Toward Living Memory
Tiya Miles 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.
February 2, 2012
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: In our families as in society, there are stories we hear and stories we don’t hear. And we’ve all had the experience of discovering knowledge of the past that shifts our very sense of ourselves. In this spirit, Tiya Miles is helping shape the emerging field of “public history.” The particular focus of her research is as divisive in American memory as any — “the conjoined stories,” as she puts it, of African-Americans and Native Americans. Specifically, she’s bringing to light a painful chapter of the American experience where Cherokee landowners held black slaves. Still, she shows us a model for unearthing history even this difficult in a way that also reveals tools for its healing.
TIYA MILES, PH.D: If I didn’t see light in the story, I could not tell it. I think about stretching the story back — as far back in time as we can find evidence to support it — and stretching the story forward to think about what’s the future going to be like for our descendents now. And I don’t just mean the descendents of black people and Native people. I mean all of us, now, what’s that future going to be like?
MS. TIPPETT: “Toward Living Memory.” I’m Krista Tippett. This is On Being — from APM, American Public Media.
Tiya Miles is a professor of history at the University of Michigan. The MacArthur Foundation gave her a “genius” grant in 2011. In her award-winning research and writing, Tiya Miles has uncovered stories nearly lost to memory — from the plantation of a Cherokee chief in Georgia, to Indian Territory — modern-day Oklahoma — where some who survived the Trail of Tears re-established their lives and their wealth. Tiya Miles herself grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio.
MS. TIPPETT: Where were the roots or do you see the roots of your interest, your passion, for history in your childhood?
DR. MILES: I think that the way in which I approach history comes from times I spent with my grandmother when I was a girl. When I was very young, my mother and I lived with my grandparents. And my grandmother was one of these women who just loved to tell stories and would tell them, you know, throughout the day while she was going about her daily tasks. I recall especially the stories that she told about living in Mississippi, coming north during the great migration, and the struggles that she faced as an African-American woman, single mother, and domestic worker. And I think just hearing those stories and hearing how my grandmother felt so tied to her past, how she was always on that Mississippi farm that she grew up on, and in the city at the same time, influenced the way I think about the past and how near the past feels to me.
MS. TIPPETT: And, you know, I’m intrigued, given the direction your scholarship has taken, I’m intrigued by the way you seem to describe this. You say that there was an oral history about Native American history from your grandmother, which is kind of vague. I’m wondering, you know, what does that mean? You don’t say she told us this or that, but there was an oral history about Native American history. So what’s lurking there?
DR. MILES: Well, you got me, Krista. It’s purposefully vague. What my grandmother told us when we were small, what she told me and my cousins, was that her own father was both African-American and Native American, that this mother was Native American. However, I don’t make claims to you an African-American identity to a black Indian identity or ancestry because I’m a scholar and I like to verify things and I haven’t explored that family history yet.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. I have to say that it also leapt out at me — I grew up in Oklahoma, which is very resonant with your work.
DR. MILES: Right. Absolutely.
MS. TIPPETT: I think, in general, at least when I was growing up, Oklahoma was a place — well, Oklahoma was historically a place where people left their pasts behind. In my family, I would say there was an oral history that my great-grandmother, who was still alive when I was a child, was part Cherokee, but there was no information. There was no story attached to it. I have no detail and, you know, when I finally was curious enough to want to know more, everybody who might have known something was dead. I wonder if that kind of came through in what you just said that those stories don’t transmit themselves intact somehow.
DR. MILES: Right, right. And I think part of the reason why those stories feel contentious is because of the history of violence that shaped those stories. So I’m thinking now about this wonderful line at the end of Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, which is really influential for me in thinking about my scholarship. This is the line where the narrator says that this was not a story to pass on. You can read that in two ways: You can read that this was not a story to tell again, to pass on, or this was not a story to pass on, not a story to be missed. I think that these kinds of stories that my grandmother told me, that you heard from your family history, have both those elements to them. We need them, we want to explore them and yet we know that, in some ways, they might be dangerous.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. And they were dangerous for those ancestors in a way. Even if they’re not dangerous for us, they felt dangerous.
