Searching for the Historical Truth in African and American Indian Relationships

Tiya Miles has a passion for learning about how what happened in America’s early history still affects society, in particular the interactions between African and American Indian peoples.

She is a professor of American culture, history, women’s studies and Native American studies at the University of Michigan and chair of the Afroamerican and African Studies Department, and in fall 2011 she was awarded one of the so-called Genius Grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. She and 21 other people received $500,000 over five years to be used however each “genius” sees fit, with no strings attached.

Miles is best known for her study of the relationship between African and Cherokee peoples in American history, and her two books on the topic: Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom and The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story. Her newest research project is leading her on an interesting journey through the history of early Detroit: “I’m finding that Native Americans were slaves in the Detroit area and also participated in the captivity and trade of [black and Native] slaves in Detroit,” she says.

In her own life, Miles straddles the two worlds that fascinate her: She is an African American married to an American Indian—Joseph Gone, a citizen of the Gros Ventre tribal nation of Montana. Together they have three young children—twin girls and a young son. She says that her family has a story passed down through generations about having Native American ancestry, but she recognizes the limitations of that. “My personal feeling is that having Native American ancestry is a very different thing from actually being Native American. I think that having ancestry means there might be somebody in your family tree who was in a Native family and community and who practiced the cultural ways and spoke the language of that community.… In my mind, being Native American would mean something that is much more present and all encompassing in that person’s life in the present.” She emphasizes that she is not claiming to be Indian, and says it’s pretty common among African Americans to find an oral history of Native American ancestry or kinship that can’t quite be pinned down.

Two things led to her interest in African American and Native American histories. The first was the seed planted as a child listening to stories about her family’s Native American ancestry.

The second thing was meeting her husband in college. “I found myself thrust into a different kind of world,” she recalls. “In college I wasn’t really aware of Native issues. I started going to meetings with him and realized that African-American experiences and problems were not the center of the world. I was doing black studies and was the co-editor of the black literary magazine on campus and participated in all the black groups—that was my life. When I thought of things like racism, social justice and equity I [only] thought of the black experience.

“Once I learned in graduate school that some Native Americans had owned slaves, I really wanted to research it, because I wanted to prove that wrong.” She assumed back then that Native Americans were supporters of black slaves and gave them a safe haven. “I had the naïve belief that people of color would have all joined together and fought white supremacy,” she says. But through her research she found that in the 1700 and 1800s there wasn’t that sense of “people of color,” or even the sense of “Native American.” “Everybody was in their own group, within their own nation. It would not have been natural at all for them to think, Let’s build a coalition [with blacks] and fight these other people who are white because we are all alike.

They weren’t alike in many ways—African Americans had their family and cultural history in Africa and they were newcomers to North America, as were Europeans.

“I want to write a history of early Detroit that puts Native Americans and African Americans at the center, and tries to think about how the city developed from a perspective that isn’t Eurocentric. I’m guessing that when people think about Detroit and black history they think about Motown and urban unrest, and when they think about the Native history of Detroit they probably think about Pontiac’s rebellion. That was a long time ago—in 1763. I think it’s important for people to see that when Detroit officially became a town in 1802, it was in an Indian place.”

She wants to explore what it meant to have a Native area that ended up becoming a critical metropolis in the United States, and says slavery was an aspect of Detroit’s culture from the beginning of its history. “One of the things that really caught my attention in Detroit is that this was not a situation like in the South, where we had Native slaveholders and black slaves… [in Detroit] there were both black and Native slaves.”

Down the road, Miles says she would also like to research black and Native relationships in Montana. “That is going to be a different and difficult story that is going to be painful in its own way. In the American South we are talking about Native slaveholders and black slaves. But in the West we are really talking about black buffalo soldiers having the job of policing and confining Native people.”

In addition to her research and professorial duties, she is also dedicated to making a difference in the lives of local youth. In 2011, Miles founded a project in Southeast Michigan she calls ECO Girls—or Environmental and Cultural Opportunities for Girls. The program focuses on environmental education and exploration by drawing on diverse cultural understandings and simultaneously works to foster self-confidence and friendships among diverse participants. She said twice a month the girls gather to do such things as hear traditional stories about nature, pick apples or take a walk on a forest trail. The group is for girls in second through seventh grades and focuses on five themes close to Miles’s heart—ecological literacy, water, food, energy and sustainability.

Although she spends a lot of her time focusing on the past, she is a big presence in the here and now.

For more information about Miles, her current projects, publications or the ECO Girls, visit the University of Michigan website here.