Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Historical Paradox

The excerpt we read from Tiya Miles’ Ties That Bind struck me as intriguing and somewhat puzzling. The fact that Native Americans owned slaves was a facet of American history that I had never come across before, and I was definitely surprised to learn that it happened. Furthermore, the Indian elder’s fearful reaction upon learning that Miles was writing on the subject, and the internal struggle Miles faced about the impact of her book, was especially noteworthy. The strength of the Indians’ desire to disremember this part of their past, to erase it from the history books, was disconcerting. However, as we discussed in class, the topics that society keeps quiet are often the ones that need to be examined the most. While this chapter in history may have been left untold for years, that does not mean that it doesn’t hold significance today. The paradoxical nature of this connection between African Americans and Native Americans is worth examining today because these two groups are so intertwined.

It was for this reason that I found African American actor Don Cheadle’s reaction in an interview with “African American Lives 2” so interesting. When the interviewer reveals the information that Cheadle’s ancestors were enslaved by Native Americans of the Chickasaw nation, Cheadle seems extremely surprised and is not immediately sure how to react. In addition, the interviewer mentioned that after the Civil War ended, the five tribes who held slaves actually refused to liberate them and the Chickasaw tribe continued the practice until 1866. Cheadle expresses his feelings through this quote: “The two biggest blights of the way this country started, slavery and the genocide of the Native Americans and the Trail of Tears and all those horrible stories of what happened to the native people here… and then our family was owned by people who had suffered- it’s just mind-blowing.” I feel that his words perfectly capture why I felt so conflicted in reading Miles’ work. At first glance, it just seems contradictory that the Indians, who had suffered terrible treatment at the hands of the white settlers, participated in slavery.

However, the reality is that the relationship was far more complex than that for both sides of the story, and it is a history that deserves to be told. The whole concept of ‘disremembering’, forgetting or denying the past because we are ashamed or embarrassed or fearful of what the reaction might be, degrades the present. Miles mentions the “power of the unspoken,” how “the very stories that pain us so are the maps to our inner worlds, and to the better worlds that we envision for our children.” Even if the concept of Native Americans owning slaves seems like a historical paradox, learning about the intricacies and inner-workings of that narrative helps to break the historical silence that surrounds the events some would rather disremember.

Link to the Don Cheadle interview:

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