DR. MILES: Most definitely, mm-hmm.
MS. TIPPETT: Now it sounds to me like even though there was this story within your story, you got a much fuller and surprising understanding of that intersection of African-American and Native American history as a student, or as a graduate student.
DR. MILES: Mm-hmm. That’s right. The stories my grandmother told me were always swirling around in my head. They were so real to me and so alive. Strangely enough, when I was in college and I first started studying African-American literature and I first started reading the narratives of escaped slaves, I would get so upset about these narratives in my dorm room that I would call my grandmother up late a night, you know, from the college campus and just tell her that I couldn’t bear what I was reading. This is the strange part. Her response to my question, her response to my sadness, was to tell me stories about her father who was himself a slave as a child, and this is the same person who she said had Native ancestry.
And when she would tell those stories, she would claim all kinds of amazing qualities for him. She would talk about his longevity, how he lived to be 100 years old. She would talk about his keen eyesight and his amazing prowess in terms of his independence, his ability to stand on two feet, and she would attribute these to the Native American ancestry that she was claiming for him.
So she would respond to my desire for comfort with these stories about Native ancestry, and that stuck with me. I always carried that. When I came to graduate school, I began to think about two thingg: One was why did my grandmother and why did other African-Americans cling so closely to these ideas about kinship and alliance with Native Americans? And why did they think about Native American ancestry as being imbued with some kind of special power, some kind of specialness that perhaps African-American, African ancestry, did not hold for them?
So I wanted to explore what that need was. At the same time, I wanted to explore what the relationships really were in ways that I could verify through historical research.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. MILES: So even though I have yet to research my own family history — I expect that will be retirement project — what my grandmother told me really did shape the kinds of work I ended up doing in the academy.
MS. TIPPETT: Do you feel that you’ve started to answer those questions for yourself, that what was special about that mixed identity?
DR. MILES: Mm-hmm. I think so. I think there are multiple layers to that answer. But one thing that I think has emerged from my work and the work of other people in this field and the work of creative artists who are thinking about similar questions is that African-Americans are in many ways homeless on this land. I mean, of course, we — our ancestors — were snatched from our own homeland. We were brought to this place that was foreign to us, and we had to find a way to make this place fit us and to belong here.
And I think that, when you are a people searching for belonging, it makes sense to think about the indigenous population who was on this land before anyone else and to want to connect with that indigenous population. I think that’s part of the power that that story holds.
MS. TIPPETT: Do you think that happens at a conscious level?
DR. MILES: I really don’t think so. I don’t think that that aspect of belonging and I guess what I’m describing as a shared collective search for home is necessarily conscious.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today, with public historian Tiya Miles.
MS. TIPPETT: Did your grandmother know about the history of Native Americans having black African slaves?
DR. MILES: If she did, I heard no inkling of it. I don’t think she did, and I don’t know if she would have told me if she had any knowledge of that. Really, the story that she wanted me to hold onto was one about partnership leading to survival. She was trying to give me a gift of strength, perseverance, comfort, sustenance through those stories, and slavery undoes those gifts.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, a parallel, again, very different, but in my childhood is growing Southern Baptist, right, and having no sense of what it was in the Southern that made Southern Baptists, Southern Baptists, and then learning in college that the Southern Baptists were the Baptists who wanted to keep their slaves. I remember going back and asking my grandfather, who was a Southern Baptist preacher, and my sense was that he didn’t know that. If he did, he had buried it so deeply that that was simply a piece of history that had been not passed on as you say. You must have this experience when you talk about your research and your scholarship. I don’t know that in the American cultural memory many people know that Indians owned slaves in the southeast and in what was called Indian Territory.
