Last week one of the winners of the McArthur Genius awards was University of Michigan history professor Dr. Tiya Miles, who’s spent her professional life studying the relationships between Cherokee Indians, enslaved African-Americans and free blacks in America.
Coincidentally, her award comes amid a very contentious climate. Last month the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court reversed and vacated a district court decision that granted equal tribal citizenship rights to descendants of freedmen — former slaves who had been owned by Cherokees.
In an interview with Loop21.com Dr. Miles provides some context, history and expert opinion on what’s been happening.
Loop 21: The expulsion of the freedmen in 2007 — would it be accurate to describe that in terms of pure racism towards the descendants of slaves, or is it more complex than that?
Dr. Tiya Miles: I think that one aspect of this is a latent anti-black prejudice. And I have to say, Cherokees aren’t alone in this. What group in this country has not been affected by the anti-black prejudice that proliferates within our culture and has for our whole history? I think everyone is affected by this. And native people have really been targeted to be drawn into a heightened awareness of racial hierarchy and where they sit in that hierarchy. That’s an aspect people might not want to address directly. I think another issue is also a fear of depleted resources. This is a moment when everyone is concerned about economics and thinking about whether or not we’re going to see a double-dip recession, and how long the downturn will last. In this kind of environment I think people want to tighten their fist. And they want to think about how they can better their own small group. Perhaps to the detriment of minorities in that group — I think that’s going here too. And also the Cherokee Nation has legitimate reason to feel resentful — not to the descendants of freed people; I think they ought to be grateful to them since their ancestors helped build that nation — but resentful to the United States government. I think that the Cherokee’s feelings of resentment is legitimate when it’s directed toward the federal government, and I think it’s illegitimate when turned toward the descendants of slaves who helped the Cherokee nation to survive, who helped them to move across the Trail of Tears, who did the labor to make their journey that was awful, to make their journey less horrific, and who really built their wealth in Indian territory.
Loop 21: What are the moral problems with the Dawes laws that started this separation between Cherokee and black freedmen?
Miles: I think that most people who have looked at the Dawes laws and thought about them would acknowledge that these are really flawed lists of not only the Cherokee nation but also all Native nations. They are flawed in more ways than we can even talk about right now. First of all, Native people, for the most part, didn’t even want to be involved in the process. Of course that was a process started by the United States federal government to divide up tribal lands and individuals. This was a policy on the part of the government to break up native peoplehood, and to get them to feel like private property was all important to them, as opposed to communal property, or betterment of the entire group. From the very beginning this was something that native people protested and didn’t want. So it’s saddening that — and ironic — that right now in 2011 these lists that Native people didn’t even want to be involved in are now being used to legitimize things like taking away citizenship status from descendants of slaves — that’s only one part of the problem.
Loop 21: The U.S. Housing and Urban Development froze $33 million from the Cherokee nation. Did that move undermine Cherokee sovereignty?
Miles: I am no legal scholar, but my own personal opinion about this is that I would have been very disturbed if the U.S. Supreme Court came out and told the Cherokee Nation that you must do x, y and z. Because I think that would have definitely undercut Cherokee sovereignty. That’s not what happened, though. What happened was the U.S. government told the Cherokee government that they might be withholding funds. And that sounded to me like a nation-to-nation discussion, and that’s what sovereign nations do. So if China told the United States they were going to withhold funds from us would we say they are undercutting our sovereignty? Probably not. We’d be very upset, but we would say they have a right as a nation to do that. So while I think even though this whole situation and the way it was played out was ugly, and you have to admit that it was, it could have been much worse, if the United States government did in some direct way said you Cherokee nation must do x, y or z, but that didn’t happen. The Cherokee nation made a decision.