February 2, 2012
Tiya Miles —
Toward Living Memory

For Black History Month: a MacArthur "genius" who's unearthing an especially painful chapter of the American experience — the intersecting history of African-Americans and Native Americans, and the little-known narratives that Cherokee landowners held black slaves. Even with history this difficult, Tiya Miles shows us the possibility of stretching the canvas of the past wide enough to hold both hard truths and healing.

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is Elsa Barkley Brown Collegiate Professor of African American Women's History and Chair of the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She is also a 2011 MacArthur Fellow and author of The Ties That Bind.

Pertinent Posts


See video of Tiya Miles explaining why history matters, and why she pushes it past its normal boundaries.

SoundSeen (our multimedia stories)

Stretching the Canvas of the Past: the Chief Vann Historical Site

Travel through time with images of the antebellum home of a Cherokee Chief.

Selected Readings

"The Dead Call Us To Remember": Illuminating the Lives of Enslaved Blacks among the Cherokees

by Tiya Miles

"The Chief Vann House State Historic Site, operated by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, offers a rare opportunity for the exploration of African American life among American Indians. James Vann and his heir possessed over 100 of the 583 black slaves owned by Cherokees in the first four decades of the 19th century."

Obama and Big History

by Tiya Miles

"Obama is a bad, bad mammajamma," my uncle said, "and a brother that bad can't help but do some good." My cousin, a twenty-two-year-old college student with a football player's physique, said that on November 5th for the first time in his life, he could look anyone in the eye and know he was their equal.

About the Image

Students from Tiya Miles' senior seminar on American slavery visit the Ypsilanti Historical Museum during a tour of Underground Railroad sites in Michigan.

Photo by Tiya Miles

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I do not have a strong understanding of the coming to being of the American States and hadn't realized that the the Native Americans had been 'peer pressured' into following the white immigrants? settlers perhaps, ways. I wondered if they treated the Africans differently or if they followed in every way.

I was particularly interested in the turn of the use of history, from a story in itself to one which admitted more openly the use to which we put history - understanding and constructing our understanding of ourselves in a public, and often national context. I am writing from Ireland and I am currently working on a paper on the big house in the Irish heritage landscape. One practice/theory that I have come across is 'hot interpretation', relating to emotional, personal and relational histories. The heritage resource's interpretation will always have emotive elements and in (David Uzzell's) hot interpretation, this factor is used to push the visitor, the inheritor to question or think about their own values, understandings and identity. In my own limited experience this question is not fully explored in the Big House - the nature of the Anglo-Irish values combined with the local Irish entrapped to be its servants and suppliers. when you asked about art relating to telling the story I thought of an image of a girl, pressed against a fabriced wall with candelabra on with side, pressed into stiff pause of begin almost overwhelmed by the structures and demanding social existence and on the other side a female servant resting, exhaustedly, in a dim hall agains a plain white plastered wall. I enjoyed hearing Tiya's understanding and perspective and it brought more thought and visions to my own - thank you.

I was captivated by this conversation. I believe I have read, however, that some Native American tribes were slaveholders themselves even before Europeans arrived in America, so the idea that they learned this practice from the whites may be a stretch.

Amazing. I've also done archival research on my own family. My father's parents are from South Carolina and are of tri-racial ancestry. At one time my father's people owned land (during the period of slavery, were identified as Indian/Mulatto, and (probably) due to their position in society at the time, married white women. In the early 20th century there was again a change in racial perceptions; this coincided with a change to the 1920 census in which the "mulatto" category was removed from the census. Members of my family seemed to experience an identity crisis during that period, and we split into Indian, white, and black identity groups that became very rigid. With that split came a loss of understanding of the history of our family, and in some cases an identification with groups whose history was divergent from our own. When I began my research in 1985 as a result of writing down family stories told to me by my great-uncle, I had no idea I was going to find such a complex history. I thought I knew who we were, but I really had no idea! As I uncovered bits of family history, I shared it with family members, some of whom insisted that I not tell anyone what I found, but to me, it was obvious, it was factual, and as Professor Miles suggested, it was a chance to learn and grow closer to people, not to grow apart. I'm very thankful I heard this story this morning (I'm a regular listener), and know that now that Professor Miles story has reached out to me, I have to resume my research. Mine is similar to hers, but from a different angle, and the story needs to be shared. Thank you.

