Imagine receiving a telephone call out of the blue, and hearing that you have won $500,000 because a prestigious foundation believes you’re a “genius.”
That’s exactly what happened to Tiya Miles, a University of Michigan professor, wife and mother of three young children.
As Director of U of M’s Department of Afro-American Studies, Dr. Miles is one of 22 recipients of a MacArthur Fellowship.
Nicknamed the “Genius Award,” it is paid in quarterly installments over five years to American citizens “who show exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future,” according to The MacArthur Fellowship website. And the money can be used for anything the winner chooses.
“I was shocked and amazed, transported into some kind of dream space,” says Miles, 42, as sunshine beams into her glass-walled, corner office overlooking the Ann Arbor campus.
Soften-spoken, radiant and wearing a warm brown sweater-slacks ensemble, with a long flow of dreds, Miles says she was home when her husband answered a mysterious phone call for her. She recalls:
“The representative from the MacArthur Foundation asked, ‘Are you sitting down?’ That’s when my heart started beating. I sat on the stairs and he told me the news. I screamed in the poor man’s ear. I couldn’t believe it!”
Adding to the drama: Miles has no idea who nominated her. The Foundation relies on a network of top-secret nominators who are immune to outside influence. Miles wishes she could thank the person who nominated her.
“It’s a dream! Especially for someone like myself who is doing work that’s on the margins…of what’s expected in their field. It’s very validating and really incredible.”
That work is a fascinating look back at a little-known intersection of our nation’s history: that Native Americans enslaved African Americans, and that many Afro-Indian children were born.
Though this has been romanticized, the Cherokee Nation fought membership of former slaves after signing an 1866 treaty with the U.S. government promising compensation to all members, including freed slaves.
The conflict continues today; the Cherokee Nation recently ousted African-American members who could not prove citizenship, and therefore could not vote in tribal elections or receive benefits.
“This ongoing conflict highlights the tension between groups that are vying for resources when the U.S. government holds the purse strings,” says Miles, professor American Culture, Afro-American and African Studies, History and Native American Studies.
To resolve this, Miles strives in her teaching, research, writing and personal life to create a bridge that celebrates harmony between African Americans, Native Americans and all of humanity.
In doing so, her passion for Black-Indian relations extends far beyond the classroom. As an Afro-American Studies major at Harvard University, she met her husband, Dr. Joseph Gone, who is Native American and a University of Michigan professor of Psychology, American Culture and Native American Studies.
They are raising twin daughters, Nali and Noa, 8, and son Sylvan, 3, with immersion in both cultures.
“It’s really important for them to be around their brown-skinned family members so they get a sense of balance that they fit into both places,” says Miles, who earned a master’s degree in Women’s Studies from Emory University in 1995, and a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Minnesota in 2000.
Every summer, they return to her husband’s home reservation in Montana, where their children were baptized in their great-grandmother’s church. They also attend the Milk River Powwow, an annual homecoming for many people of Indian descent who are also Caucasian and African American.
“Our children can see people who are African American and Native American, and that makes a tremendous difference for mixed race children to see other mixed race people and see that they fit.”
Miles says summer trips also enable the children to experience “a slice of what I had growing up as a black girl in Cincinnati. They do things with my relatives, attend a black Baptist church, and go to vacation bible school.”
The family has also joined Miles’ mother at the National Black Theatre Festival in Salem, N.C., where children’s activities included African drumming performances.
Miles’ multicultural family enhances her sensitivity and ability to research, write about and teach historical relations over many centuries between African Americans and Native Americans.
“Her class definitely was the most impactful-hands down, during my entire education-in terms of helping me understand the research process and wanting to participate in it,” says Joy Greenwood, 32, who took Blacks, Indians and the Making of America and served as Miles’ research assistant in 2003.
“Tiya’s warmth and her seriousness combined was very inviting to me in terms of really wanting to be an academic,” says Greenwood, a Detroit native and MBA student at Kennesaw State University in Atlanta, who is applying for doctoral programs.
