States?  How has it shaped and misshaped (to borrow language from Paula Giddings in “The Last Taboo”) identities, relationships, and communities?  What is the price we have all paid, as a collectivity, for an ideology and related practices that were designed to exploit the many on behalf of the few?  And finally, can we imagine another and better way that confronts our racial past head-on, but does not continue to imprison us in historically constructed and destructive modes of relating in the present?

Lisa ArrastíaAny final thoughts, ideas, questions for your reading audience, general comments — is there anything you think we should know, remember, challenge ourselves to think or do?

Tiya MilesRecently, we all heard the stunning news that the Cherokee Court overturned their previous ruling and voted (in a split decision) to make it possible for descendants of freedmen and women to receive Cherokee citizenship.  This decision evidences the long-term, dedicated work of Cherokee, Afro-Cherokee, and black freedmen/women activists.  The ruling goes far in restoring faith in the ability for communities to reach out to one another in a spirit of restoration.  I think it is important for students of Afro-Native relations and for people who care deeply about the rebuilding of relationships between black and native people (and between other divided, subjugated groups) to inform themselves about this case, to celebrate its outcome with cautious optimism, to think about how the outcome can serve as a model for mediating similar conflicts, and to be prepared to serve as advocates of reconnection and healing in the future.  For more information on the case, readers can refer to the official notice on the Cherokee Nation website.

UPDATE, 12 March 2007:

When I last spoke with Tiya Miles for this interview in late 2006 “the Cherokee Nation’s highest court had ruled unconstitutional the Cherokee Nation’s law requiring citizens to trace their ancestry” to a person with either Cherokee, Shawnee, or Delaware blood.  Unfortunately, on 3 March 2007 a Cherokee Nation constitutional amendment “restricting membership to descendants of Indians listed by blood on the Dawes Rolls” was passed.  Please click on any of the links below for more information on this extremely adverse and regrettable decision, which in too many ways reifies false American notions of race and status through blood.

“Cherokees Eject Slave Descendants.” BBC News 4 March 2007.

“Slave Descendants Lose Tribal Status.” New York Times 4 March 2007.

“Freedmen to Challenge Ouster, Cherokee Funding.” Indianz.com 7 March 2007 (for full story go to “Descendants of Freed Slaves to Challenge Special Election”).

Lisa ArrastíaLisa Arrastía, founder and former director of a progressive charter high school in Chicago, has been teaching and leading creative educational programs in independent and public schools for the last fifteen years. She holds an MA in Education and a Certificate of Advanced Study in Educational Leadership (her work with youth is the focus of a 1999 Emmy-nominated public television documentary Making the Grade). Originally from New York City, Lisa currently teaches critical white studies and essay writing at the College of St. Catherine. Her essay, “Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?,” was included in Pearl Kane’s book The Colors of Excellence (Teacher’s College Press, 2003). Lisa’s non-fiction work examines postcolonial social formations in youth that derive from the intensification of whiteness under neoliberalism.

| Print