Krista, thank you for the work you do spreading light. Thank you, Tiya, for the hard and wonderful work you have done in presenting this past to the present and, therefore, the future. My Grandmother was full Cherokee-Choctaw and it is my blessing to have known her well. Recently, the Cherokee tribe voted against membership of the descendants of the Freedmen (largely slaves) which are listed as enrollees of the Cherokee Nation and given membership status. I am not a member of the Cherokee Nation so I try not to judge. However I hold a sadness and disappointment from their action. No, I am not black, but it is not an action my Grandmother would have liked either. (Her Mother died before the final enrollment).

I thought the discussion was thought provoking. I was born in Missouri and have lived the majority of my life in the Mid-West and feel I have an open mind and some understanding about this country's history. However, i lived in North Carolina during high school and realize that my public education was woefully lacking in the history of native Americans and black slaves. I have since read and learned (and listened to public radio) and have a greater understanding of global history. I was struck by one thought while listening to the interview. When Tiya brought up the ownership of black slaves by Cherokee that was required by the US government, I felt that only one side of the story was portrayed. Many indigineous people have been slave owners. Human history is rife with stories of enslaved peoples struggling. My belief is that owning another person is wrong, but I think it is misleading to indicate that the Cherokee ownership of slaves is outside of their cultural norm. I would like to learn more about the intersection of black slaves and native Americans but within the entire history of both peoples. Thanks for always having interesting and thought provoking programs. I really enjoy everything I'm exposed to and learn.

I loved the reflective tenor of this story. AT the end when you asked about how art, or other experiences might assist in healing pain, the question resonated. I have always had a difficult relationship with my mother, a child of the farm during the depression. She now has Alzheimer's Disease. There is little I can give her for Christmas or otherwise. However I can give her memories. I have gathered the stories she wrote about her family and their experiences growing up on a farm in the depression. I then edit and illustrate them into children's stories. I give her these as Christmas gifts, then we read the stories to the entire family. There are three children's books now, and I will keep producing them until the stories she wrote or told us are all included. As the next generation of children are born into the family I will give each child a set of them.

I began to understand her life more when I started this project. She had a childhood that was filled with hard labor and social isolation. The first story I did was of her pet pig, Jenny, who was sold at market by her father. She discovered this when she arrived home from school one day. The story she called, "Jenny, My First" and it is heartbreaking and lovely.

I will sent the picture of her with her pig. She is hand feeding Jenny who she raised from a runt.

If you would like, I can scan and send the entire story and all illustrations of this event, but for now I will send only the synopsis and the one illustration.

I was struck by the quiet assurance in Tiya's voice, and in her use of the phrase "emotional history." I had never heard that before, but it carries resonance for me. I have used story for healing and as such have written many pieces, mainly from the experience of having survived domestic and sexual violence. Journeying through this long process has taken me into complete metamorphosis, the kind of education that comes from the inside out, an exercise in playwriting, the writing of two collections of poetry, a novel, a history book, a memoir and a self-help book for women. My story of abuse is generational in its origins and I am the first woman in my family to break silence, a stance which has cost my sense of family connection but which has freed me to find my voice and to help other women to do the same. I agree that the value of story is beyond measure, something that we keep hope planted deep inside of, something we don't let others exercise control over or censor. In fact, I teach in my classroom that one's story is the most valuable, precious and important thing that we will ever attain in life regardless of who we become or where we go, for it contains our legacy and heart. Thank you, Tiya for your courage, conviction and purpose. Peace, Meta Commerse

