Scholar Documents Historic Ties Between African-Americans and Native Americans

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by Kenneth Cooper

Dr. Tiya Miles was a graduate student in literature at the University of Minnesota when, out of personal interest, she took a seminar on Native American history. One course reading delved into the contacts between the Catawba Indians of South Carolina and African-Americans.

“That changed my whole trajectory,” Miles says. “I switched, in the context of that class, from focusing on African-American 19th century literature to focusing on African-American-Native American relations, also in the 19th century.”

Now an associate professor of American culture, history, Afro-American and African studies, and Native American studies at the University of Michigan, Miles has emerged in this decade as a leading scholar of Cherokee-African American relations.

Her first book, 2005’s Ties that Bind, tells the story of a Cherokee man and the Black slave who became his wife. Her second, The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story, was released this summer by the University of North Carolina Press. With rich detail from the newly translated diaries and letters of German missionaries, Miles portrays life on the plantation of a Cherokee family named Vann in the early 1800s when the tribe’s territory included northwest Georgia.

And the Vann plantation, like Southern plantations owned by Whites, depended on Black slaves. The Cherokees and four other Southeastern tribes owned slaves—a fact not widely known. In efforts to “civilize” them, the U.S. government pressed the tribes to adopt large-scale agriculture and slavery.

Those tribes, which include the Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws and Seminoles, have resisted acknowledging their participation in slavery. Some African-Americans also have a hard time understanding that history.

“In Black American culture, a lot of families have stories about ancestors running away to the Indians for safety,” Miles says. “So to hear about Native Americans actually owning Black slaves, it really punctures that story—that notion about Native spaces being safehavens. I think there’s some resistance to it.”

The descendants of the Cherokees’ slaves are suing the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma in federal court to enforce a provision of an 1866 treaty that granted the freed slaves and their descendants “all the rights of native Cherokees.” In 2007, Cherokees voted to revoke their citizenship. The Cherokee Nation claims a sovereign right to determine whom its citizens are.

Miles had avoided commenting on the dispute so that critics would not prejudge her scholarship. But in a recent interview she said, “My personal opinion is that the Cherokee Nation should honor its treaty and reinstate the descendants of freed people as Cherokee citizens.”

The Cincinnati native has a scholar’s skepticism about an inconsistent story in her family about Native lineage that Miles prefers not to specify. “I personally feel that one needs to be very careful and conscientious about making claims having to do with Native American ancestry or identity,” she says.

There is one certain family tie: Her husband, Dr. Joseph Gone, is Native American. A Gros Ventre from Montana, he is a professor of psychology and Native American studies at the University of Michigan. Miles and Gone have three children.

In her new research, Miles is shifting her focus to the Midwest and a flip side of Native American enslavement of Black people. She is investigating Native involvement in the Underground Railroad, such as an Indian trail that fugitive slaves used in Michigan.

“The routes that escaping slaves took went by these (Native) communities or, at least, where these communities used to be,” before tribes were pushed westward, Miles says. “I don’t know much about it yet. I’m just beginning, but I’m really excited about what I can learn.”   

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