“I was really blown away by the information I learned from her. I had a romanticized version of African-American and Native American relations.”
But while working with Miles on her first book, Greenwood learned those relations were hardly harmonious.
For Miles, years earlier, this realization almost stopped her from pursuing her expertise that earned the Genius Award.
It happened during the two years that she was researching and writing her dissertation with funding from the Ford Foundation and the Dartmouth College Thurgood Marshall Dissertation Fellowship.
She was determined to find a Black/Indian “superhero” figure, like Harriet Tubman, in Southern American history. This was inspired by hearing her own grandmother’s oral history that glorified the strength and power of Afro-Indian women.
But the more Miles researched, the more her idea seemed like a fantasy. Instead, she found disturbing evidence of Native Americans disavowing African Americans.
“I felt like my heart was broken,” says Miles, who was serving as coordinator of Dartmouth’s Shabazz African American Center, where she co-organized the first national conference on African-American and Native American relations.
“I felt like, ‘How could an oppressed group of people of color disavow their historical ties with Black people when they have people of African ancestry in their tribal nation? And what does that mean about how far we have or have not come?’”
Thankfully, this motivated Miles’ academic work to “help people who stand on opposite sides of this line to find a bridge.”
But as she pursued this to write her dissertation, another incident crushed her spirit.
She was 26, researching an African slave named Doll who was purchased in the 1790s by a Cherokee farmer and celebrated warrior named Shoe Boots.
“I called a state archive and asked if they had material I could use on this topic,” Miles recalls. “I said my real interest was looking at Black and Native women. The archivist laughed out loud!”
Miles was devastated. “He said Black women were not important enough to be remembered and Native women were not important enough to be remembered, let alone together,” Miles recalls, as her office darkens with clouds passing overhead.
She feared she’d never write her dissertation-or graduate.
That’s when her mentor, Native American historian Dr. Jean O’Brien at the University of Minnesota, encouraged her to persevere.
“She said if I knew that Shoe Boots and Doll existed, I should not give up. Four months later, I found the most important document, the Shoe Boots Emancipation with Shoe Boots and Doll.” The subject matter became Miles’ first book, Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom (2005), which of course she sent – along with her second book, The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story (University of North Carolina Press 2011)-to the archivist who had laughed at her.
As she says this, smiling, the sun suddenly illuminates her office.
It is this type of courage and perseverance that enabled her to pioneer new ground in academia, earning her the Genius grant.
“When she received the phone call notifying her that she had won a MacArthur Fellowship,” says her husband, Dr. Gone, “I felt overwhelming pride in and for her, thanks to the distinctive recognition that her work so truly deserves.”
He adds, “To me, the most amazing aspect of Tiya’s scholarly contribution is that it sensitively sympathizes with the historical predicaments of both African Americans and American Indians without averting our gaze from the horror and heartbreak that characterized some of the encounters between these peoples.”
Miles says she may use some of the money for a program she founded in 2011, called ECO Girls – Environmental and Cultural Opportunities for Girls in urban Southeast Michigan.
Her goal? Promoting the positive development of girls and helping the environment by pairing college students with girls of color in economically challenged areas. Miles said she’d been receiving small grants, but was not sure how to fund this project. Now she knows.
The fellowship will also facilitate research-including facts about slaves in Michigan.
Miles, who taught in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California- Berkeley before moving to the University of Michigan in 2002, views her good fortune through a thick lens of gratitude, intensified by the historical perspective of how women of color have struggled and sacrificed.
“I cannot look at my daughters without thinking about the history of Afro-Native women in slavery, and the kinds of experiences they would have had. It’s heart-breaking because I know our ancestors went through that. We have so much to be grateful for today, standing on the shoulders of others.”
She adds: “There, but for the grace of time, go I.”
Elizabeth Atkins is a veteran journalist an author of five novellas, including “White Chocolate,” featuring mixed-race people in provocative plots.