By Tiya Miles
How does an American studies scholar come to write an historical novel about an Afro-Cherokee family?
In 2005, I published my first book, a revised and augmented version of the Ph.D. dissertation that I had written in the Department of American Studies at the University of Minnesota. The book, titled Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom, covers the sweep of 19th-century Cherokee history through the experience of one Native and black mixed-race family—Shoe Boots, a famous Cherokee war hero, Doll, an enslaved African American woman (and Shoe’s sexual partner)‚ and their five children.
The narrative shows how the social, political, and economic changes that shaped the family members’ lives were formed in large part by major historical happenings—including colonialism, slavery, Cherokee nationalism, Indian Removal, and the U.S. Civil War. There is loss, betrayal, and suffering in the story, and wrongs inflicted by oppressed groups upon other oppressed groups. At the same time, there is bravery, perseverance, and love—and glimmers of what might have been, if only racial hierarchy and race slavery had not taken such powerful hold in the early years of U.S. nation-building and Cherokee nation-building.
Since the book’s release, I have been asked by readers how I discovered my topic and how I found the fragmented sources necessary to reconstruct this story. I’ve also been asked how I came to use literary works as conceptual guides for understanding the themes and meanings of the family’s life and times, and, more fundamentally, how I determined to press forward with this project despite its sensitivity and its complex relationship to contemporary political and racial struggles within former slaveholding Native tribes.
There are long answers to each of these questions, which speak to the delicate and layered processes, the trials and misadventures, of historical research and interpretation. But there is also a short answer to all of the questions about how I came to produce The Ties That Bind: Because of the intellectual openness instilled in me by my American studies mentors.
At Minnesota, the seeds of my book were planted in classes that challenged me to view the world of ideas in new ways. A course on race in U.S. history helped me to understand race as a materially real ideological construction and as a force in political and social life. A comparative course on literature in the American South and South Africa brought seemingly distant places and politics into intimate relationship. A course on place and Native American literature treated literature as a key site where theorization of Native experience emerges. And a course on Native American history introduced the historical overlap between the Native American and African American pasts through a reading and discussion of race and anti-black feeling in a southern Indian tribe. Each of these courses, among others, taught me fresh ways of framing questions, seeking answers, and thinking about histories, texts, and socio-political relations.
In addition, my dissertation advisors (David Roediger, Carol Miller, Jean O’Brien, Brenda Child, and Angela Dillard) permitted me to think broadly and boldly about my topic. I still have a letter from David pinned to a bulletin board in my office. Responding to a dissertation chapter I had sent him, he wrote: “Be as free-wheeling as you want to be.”
From the start, my advisers gently pushed me to take risks with the material I was struggling to understand, let alone find sources for. They gave me methodological and interpretive courage as I developed what was a fairly unusual dissertation. Along the way, they asked questions that challenged me anew—pushing me to fill in gaps in historiography, to distinguish between imagined realities and arguments for which I had firm evidence, and to think through and clearly explain my rationale for using literature as historical source and for reading historical documents like texts.
Part of our work as American studies scholars is to critically assess U.S. claims of exceptionalism with regard to lofty ideals like freedom, and so I do not want to claim exceptionalism for the academic field of American studies. Exciting work is produced in every corner of the academy, and American studies struggles with its own demons of disciplinary identity, diversity, and power. Still, for me, American Studies has been a liberating and satisfying space for intellectual and methodological creativity.
Tiya Miles is an assistant professor of American culture at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her book Ties That Bind (U of California Press, 2005) has been awarded the 2006 Frederick Jackson Turner Award from the Organization of American History.