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. Map of Indian Territory (Oklahoma), 1885The 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.

South (rear) elevationTiya 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.

Tiya MilesShe 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.

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Our "connection( ) to each other" is our common "human nature", a body/mind/spirit continuum in reaction to the void. It has been thus since 'Eve' asked "Why am I?" and discovered there is no answer. The collected consequences of our different efforts to answer this question, to give meaning to our lives, is our common history. From the beginning it became increasingly "painful and divisive" and if we keep writing it with our conflicting, common efforts to fill the void the ending will be self-destruction. There is a possibility "for starting fresh in the present" if we have time. It is the "ideal reaction to the void". http://www.thelastwhy.ca/poem/

that's classic, there is nothing in the history which in and of itself adds up to "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" or Darwin which bridges the science/religion gap, this is the faith-conviction of the hostess that she projects onto every subject and then reports as a discovery.
It's fine to have such convictions but please own them as such and stop acting as if they are the products of some process of discovery/conversation/research.

The wider revelation of these stories---like those Tiya Miles has researched---is that people are people, driven by the same yearnings for love, power, and survival, and subject to the pressures and prejudices of their own peculiar times.

That native peoples had slaves should come as no surprise. While the chattel slavery that Tiya Miles describes among the Cherokees was clearly an extension of the institutional enslavement developed by whites, enslavement as a concept and practice existed among the Indians long before Europeans ever sailed to their shores. For thousands of years, tribes raided one another, and war captives---those who weren't integrated into the tribe or sacrificed ritually or traded away---were used as forced labor (i.e. slaves). While the racial arguments that justified institutional slavery of blacks weren't nearly as present, neither were they absent. Many dominant tribes saw their inferiors as, well, inferior. Which is to say that, in 1750, a Comanche taking a Tonkawa slave probably wasn't troubled much by any moral implications of his actions, because he didn't view the Tonkawa as his equal. 

It seems, with the work of historians like Tiya Miles, the pendulum is finally settling in the middle, as it should. For so much of our history the Indian was considered to be a savage. Then the dominant narrative of the past forty years turned the Indian into a primal mystic, one with nature, at peace with the world and all its beings. A noble victim, what we wanted him to be.

Neither description is accurate.

Indians were (and are) people. Humans. They lived, they ate, hunted, had sex, made war, and betrayed one another. They laughed and sang and loved their children and killed cruelly. Their lives encompassed all human experience, the transcendent and the horrific.

For reading, I'd like to recommend the novel The Color of Lightning by Paulette Jiles, which beautifully retells a story fairly well-known in Texas but not so much in other places, of Britt Johnson, a former slave whose wife and children were kidnapped by Indians. Also, S.C. Gwynne's brilliant 2010 Pulitzer finalist for history, Empire of the Summer Moon, about the waning years of the Comanches, and particularly focusing on their last chief Quanah Parker, the son of a Comanche and the white Cynthia Ann Parker who was taken captive at the age of nine. (These people are still taught about in Texas public schools today, and there are many things named for them, including the town of Quanah). While neither of these books are about slavery among natives, each of them illuminates Indian lives---and the non-native lives that intersected with them--in a way that a John Wayne movie on one hand, or a reading of history only interested in victimology on the other hand, ever could.


or one could look at a list of the poorest counties in the US and note how many of them are in designated tribal areas, areas where life-expectancies can be almost 30 yrs less than other populations in the nation. what is the moral calculus on these enduring and tragic wounds?

My mother will be 80 next week and it's very difficult to get her to talk about her history. Her biological parents were if different races and she was given up for adoption at birth. She knew who her black mother was and intentionally cut her out of her life but is not 100% sure who her white father was. She can't talk about it in much depth before she dismisses the subject and shuts down.

I hope I can get her to read this and maybe muster up the courage to open up more.