DR. MILES: Well, I think you’re right. One of the first things people tend to tell me when they hear me speak or read my work is that they had no idea this was the case. And it was the same for me. It took me four years of college and I think maybe three years of graduate school before I knew about this. I already had an investment in the question.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. And something that was there in your — I mean, I think about growing up in Oklahoma knowing that it was formerly the territory of the five civilized tribes and never even questioning that language. Then I think it was in one of your books that you talked about how, for especially these wealthy Cherokee people who you studied, landowners, owning slaves was part of being and demonstrating that civilization.
DR. MILES: Right, right. So Cherokee people and other people of the so-called five civilized tribes were really under assault especially in the 18th century and early 19th century by first Europeans and then Euro-Americans who wanted to take their land. And the U.S. government came in and basically said that if you want to maintain your homelands, you need to demonstrate to us that you can live with us in this space and that you are civilized. As odd as it sounds — and I still can’t get my mind around this — to the U.S. government and to its citizens, civilization included the ownership of black slaves.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, it did in the British Empire as well, right?
DR. MILES: Right, right. So Native people took up chattel slavery in some ways to demonstrate that they were civilized.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, this fact and the stories you tell, it’s so painful because it’s disenfranchisement layered on disenfranchisement. It’s brutality layered on brutality.
DR. MILES: Right. It’s difficult to learn about it, to confront it, to try to talk about it and think about it. And I find that when I do share information with people, sometimes they leave those conversations or they leave the space where maybe I’ve given a lecture and they still have in their minds the story that maybe their grandparents told them or the story they want to believe about these relationships, which to me is another demonstration of the ways in which we need and use these ideas of the past, we need and use history today. We wrap history around ourselves and we use it to define who we are and we sometimes don’t want to face the fact that the stories we’ve always heard may have been flawed or limited or even wrong.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. And that’s true collectively as well as individually in our families.
DR. MILES: Absolutely, yes, yes.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, let’s make this a little bit more three-dimensional for somebody who might be listening and, you know, talk about — it’s interesting. Your way into Cherokee history and all the history you do is through the experience of African-American women. Would you say that’s a fair statement?
DR. MILES: Mm-hmm.
MS. TIPPETT: So your book The Ties That Bind is about — the person we zero in on is this figure of Doll. Why don’t you tell the story of Doll and Shoe Boots.
DR. MILES: Well, first I’d like to back up a bit and tell you how I came to this story. I was doing dissertation research on black and Native relations in the South and I was looking for a story that I thought would help me to both understand and unravel the complexity of these relationships. It just so happened that after months of pouring through especially secondary sources, I came across a footnote that said that a man named Shoe Boots married a black woman and this was the first Black-Cherokee marriage within the Cherokee nation. So that footnote really struck me, the idea that there would be a marriage between a Cherokee man and a black woman that was recorded in the early 1800s.
MS. TIPPETT: And he was a wealthy Cherokee man, right?
DR. MILES: I would say that, in our terms, he was middle class.
MS. TIPPETT: Oh, OK.
DR. MILES: So he was solid financially, but he wasn’t one of the wealthiest Cherokee slaveholders who owned something like 20 or more slaves, in some cases, 100 or more slaves. He only had a handful of slaves — only, I say. So I wanted to investigate the story and find out what was going on and, as I began to investigate, I learned that footnote left out so much. In my mind, this relationship was not what we would describe today as a marriage. This was a relationship between a grown man in his 40s who went to South Carolina and either bought or traded for an adolescent black girl, brought her back to the Cherokee Nation, and began to have children with her. Doll was owned by Shoe Boots and he never freed her formally.
MS. TIPPETT: There was a piece of writing that’s near the beginning of the book. I think it was Shoe Boots maybe making a case for his children, right? But what’s so striking and painful about that is he’s making a case for these children he’s had by Doll and he basically says, “I debased myself.”
DR. MILES: Exactly, yes.
MS. TIPPETT: And had these children and nevertheless then he’s wanting them to be treated decently.
