I always read the MacArthur “genius” grant lists with great interest. They uncover people who are making great marks on the world in their chosen fields, but are usually out of the spotlight. This year the name that jumped out at me was Tiya Miles. I was intrigued with the description of her as a “public historian” illuminating the meaning of “ancestry and citizenship.” There was a personal connection for me, too, as the particular history she’s unearthed has resonance with the world of my childhood in Oklahoma, the former Indian Territory.
I grew up hearing a family legend about a Cherokee ancestor, though it was transmitted with little detail or enthusiasm. Tiya Miles’ African-American grandmother also had such a story, and she told it with pride. She had endless stories, and the vital link she made between past and present inspired her granddaughter. Tiya Miles took up the study of history. Then, as a graduate student, she stumbled upon the little-remembered history of some Native Americans, Cherokee landowners who held African-American slaves.
This is of course not merely a story about Cherokee people and black people but about all of us, all of our ancestors. The Cherokee were deemed one of the “Five Civilized Tribes” by the American government of that era. Growing up on land first given to, then taken away from, these indigenous peoples, I never questioned the backhanded presumption in this label they were given. Now, in conversation with Tiya Miles, I learn that their honored status was earned and conferred in part because of their “civilized” behavior of holding slaves.
This memory is as tragically nonsensical as any in the institution of slavery — so hard to reckon with and make sense of, it seems, that it literally fell away. Tiya Miles’ curiosity was first captured by a footnote about what was described as the first Afro-Cherokee marriage. She doggedly pursued a nearly non-existent trail to discover that this “marriage” was between a middle-class Cherokee landowner in his 40s and a teenage slave girl he had bought or procured by force. He had five children by her. He later won their freedom, but he never made her free. In arguing for their children, in fact, he proclaimed publicly that he had “debased” himself by bringing them into the world through union with her.
Tiya Miles’ other ground-breaking research has unfolded across a number of years at the Chief Vann House in Georgia — a grand antebellum plantation owned by a wealthy Cherokee chief. She is a lover of old houses. She knew that slaves worked this plantation as every other. But when she went for a tour of the house and its history in the 1990s, no mention was made of these hundreds of human beings who yielded the abundance of that land. They had been forgotten, nearly erased from memory. Tiya Miles vowed to create a more ethical telling of their story.
She is keenly aware of the complexity, indeed the multitudinous slippery slopes, of setting out to tell a story — any story — more ethically. As an historian, she is nearly haunted by her knowledge that every story can be told differently from many different angles. Her approach is fresh and innovative — and the emerging field of public history is distinctive — in its insistence on setting stories this painful in a context that can hold both the hardest truths and the seeds of their own healing.
I love the idea of looking more deeply at history to find vital openings, new possibilities, for starting fresh in the present. In the history of this radio program, my conversations have revealed this possibility over and over again — from looking more closely at Charles Darwin in order to reframe the “science-religion” divide or how Kwame Anthony Appiah has looked at history to see the surprising ingredients that allow profound societal and moral change to happen. I take heart in Tiya Miles’ learned insistence that even the most painful and divisive history is about “conjoined realities” — and that a wide historical lens will always reveal human beings’ connections to each other as something more generous than the darkest moments of our past.