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African-Native American Genealogy Forum

Shoe Boots - Does anyone have history of this family

Historian finds shared roots between blacks and Native Americans

TIYA MILES talks with Points about little-known aspects of U.S. past

12:09 PM CDT on Sunday, April 22, 2007

University of Michigan historian Tiya Miles has devoted much of her career to exploring the relationship between American blacks and Indians under slavery and in its aftermath. The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture has recognized Dr. Miles as one of the nation's most promising young humanities scholars by awarding her this year's $50,000 Hiett Prize. The annual award recognizes "a person whose work in the humanities shows extraordinary promise and has a significant public component related to contemporary culture." Dr. Miles will receive the award in a gala dinner Wednesday at the Dallas Museum of Art, with documentary filmmaker Ken Burns as guest speaker. Dr. Miles talked last week with Points.

Many Americans would be surprised to learn that there is a historical connection between African-American slaves and Native Americans. What should all Americans know about this history and why isn't it better known?

The connections between Native Americans and people of African descent in what is now the United States run long and deep. The very first European explorers in North America recorded the forging of ties between blacks and native people, who were being brought into contact through the crucible of European exploration, colonization and slavery.

For example, in 1539, when Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto traveled through the American Southeast with African bondsmen among his crew, he destroyed native temples, seized precious pearls and kidnapped indigenous people. His captives included a female leader of a Mississippian chiefdom. This woman, known as the Lady of Cofitachequi, ran away with several Indian and African slaves. After the escape, the Lady married one of the formerly enslaved black men.

Another example comes much later in time and is the focus of my first book. At the center of this story is a Cherokee man named Shoe Boots and a black woman named Doll. Shoe Boots was a prominent warrior and farmer who, like a minority of middle class and wealthy Cherokees, took up slave ownership in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Doll was one of the first slaves Shoe Boots purchased, and over time, they developed an intimate relationship. They lived together for over 25 years and had five children. There are many elements of tragedy in this story, one of which is that there is no evidence of Shoe Boots ever freeing Doll. However, there is evidence that Shoe Boots cared for and attempted to protect his children, whom he freed through a petition to the Cherokee government and for whom he secured Cherokee citizenship.

Learning about these early histories leads us to a number of important realizations: One is that the takeover of indigenous lands and the assignment of hierarchical racial categories to human beings were not foregone conclusions; rather, these were happenings that had to be rationalized, fought for and maintained by the Euro-American power elite. Native people and black people fought for their homelands, survival and freedom sometimes separately and sometimes together, and sometimes in ways that seem counterproductive and even immoral.

This is where Native American ownership of black slaves enters the picture. Near the turn of the 19th century, a minority of native people of the Southeast began to own black slaves, largely due to political and economic pressure from Euro-Americans. Native people were told by U.S. officials that if they could prove they were "civilized" in ways defined by white America, they would be protected from further loss of communal lands. Slave ownership, leading to higher agricultural productivity, was one example of such "civilized" behavior. As Shoe Boots's choices show, the ideologies of Euro-American race prejudice and black slavery did eventually penetrate Native American communities. Racism, tied to fear of being classed with the subjugated African-descended group, proved a strong, and as we now know, enduring mechanism for controlling people even against their own interests.

What does the relationship between these two oppressed peoples and how they both interacted with whites tell us about the making of our country?

I believe that we learn, from stories like these, that the United States as a nation was forged out of blood, sweat and tears not just the blood of Euro-American patriots, as many Hollywood films would have us believe but also the blood of native people and African-Americans. These histories show us the extent to which colonialism (the usurpation of indigenous lands) and slavery (the theft of labor) were intertwined in the founding, expansion and economic growth of the United States. As U.S. inhabitants who benefit from the wealth of this country, we all live with the legacy of these crimes. There is a terrible history here that we must come to terms with, but there is also a tradition of brave and visionary struggle on the part of many individual African-Americans, Native Americans and allies that we can look to for inspiration in our current interracial challenges.

How did your research, your immersing yourself in these historical narratives, change you?

My professional interest in this field began in a graduate seminar in Native American history where I was first introduced to the work of colonial historian James Merrell. His research on the Catawba Nation of Carolina and on Catawbas' complicated and changing relationships with people of African descent captured my imagination. I realized then that stories I had heard in my own community of black slaves "running away to the Indians" did not include the full complexity of this history; neither did they explain the contemporary political and cultural issues that emerged from the history.

This new knowledge strengthened an interest and conviction that had already been present in my personal life. In college I had met a Native American man from Montana who would become my husband, and together we had witnessed some of the issues around race and color that divided members of our communities. Through this personal relationship I came to care very deeply about the experiences of Native people and about continuing Native struggles for self-determination. Now that I have children who are both Native and black, I feel an even greater sense of urgency in unearthing these histories of interrelationship.

How do we correct and counteract the whitewashing of history without turning history into merely a narrative of suffering?

I believe that black suffering as well as Cherokee suffering, which was also very real in the 19th-century South is an important aspect of this history that must not be obscured. To do so would be to dishonor the very real people whose lives were diminished by the misery of chattel slavery, land theft, poverty, hunger and government wrongs not to mention the dishonor this would do to the quest for some glimpse of the "truth" that we are after as students of history. However, the reality of suffering also reveals the humanity of people in the past the beauty of what they sought in life, the resilience they demonstrated in surviving day to day, the courage they mustered to exist in times too painful for us to imagine, and the tragedy of their losses of dignity and life. We see, in this history, not only suffering, but also the brilliance and fragility of our common humanity.

This Q&A was conducted by Rod Dreher, a Dallas Morning News editorial columnist.

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18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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