DR. MILES: Right, right. I mean, this is one of these moments where the pain that we were discussing earlier really is seated, because, on the one hand, we can view this emancipation document as being positive. It’s an example of a Native American man freeing the children that he had with the black woman. But at the same time, he does that through a language of negativity in which he reiterates Doll’s status as a slave woman. And in the original document, it’s underlined that she is his slave.
MS. TIPPETT: There’s another Cherokee figure you’ve focused on. This is a story of wealth, of plantation, Diamond Hill. I notice that you, in a personal statement, say that you are a passionate fan of old houses. And it strikes me that there’s a connection between that and the fact that the public history project, and I want to talk about that whole notion of public history seems to be centered in part in your work around an historic house.
DR. MILES: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: Why do you love old houses? Tell me about that.
DR. MILES: I don’t know, Krista. If I could speculate, I didn’t know this at the time, but when I was very small, my grandmother’s house was a craftsman bungalow and I loved that place. I loved being there with her, and I think I may have attached myself to that kind of building not even knowing that I was doing that.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
DR. MILES: But here’s something else that may be unusual, probably unusual. Later on when my mother and I lived on our own near downtown Cincinnati in an area that was economically depressed, I really enjoyed kind of walking the neighborhood by myself. And a number of the buildings in our neighborhood were quite old — 19th-century, early-20th-century row houses — and many of them were abandoned. And I would go inside. My mom will probably die when she hears this, but I would go inside these old buildings and just explore and think about who might have lived there years and years ago and what their lives might have been like.
MS. TIPPETT: Houses — old houses — hold stories, don’t they?
DR. MILES: They do, they do. It feels tangible. You walk in and it’s almost as if you’re transported.
MS. TIPPETT: And did this public history project with the Vann House and with that whole story of this wealthy Cherokee slave owner, I mean, he had, what, hundreds — nearly 100 …
DR. MILES: Over 100 …
MS. TIPPETT: … slaves in the first decade of the 19th century. But did that start with you visiting that house?
DR. MILES: It did, it did. I was working on the book about Shoe Boots and Doll. And Shoe Boots and Doll would have lived in the early 1800s around 45 minutes away now in our time from this large plantation. I mean, Shoe Boots and Doll’s cabin, a place where their family lived, no longer stands. I went to the river where they lived and stood there and reflected on that place, but I wanted to experience a built environment that could perhaps take me back in time, viscerally, to this period of Cherokee slaveholding.
So I went to the Chief Vann House and took a tour and this was in the late ’90s. Part of me was taken by learning about the house itself, the structure, the architecture. I was fascinated by a number of the architectural details such as all of the little tiny Cherokee roses that are carved into the moldings at the house. But at the same time, I was quite focused on the question of slavery and, throughout that whole tour, we heard nothing about slavery, nothing about African-Americans.
MS. TIPPETT: Did you know that he specifically held slaves or you just knew that a landowner of that wealth in that time would have had slaves?
DR. MILES: I knew that he held slaves because at that point I had been doing enough research to know about the Vann family.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
DR. MILES: So I took the tour and slavery wasn’t mentioned. African-Americans weren’t mentioned, although the Vann family’s wealth was mentioned. Of course, these two things are tied. They’re linked; you can’t separate them. The Vann family’s wealth came from slave labor. So by the end of the tour, I was having this dual experience. One, I was enjoying the house aesthetically and, at the same time, I was sort of appalled at the way in which this house was being celebrated as a gorgeous architectural feat and the way in which the family’s wealth was being lauded and black people’s suffering was completely invisible.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. What did you do? Did you say anything at that point to the people who were curating?
DR. MILES: I did. Well, I asked the question. I asked the tour guide where slaves lived on the plantation. The person who was working at the time — I have to be fair and say that she was very young, maybe she was a college student who was working there at the summer part time. She was completely flustered, as if she had never thought about the question before, never heard it before, and she got her walkie-talkie and radioed back to the main office to ask how she should answer the question.
