There is an incredible array of different historical writings and interpretations of slavery in America in the Antebellum period. One could be mistaken into thinking that there is nothing left to research and debate. Yet, what is rarely mentioned in the annals of American history are the profound effects slavery has had on the Native American nations.
Hoping to illuminate this often overlooked part in American history, Tiya Miles, author of Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom, gives a chilling view into a part of American history that many may not know about and may wish not to know of. Miles work follows the story and life of Shoe Boots (a Cherokee), Doll (his African slave and wife), and their children. In examining this strange and unique family dynamic, Miles seeks to gain a broader picture of the interconnected relationships of slavery, race, gender, family, and citizenship in the Cherokee Nation.
Both investigative and critical at times, Miles’s Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom is an impressive beast of a book that successfully goads its readers into provocative discussions and debates about the nature of racism, nationality and the harsh byproducts of slavery. The story is divided into two parts, “Bone of My Bone Slavery, Race, and Nation—East” and “Of Blood and Bone: Freedom, Kinship, and Citizenship–West”.
The first part tells of the early life of Shoe Boots, his marriage and eventual abandonment by his first wife Clarinda Allington, and his early exploits with Doll. The latter half deals with Doll’s marriage to Shoe, her attempts at acquiring citizenship for her children, and the Boots family’s exodus to the state of Oklahoma. The book’s epilogue explains what happens to the family’s descendants. When reading the book, it comes into question about what purpose Miles would use the Boots family for and why.
The Boots family was the first Afro-Cherokee union to be officially recognized by the Cherokee National government. In her eyes, this was enough to warrant a book or two, yet still, she saw an even grandeur purpose for them. They were the perfect measuring tool to be used to gauge the societal change occurring from the late 18th century to early 20th century. For Miles, the story of the Boots family encapsulates the bombastic nature of European colonialism, the increasing emergence and prevalence of African chattel, and the slow erosion of old Native American customs and traditions.
The most important aspect of the Miles’s book is its innate ability for providing context for the relationships and interpersonal relationships of Native Americans, Blacks, and Whites. The flare-up black slaves, intermarriage with “mix-blood” children, and increased contact with Euro-America produced a Cherokee culture that was heavily strained, flawed and oftentimes contradictive. Throughout her narration we see traumatic confrontations such as shifts in the perception of field work as well as ideas of selfworth.
We also see older customs that were accustomed to pride and respect abandoned for the conceptualized ideologies of gaining prestige amongst the white community. Miles supports her argument with a collection of prints from the Cherokee Phoenix, a newspaper that sought to instill ideas of attaining a level equity from whites by copying their styles, demeanor, and piousness, “Members of the Cherokee elite urged their daughters to model themselves after the gentle, chaste, pious women represented in American mass culture. ” (20).
Miles does an impressive job of giving a distinctive image to her readers about the relationships and interpersonal relationships within the Cherokee Nation. The style of this book is both analytical as well as narrative allowing it to bridge the gap of being both educational for scholars and enjoyable for casual readers. The narrative nature of this book illustrates important key moments for Boots’s family while each chapter’s theme analyses these events to produce a better vivid illustration of the relationships between Blacks and Indians.
A great example of this would be in the fourth chapter headed “Property”, in which Miles demonstrations the unforgiving realities that Doll must have faced as she had to contend with knowledge that she may be the wife, she is still bound like any other slave, “Though her position as Shoe Boots’s partner may have lent her a degree of protection from the realities of being an owned person, the relationships she must have had with other slaves would have kept her keenly aware of the instability of her status. “(65).
She would then exemplify this detail by explaining that the Cherokee traditionally did not place much value on personal possessions before the arrival of the Europeans. She notes that encroaching Euro-American views of private property and slavery galvanized Cherokee customs and beliefs pushing them to view and accept Blacks as property. This a great method by Miles as her narrative approach helps readers invest into the lives of the characters while her critical analyses keep the book rooted enough to ensure that the core message is still understood by the audience.
Carefully and meticulously crafted, the story of the Boots family was difficult to produce due to in part of there being almost zero autobiographical or personal records of Shoe Boots and Doll. Miles should be commended for gathering a plethora of different sources that ranged from oral accounts from descendants, government census records, and even biographical accounts from other Afro-Cherokee families.
What should be noted, and Miles acknowledges this, is that the book does use fictional accounts and stories like Toni Morrison’s tale Beloved to give the readers a more vivid picture of what life was like for black slaves. However, this should not detract from the fact that Miles faced difficulties of acquiring unpolluted and misinformed sources written by white ethnographers, historians, travelers, and missionaries.
To quote from istinguished writer Liz black, “Not only do the Cherokee voices represented tend to emanate from particular subsets of the Cherokee community educated mixed-white people who were intellectuals and political leaders but these voices were also edited at the time of their inscription toward particular political ends. ” (208). Most records written about both women and people of color during the 19th century was produced by white men and to Miles’s credit these sources may very well be the best and only places to search for.