- Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom by Tiya Miles
When Ties That Bind was first released in 2005, the work represented a historiographical impetus to combine studies of African American and Native American pasts in discussions of slavery, colonialism, removal, and emancipation. For that original monograph, author Tiya Miles was awarded the Frederick Jackson Turner Prize. In the decade between that extremely engaged empirical monograph and the rerelease of her work in this necessary second edition, racial questions in American history and politics have faced tortuous ebbs and flows with the innumerable deaths of Katrina, the election of the first black president, and the emergence of a strong white nationalist reactionary movement with considerable force in the present political period. As Miles summarizes in her new preface, these present racial concerns make her work even more revelatory for those on the Gulf Coast, where Katrina worked to unintentionally unveil the deep racism still churning beneath Atlantic tides.
The aggressive empiricism that Miles applied throughout her work is testament to a love of her subjects and a respect for the history those characters faced. Miles’s narrative follows the history of the Shoe Boots family from the 1790s until the 1860s in Georgia and Oklahoma Territory. The history specifically follows the life of Doll, wife of the Cherokee hero Shoe Boots. For Miles, Doll Shoe Boots was an Afro-Cherokee woman who fought for freedom in the American South but often found that “freedom” meant different things to the various groups that often controlled her life. For Miles, this historical analysis was therefore an activist project. It operated to recover a lost historical figure to expose the iniquities of the past as a means to critique the lack of acknowledgment of institutional racism in the American present.
Like Anette Gordon-Reed’s later The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (2008), Miles’s monograph explored a family tree of slaves and freedpeople who lived through various momentous eras of American history. This family history began in the era of the American Revolution, continued through the Red Stick War, and crested during the attempted civilizing process of Native Americans in Georgia, which [End Page 274] often included altered systems of slaveholding and the intensification of racism within Native American societies. Miles specifically provided dynamic historical sketches of how race, class, and gender informed intersectional decision making for the female members of the Shoe Boots family, especially Doll and her two daughters, Elizabeth and Polly.
Miles was initially lauded for providing new ways to read sources for Native American history. In her project of historical recovery, Miles plunged into the abyss of court records, statutes related to slavery, letters, deeds, missionary diaries, newspapers, land grants, lottery tickets, government petitions, and estate inventories. The most exemplary reading of a unique source came with Miles’s deep engagement with family patriarch Shoe Boots’s 1824 petition on behalf of his enslaved children’s emancipation. In this analysis, Miles explored terminological issues that uncovered different dialogues between the intimacy of Cherokee relationships and the necessity of nationalist performance. Miles provided emotionality to these dispersed sources of racial banality through using narrative foundations from the time to fill in the gaps where Doll could not be discovered in the original record. Often, Harriet Jacobs’s slave narrative was used to describe what may have happened to Doll in similar moments of her life.
Where such contemporary parallels could not be drawn, Miles often applied anachronistic emotionality through the use of modern literature, especially through the application of demonstrative epigraphs and with the presentation of Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987). This wide foundation informed an activist history that found little fault with applying anachronism as a means to recover a subaltern life clouded by archival prejudices. The inventive methodology that Miles engaged was portrayed through numerous appendices, which reproduced original texts, exposed methodological tactics, and offered future guidance for scholars to engage similar texts on African American and Native...