MS. TIPPETT: You wrote somewhere that you became committed to a more ethical telling of the story.
DR. MILES: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: And then that gets at the work of the historian and the discipline of that and I see you in places. You know, it seems to me that, at different points in your career, you’ve rediscovered the fact that telling history is never pure, that you’re always coming at it from some direction. And you — I don’t know, maybe because you do then collect so much information, in a way not being haunted, but just being very keenly aware that there would be many ways to tell the same story that you’re immersing yourself in.
DR. MILES: Right. Well, I think I came to historical scholarship from a sideways route. I never thought of myself as becoming an historian. I only was aware that I was interested in the past and it held a good deal of power for me personally and that it seemed to hold a good deal of power for my family in terms of the ways in which we defined ourselves and thought about our place in society.
So I came to this work really with the feeling that studying the past and sharing the past was about making it usable for people today and was, at the same time, about being a witness for people in the past whose lives have been forgotten about or who suffered unjustly. They would be honored by having me and other people who do this work remember them.
MS. TIPPETT: At onbeing.org, you can travel to the Chief Vann House and see photos of the buildings that captured Tiya Miles’ historical imagination — from the red brick façade to the barrels of whiskey in the basement to a wooden cabin where slaves on the plantation lived. You can also read Tiya Miles’ essay “The Dead Call Us to Remember.” It’s featured in a booklet she wrote together with her students, piecing together the complex story of slaveholding at the Chief Vann House. Go deeper inside this untold chapter of American history. Again, find links, photos, maps, and more — all at onbeing.org.
Coming up, more about the idea of public history. Also, what Tiya Miles calls the “spiritual and metaphysical” work of history — what it looks like when encounters with the past help repair present divisions.
I’m Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today: “Toward Living Memory.” Tiya Miles is an interesting voice in the emerging field of “public history.” She’s a professor of history at the University of Michigan and received a 2011 MacArthur “genius” grant. We’re talking about her original research into a painful chapter of American history — the intersecting stories of African-Americans and Native Americans, and the little-remembered fact that some wealthy Indian landowners held black slaves. At bottom, Tiya Miles’ work is about making history useful to common people in shared life — stretching the canvas of the past wide enough that it holds both hard truths and healing.
MS. TIPPETT: You’ve written somewhere about, or you mentioned, that at some point you had a crisis of faith in history that almost led you to quit the field. What was that about and what pulled you back in?
DR. MILES: Well, I’ve had a number of crises as a researcher, and often they’ve taken place in archives actually when I try to reconcile what it is that I want to do with what exists or with what other people think ought to be done in historical writing. So one of these moments was in my graduate student classroom when I learned that Native people owned black slaves. Another moment was when I talked with an archivist at a state archive where a number of historians had traveled to do work on Southern history, and I told him that I wanted to study African-American and Native American women and he laughed in his response to me.
I was still a graduate student at the time and I was very vulnerable to being told that my work didn’t have value. So once the archivist laughed at me and then said that African-American women were not important enough and Native American women were not important enough to be recorded, let alone if you thought about them together, I just thought that my work was all over and that I should just pack my bags and leave, pack my bags and leave graduate school, that I would never be able to do what I felt so passionate about which was to unearth and tell these kinds of stories.
And at that time, I went to the office of a mentor of mine, a Native American historian, Jeannie O’Brien, and told her that I felt that it was all over. She told me that if I knew that Shoe Boots lived and if I knew that Doll lived, that I needed to keep looking for them because surely I would find some record of their existence, of their lives, to be able to fill out that picture. That gave me the affirmation I needed to keep looking and it was within a matter of probably six months that I found the document you mentioned where she was emancipated and his children. That was the first thing I found that told me, yes, I can tell the story.
MS. TIPPETT: And this language that you used a minute ago about honoring, witnessing, and making this knowledge, making this fuller story useful to people now is kind of a definition of this emerging field of public history. Is that right? Is this a new way to think about history and the work of historians?