A two story log cabin of probable Cherokee origin owned by the Avery
Vann family who was a brother to James Vann of this Sunday's great program. In rking with the local historical society to preserve the building, we are doing extensive
research into finding the history long hidden due to the "to the manor born:
Southerners who would never admit that confiscating Indian lands and beginning the Trail of tears, or owning slaves were wrong. As a child growing up in Cave Spring. Georgia whos land was trod upon by primitive peoples, Mississippian Indians, traversed by Hernanto Desota nearby with his atrocities to the natives, the Creeks who were run out byt the Cherokee, and then the Land lotteries that were won by the Whites in the 1830's. In our studies, we were surprised to find that the Vanns and other Cherokee of Scott-Irish and Cherokee decent who were excellent businessmen, owned slaves. Georgia law forbade Indians to hire whites for their plantations or business interests. This was part of the still prevailing "states rights" attitude which is based on greed, prejudice and bigotry down South and particularly in GA. My family lived near Diamond Hill, Spring Place, and my grandfather Nelson Dickerson, was 1st clerk of the court there in Murray County. He knew all the principal Indians and dealt with them in the courts. He left in 2 years and I am wondering if the awful things and the unfairness of the state system concerning the Indians were what urged him to move. I feel that I am supposed to be helping open up somehow the knowledge of this unfair period. I know that unless we go back to a more spiritual sensse of dealing with ourselves, our environment, our resources, civilization will be hardpressed to survive. Thanks for this program. I much appreciate the work th Tiya has done, and support it. I too am from a slave holding family in the south, and Swiss cheese makers from Wisconsin.Our trip to the Vann house last fall was totally inspiring, and now I know partly why with Ms. Miles work. This subject is very broad and Don L. Shadburn has wonderful books that are superlately researched and written on the Cherokee from that area, and with help from an Oklahoman with 8,000 hours
worth. He started his research in 1960, and when we whom he has talked and corresponded with I believe he began in 1969. He talked to us at the last GA Trai; of Tears meeting in Forsyth GA a few weeks ago. He wants all to be as historically correct as possible, and mentioned that Shoeboots was one of his favorite Indians. He felt overall he was one of the more honorable ones. He also wanted to but did not include all the "susannah" in the indian History, but he shared them orally with us. This is a very important subject, and I am so glad that it is becoming more known. I will definitely look for Ms. Miles books. Thanks again verrrrrry much. The South is still closed to these ideas mostly, but every little bit brought out helps world thought. Vicki Abernathy
Ads are covering this space, and if there are typos I apologize. This is mostly feed back and a bit of info about what is going on in local historical research as food for thought and good sources to continue research on the subject. It is not in article form.

I felt both touched and challenged by Professor Miles' suggestion that we broach the difficult topics of race and American history through art. Tomorrow I begin the 100-day countdown to the release of my novel, *The Secrets of Mary Bowser,* which is indeed inspired by the amazing story of a woman born into slavery in Richmond, Virginia, who, after being educated in the North, returned to the South and during the Civil War posed as a slave in the Confederate White House to spy on Jefferson Davis on behalf of the Union. She passed her messages to the Union command through a spy ring run by her former owner.

If the historical record held enough documentation to write a biography of Bowser, I would have done so, but it does not, and so I turned to fiction. Although I have degrees in both history and literature, it is thrilling as well as daunting to make the leap to imagining the words and deeds of this amazing woman, and also of the many blacks and whites she must have interacted with, from abolitionists to slave owners, from staunch Confederates to Southern Unionists. I'm sure that in the months to come, there will be people who question my choice to fictionalize history, and I will treasure Tiya Miles' words, and I hope emulate the grace and thoughtfulness she brings to the continuing national discussion of how our past shapes who we are as Americans, and who we can be.

