TheGrio's 100: Tiya Miles, bringing Cherokee and African-American history to the forefront

theGRIO's 100 - Tiya Miles, Ph.D., has devoted her life to studying the literature, culture and history of African and Native Americans in the past and present...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

More than 170 years ago, during what’s known as the Trail of Tears, thousands of Indians were forced to move from the eastern part of the U.S. to what is now Oklahoma. Some of those who owned plantations in the South brought their slaves.

Miles has devoted her life to studying the literature, culture and history of African and Native Americans in the past and present, writing two books on the subject. She is a professor at the University of Michigan and chairs the school’s Department of Afroamerican and African Studies.

Last year, the Cherokee nation voted to formally expel thousands slave descendants from its membership. Tiya Miles, a 41-year-old historian who studies the relationship between Cherokees and African-American slaves in colonial America, led a debate on the issue on the New York Times’ website.

Tiya Miles is making history … as one of the foremost experts in the relationship between Cherokee Indian and African-Americans in colonial America. Her years of work collecting and analyzing information from the U.S. Census, oral histories and newspapers has been recognized by the MacArthur Foundation, which awarded her with a MacArthur Genius grant last year.

What’s next for Tiya?

Miles continues her academic work at the University of Michigan, and continues her philanthropic work as the founder of ECO girls, a group she started last year that provides environmental and cultural opportunities for young girls from urban communities in Southeast Michigan. Through partnerships with the university, the YMCA and local museums, young girls go on field trips and participate in a week-long summer camp, where they learn about environmental issues and how it relates to their own neighborhoods and culture.

In her own words …

“I think that history matters so much to who we are as individuals, as communities, as a nation, as a global community. I feel that it’s just so important to bring the meaningful stories of the past into the present, into today, and to allow people to engage with them and to connect them back to their own lives,” Miles said in a MacArthur Foundation video.

A little-known fact about the Cherokee nation …

The Cherokee nation is the second-largest Native American tribe in the U.S. with more than 285,000 members. (The Navajo tribe is the largest, with more than 300,000 members.)

For more information about Tiya Miles, click THE”>here GRIO’S Q& A WITH TIYA MILES

Q: What’s next in this chapter of your life?

A: I am currently serving in my first year as the chair of the University of Michigan’s newly minted Department of Afroamerican and African Studies. I am also in the very beginning stages of a new research project on slavery and struggles for freedom in Detroit, which I hope will add another layer to our understanding of that unique city’s history. I look forward to doing more research and imaginative writing about the lives of African-American and Native American people.

Q: What’s a fact about you that many people don’t know?

A: One of my most cherished possessions is a quilt made by my grandmother’s sister when they were both girls in Mississippi. I never met my great aunt, but I inherited the quilt from my grandmother. It is a fresh and fanciful medley of bright colors and shapes: pinks, greens, blues, diamonds, polka dots, rectangles. I keep it in my home office where I can always see it, and I feel like it somehow captures the creative aspects of my inner life.

Q: What’s your favorite quote?

A: Here is one among my many favorite quotations, from Alice Walker’s definition of Womanism in the book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: “Womanist. 1. From womanish. (Opp. Of “girlish,” i.e., frivolous, irresponsible, not serious.) A black feminist or feminist of color . . .Traditionally capable, as in: ‘Mama, I’m walking to Canada and I’m taking you and a bunch of other slaves with me.’ Reply: ‘It wouldn’t be the first time.’”

Q: Where do you get your inspiration?

A: I feel inspired by the brilliant ideas expressed by my elders — senior black women intellectuals and authors, and I also feel inspired by the examples of the sometimes quiet, often brave lives that our ancestors lived in order to survive, create, and make a better world for their descendants.

Q: Who are/were your mentors?

A: I enjoy an embarrassment of riches when it comes to mentors, both formal and informal. Older family members were my mentors from the very beginning: my grandparents, parents, and aunts. In my academic career I have benefitted from the generosity of more good people than I could possibly name from a range of racial and gender backgrounds. Mentors do not always come in the external packaging that one might expect. I think it pays off to be open to support from many corners.

Q: What advice would you give to anyone who wants to achieve their dreams?

A: I don’t think that any big dream comes to fruition without being fed by imagination, time, and nose-to-the-grindstone hard work. If you have a dream, feed it well!