DR. MILES: Well, my sense is that people have been doing public history for decades, and especially museum practitioners, archivists, people in local communities have thought about their work as being usable and useful for a public. But it’s academic historians for whom this field might feel new. And I think it’s also a realization on the part of perhaps even more recent generations of scholars that, if we want to make a difference in communities, if we have a sense of political urgency around some issues, that we have to make links. We have to make ties with where historical questions are being lived out in the real world. We can’t just write specialized monographs that are read by, you know, a small subset of people.
MS. TIPPETT: And, you know, as I was reading into you and just learning some of the things that you know that are about all of us, I mean, they are about America. Right?
DR. MILES: Mm-hmm.
MS. TIPPETT: They are about all of our history in which all of our ancestors, whatever color their skin, were complicit and involved. I was thinking about an event I was at a couple of years ago, which brought together a lot of amazing people in the nonprofit world, the academic world. There was a pretty senior person in a big foundation who was talking about initiatives to bring the issue of race and the history of race and the history in particular of what happened to African-Americans in this country kind of into imagination in a new way. This was around the election of President Obama.
And somebody else who was there — and I’ve just remembered this particular thing as I’m talking to you — said, “I don’t think we can let ourselves reckon with the history of African-Americans until we reckon with what happened to Native peoples.” OK. But the effect of that — and I just wonder if this is something that you’ve become aware of because you’re working at the intersection of these two groups.
DR. MILES: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: The effect of it was almost to stop the discussion cold, right?
DR. MILES: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: Because it was too much, right? It’s too much to do all of that at once. Is that a dynamic — are there dynamics related to that that you come across?
DR. MILES: I think there have been those dynamics. I hope they’re changing. It’s been the case that scholars who focus on a particular ethnic studies area such as African-American studies or Latino/Latina studies have felt that there’s almost a competition around, you know, which group is the most suppressed, which group should be at the center point of analysis or discussion right now. I think that that has done exactly what you’ve suggested. It’s not productive and it shuts down a dialogue.
What new projects in ethnic studies are uncovering is that these groups cross paths in many ways historically. All of these groups, of every group in the United States, has had a point of linkage, intersection, connection, overlap, with other groups and that, until we understand all those complexities, we don’t understand the history of this nation and the ways in which we need to and can work together in the future to build a more democratic society.
MS. TIPPETT: So I’m often aware — I mean, I’m not the only person who’s aware of this — of how hard it is to have these discussions or what to do with this history, in a way, because it is so painful and shameful.
DR. MILES: Right, right.
MS. TIPPETT: And I wonder what you’ve learned from your research and from the perspective you bring as a public historian about, you know, how do we start a new kind of discussion about race, racism, slavery, whether it’s Native Americans or whites. It seems to me that another thing that goes wrong that even the language kind of booby traps the discussions, that when you start talking about oppression or when you start talking about racism, people start defining themselves over against that language. I’m just curious. You know, where are you learning things about finding whole new ways in?
DR. MILES: These projects are situated within public history. They’re about people showing up in particular places out there in communities, at public sites, in museums, and working with other people. And I think that that kind of spirit opens conversations. It makes people more willing to listen. I experienced that personally with my work in Georgia. When I first arrived at the Chief Vann House site and kept coming back to do research there, I think there was a little bit of distance on the part of the people who worked at the site.
These are white Southerners who work at the site still. There was some distance there. I think they wondered what I was all about and what I was doing, trying to talk about African-American experience. I think they worried that I might try to be especially critical as a black woman coming into that place asking those questions. But what I found was that, over time, when I kept showing up, we found ways to connect with each other. We found ways to talk with each other despite and through the pain of this past.