Wow, what an amazing story, what a wonderful interview. As a black Jewish woman, I find intersections of cultures fascinating. I grew up in a high school where the discussion was always, "What was worse? The Holocaust or slavery?" It was unproductive and depressing.
Thanks for a wonderful talk.

I've listened with great interest to the discussion today of the Cherokee and other Native Americans who held slaves. This was new to me and I have studied Native American and African American history as a (long-ago) Anthropology student and as a jazz and blues musician/singer.
The discussion brought to mind a workshop I attended about two years ago at the Tinner Hill Blues Festival in Northern Virginia. Several Native American musicians from the USA and Canada discussed the musical intersection between African Americans and Native Americans -- for example, with certain rhythms. I have noticed that a common phrase-ending riff of the great blues harmonica player Little Walter Jacobs also is heard in Native American music. Perhaps coincidence, perhaps not. There was lenghty discussion of escaped slaves and Indians that sheltered them. I believe Indians being held as slaves was also mentioned. (I spent a little time looking for information on the latter and did discover mention of one female Indian held as a slave by Americans.)
To the best of my memory, Indians holding slaves was not mentioned. THAT would have greatly intensified the discussion. Maybe you can track down the presenters: www.tinnerhill.org/blues/

Listening to your story today about Blacks and Indians made me think of the larger issue of repressed history. Not overtly suppressed history which is also an issue, but repressed history. As a student of labor history, I see examples of that everywhere. Ask any one from Colorado what they know about the rich and violent history of the labor movement in Colorado and you will be lucky if they even recall the Ludlow massacre. Gastonia, NC is another example of particular brutal defeat of a labor strike. How many people, even from that area know the story. But your story brought to light that oppressors sometimes lose and they can repress their own history. The story of Christianity is often told in the context of the triumph of the weak over the strong. And yet there are some Christians who see success and victory and signs of God's grace. I too lived in Berlin, a few years before you, in the early 70's. Looking back I see it as a time when m y generation of young Germans was just discovering the story of Nazi Germany their parents had glossed over. There is a German television movie of the bombing of Dresden which you might find interesting. In the DVD's extra features is the story of one of the actor's in the movie. Her grandmother had left Dresden after the bombing and the reunion with her actress granddaughter was the first time she had returned to the city. The comment is made that only the third generation could tell that story. Thanks for your thought provoking story.

Use of the phrase "the enslaved" rather than "slaves" during today's broadcast tends to bring to focus the fact that enslavement is a verb - an active and closen course of action rather than a state of being - something which just "is". It includes all the enslaved of all races and all times. It is a word for all the enslaved. In my sphere of friends, I can count descendents of enslaved and oppressed: african american; welsh indentured servant; under-educated; american orphan sold with the farm like property; expelled french canadian; iroquois; cherokee; asian-indian south- african; abused; buffalo soldier; autistic; physically disabled; more. We all share something, yet we all seem to vie for position in some way. We "compete" rather than "complete". We have much to learn.

I am an artist. An oil painter. The image attached is a painting that I created of Maggie Delaney as portrayed by Carol Jarboe. I have been moved deeply by this woman who portrays an 18th century laundress- an indentured servant. Until our meeting and time spent together, I had no idea of the depravity, the truth of this business of indentured servants which should be more aptly called slaves as a great many of them came to this continent under grave circumstances, clinging to hope for a new and better future, only to face grinding poverty, drudgery and bondage. The white indentured is a story that must be told. It is a part of this nation's history. Carol portrays Maggie Delaney, an Irish indentured who is owned by Parson John and works as a laundress. Her portrayal is remarkable and she has a prolific knowledge of indentured histories of the time. You may find Parson John and Maggie Delaney here:

Thanks for being.
Mark A. Selter

Glancing at comments submitted, with faith traditions to which listeners belong listed below I realized in light of show I couldn't just fill in the line item, African Methodist Episcopal without also contributing that I am not black but I belong; recognition of faith and having faith in one another - being - simply, aptly, amply arrived, ascribed, applied.