So, for instance, I learned after probably five years of going to the site that one of the rangers at the site who had a good deal of input on the interpretation there was herself descended from white slave holders. When she told me this — and I have her permission to repeat this story — when she told me this, it was a revelation that brought her to tears that she had been holding back from interpreting the black experience in this Cherokee site because of the shame of her own family’s history.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
DR. MILES: When we talked about that and we kind of pushed through that together, she became the greatest champion for African-American interpretation at the site. When she applied for funding, she researched and actually mounted an exhibit that’s all about African-American experience at the Chief Vann House. But it took that relational foundation, that collaboration, to make it happen.
MS. TIPPETT: Also, I think the time, right? You said five years?
DR. MILES: Oh, absolutely, and I didn’t know what was going to happen.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
DR. MILES: I just knew that I wanted to keep showing up and trying to learn about this place.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today, with public historian Tiya Miles.
MS. TIPPETT: I was looking at, I think, this was part of the public history project. It seems simple, but it’s a title of research project you did with graduate students. The title is, “Blacks, Indians, and the Making of America.” Somehow that’s a very spacious way to talk about something that’s fraught with complexity and difficulty. Do you know what I’m saying? Often when we frame these discussions, they get framed in terms of, as I said, oppression, racism, what went wrong. It’s the worst moments, it’s the worst mistakes. You are not in any way covering that up. I mean, you’re bringing that into the light, but you’re also putting into the larger. In a way, you could say, you’re putting it into the context of relationship over generations and hundreds of years that’s larger than that darkest moment.
DR. MILES: If I didn’t see light in this story, I could not tell it because that’s why I’m doing this work. I’m doing this work to try to contribute something that can move us toward healing across and among communities that have experienced such divisiveness.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s really interesting because you are bringing the light in by telling the truth and just making the discussion bigger, right? Creating a larger vision even of the components that are there in history that can be part of that healing that predates what went wrong.
DR. MILES: Well, I think about stretching the story back — as far back in time as we can find evidence to support it and stretching the story forward to think about what’s the future going to be like for our descendants now. I don’t just mean descendants of black people or Native people. I mean all of us now. What’s that future going to be like and how can we lean on what we know about the past to reach toward a more positive future? I also think about broadening the story, I guess, up and this gets to, I don’t know, maybe sort of a metaphysical kind of aspect, maybe you would say a spiritual aspect to what I’m trying to do, which is to connect us across time to these individuals who really are our ancestors who deserve to be remembered.
MS. TIPPETT: So something we haven’t touched on, but we need to, is that your work, your work of shining a light on Cherokee slaveholding, of black slaves, is painful and controversial for Cherokee people. I mean, you tell a number of stories that you write about people really in a way not wanting you to bring this out into the open, that it’s so difficult. Has that been hard for you?
DR. MILES: It has been hard in moments to feel that my work might not be accepted or valued by some people because of their desire to look away from this past. But I have to say that my experience of doing the work and sharing it really reflects what I have found in the history and that is, at the same time there are people who will turn away, there are people who will open up. This is one thing that I really feel inspired by and that keeps me returning to what really is an incredibly difficult and painful part of our collective past, which is slavery.
That is, at the same time that there were individuals who were doing atrocious, inhumane things, there were always individuals and groups who were confronting that and facing them down and willing to risk their own lives for others. If we didn’t have that to hold onto, I don’t think that I could do this work.
MS. TIPPETT: Your husband is from a Northern Plains tribe. Is that right?
DR. MILES: Mm-hmm, yep.
MS. TIPPETT: Then that means that your in-laws are Native American and your children are both Native and black, right?
DR. MILES: Mm-hmm.
MS. TIPPETT: So in terms of making history useful, I mean, I wonder what does that look like when you see that happen either in people you encounter through your research or even, I don’t know, how you talk to your children about their history?
DR. MILES: My children are three, and I have seven-year-olds who are twins. For me, making history useful is about having a voice, making a contribution to the ways in which people imagine themselves relating in a broader shared culture and a broader shared society. So by unearthing these stories of the past that demonstrate without a doubt that people from various groups that think they now should be divided actually interacted on a number of registers historically, I think creates an incentive and also in some ways creates a map for how we can interact today.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, I think also this probably takes time, right? We’ve talked a lot about time, so this scholarship of yours is still very new. So I’m not sure if this is a fair question, but have you seen interaction, specific relationships, between, let’s say, Cherokees and African-Americans, people connecting around this new imagination?
DR. MILES: I’ve seen it a little bit and I hope to see more of it. One thing that I hope follows from all the scholarship being produced is artistic production, so, you know, more novels, more paintings, more films that I think will take the next step in bringing people together. But there are a few examples that give me quite a lot of hope. I mean, one of the examples comes from someone who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma who actually serves on the Tribal Council there and who I encountered years ago doing research.
And he was someone who was a little bit — how can I put this? He wasn’t very open to the idea that descendants of slaves should be Cherokee citizens, and he didn’t really want to talk about that aspect of my research with me when we encountered each other in the archives. But over time, we kept seeing each other in the archives and we started kind of trading notes and, at some point during his research, he came across a tidbit about an enslaved woman named Pleasant who worked on the Vann plantation and he gave me this tidbit about her. Soon thereafter, he told me that he thought his mind was changing about whether or not descendants of freed people should have citizenship in the Cherokee Nation. So, and again, this was over a matter of, you know, years that this took place.
MS. TIPPETT: There’s that time again.
DR. MILES: That’s right. There’s that time, but I think that it can happen and sometimes it does start with a one-to-one relationship that grows and deepens over time.
MS. TIPPETT: So is there anything else? I mean, we’ve covered a lot of territory. Is there anything you just want to add that is important to you that I haven’t asked you about?
DR. MILES: I don’t know. I think I should add a disclaimer to some of my comments, Krista.
MS. TIPPETT: Why is that?
DR. MILES: Because, I mean, I think I’m an odd duck in some ways in terms of the way I think about history, what I described, metaphysical through spiritual aspect of what I do. I think some historians would cringe at that kind of language. But I’ve always felt that emotional knowledge is an important aspect of the way that we learn and the way that we analyze what it is that we find. And I can’t discount that.
MS. TIPPETT: And don’t you think that our cultures, that even science, is waking us up, that even neuroscience is waking people up to that?
DR. MILES: Oh, yes.
MS. TIPPETT: So waking up the academy then as well?
DR. MILES: Mm-hmm. That’s such a good point, right, when we learn from research and the sciences that, while we think we’re making rational decisions, it’s mostly our emotional brain that’s acting, right.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. So you’re validated.
DR. MILES: Maybe so.
MS. TIPPETT: Tiya Miles is Chair and Professor in the Department of Afro-American and African Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She’s also a Professor of American Culture, Native American Studies, and Women Studies.
Tiya Miles is also the author of The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story. Read more of her writing at onbeing.org — including a link to her essay “Obama and Big History” where she writes more personally about what she calls two versions of history. There’s the “Big History” of presidents and politics alongside the microhistory of people in the throes of their time. She got us thinking about the consequences of forgetting and remembering in our own families and in the world now.
And we were intrigued by her thought that artistic production is one way to reclaim stories forgotten or ignored. So we wonder: Have you unearthed history with painful or healing truths, or both? Are there stories — or pieces of art — you’d like to share with others? Send us your photos, drawings, poems, and reflections at onbeing.org.
There you can download a free copy of this show or to listen to my unedited interview with Tiya Miles. And be sure to “like” us on our Facebook page at facebook.com/onbeing. And follow us on Twitter; our handle: @Beingtweets.
This program is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, and Susan Leem. Anne Breckbill is our Web developer. Kate Moos is a consulting editor.
Special thanks this week to Dave McGuire.
Trent Gilliss is our senior editor. And I’m Krista Tippett.
MS. TIPPETT: Next time: New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof on journalism, compassion, and the wide ethical lens he’s gained on human life — both personal and global. Please join us.