Home > Guest Posts > Guest Post by Tiya Miles

In this special guest post, Tiya Miles, professor of history at the University of Michigan, a 2011 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship winner, and founder of ECO Girls, shares her thoughts on a recent conference connecting the history of enslavement to the continuation of unjust confinement and incarceration today. As she notes, the conference raised questions for many attendees about our responsibilities as historians in the present when confronting problems like human trafficking and modern-day enslavement.

The 15th Annual Gilder Lehrman Center (GLC) International Conference at Yale University, held in November 2013, focused on the theme of Indigenous Enslavement and Incarceration in North American History. Conceived by Native American history scholar, Ned Blackhawk, in collaboration with GLC Director, David Blight, and organized by Blackhawk, Blight, and the fantastic GLC staff members: Assistant Director, David Spatz, Melissa McGrath, and Thomas Thurston, the conference generated insightful, intense and heartfelt discussion. According to Blackhawk, this two-day symposium garnered the largest pre-registration in the history of the GLC, a testimony to the high interest in slavery in native experience, in the intersections of slavery (past and present) and incarceration, as well as in the overlaps and echoes between Native American and African American histories.

The interdisciplinary event drew together scholars of Native American studies, slavery studies, African American studies, and legal studies, as well as legal and mental health practitioners from the U.S. and Canada and numerous members of the New England native and black communities. The conversations ranged from a collective meditation on the power of dreams as a force outside of colonialism (inspired by literary scholar Beth Piatote) to confining images of native people in children’s literature (spurred by education studies scholar Debbie Reese), to the jailing of children in present-day Montana (noted by sociologist Luana Ross).

I was among the many people who described this gathering as a momentous and inspiring event that stands out for the degree of connection it fostered among participants. As it happens, I was also privileged to speak on the Concluding Roundtable for the conference, which featured brief remarks by Margaret Jacobs, Tsianina Lomawaima, and Ned Blackhawk. It is these remarks that I have been asked to share with the Historians Against Slavery community.

In this gathering we have been linking together the themes of indigenous enslavement and incarceration—tracing the locations, contexts and effects of native confinement within colonialism. We have also been broadening and complicating our accustomed definitions of "slavery" and "incarceration," pushing imprisonment backward into scenes of slavery (as in examples of slaves jailed in plantation out buildings and urban jails and hence doubly confined) and identifying multiple locations of confinement across time: from the plantation of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to the Indian reservation of the late 1800s and early 1900s, to the early boarding school era. The enlightening and astute comments made by presenters and audience members alike inspire me to draw out four themes that I hope we can contemplate further.

1. Race and racialization

Our discussion pointed out the necessity of identifying and exploring the categorization of black and native people as racially different and devalued—what Khalil Muhammad called "black and brown bodies marked as degraded and inferior"—as related to their vulnerability to enslavement and confinement. We saw this in anthropologist Robbie Ethridge’s discussion of the Indian slave trade in the southern "shatter zone" and in historian Christine DeLucia’s discussion of anti-Indian racism deepening after King Philip’s War. There was not, after all, an English slave trade or a French slave trade. We also saw the presence of race in Justice Murray Sinclair’s keynote lecture description of how First Nations peoples in Canada were viewed by Canadian officials—as uncivilized and intellectually inferior—the "badges" of race (to borrow language from Amy Dru Stanley’s article on the Thirteenth Amendment from the June 2010 article of American Historical Review) that made them targets of residential schooling (or boarding schools). We also saw race as a key factor in presentations by historians Fay Yarbrough, Rachel Purvis, and Melinda Miller on race, slavery and the complexities of emancipation in the Cherokee Nation, where Cherokee people—themselves ideologically corralled and expelled, confined other people (racialized as black) on farms, plantations, and ranches. We have to ask why and to keep central this issue of race that conference attendee Tall Oak raised as "the elephant in the room."

2. The Interbraiding of Red and Black Atlantics

This evocative phrasing used by literary scholar Jace Weaver in his talk highlighted the intersection of native and black histories and stories in the Atlantic World. We have seen numerous examples in this conference of the various strands of this "interbraiding"—from the slave trade in "blue water" (again, Weaver’s language) to the shockingly high statistics of native and black imprisonment rates cited by Luana Ross and Khalil Muhammad, to literary scholar Lisa Brooks’s concise and moving articulation of an historical exchange of bodies to work stolen land, in which she described African slaves brought by force to North America while "native bodies were converted into labor to work expropriated land in other parts of the world."

3. Mapping the Range of Carceral Spaces in Native North America

As I mentioned previously, the plantation, reservation, and the school have all been marked as carceral spaces by presenters. Christine DeLucia also evoked the role of natural features of the land as a factor in confinement history as well as the public memory of that history, referencing historian Walter Johnson’s notion of the plantation as a "carceral landscape." Psychologist Joseph Gone even described the psychotherapist’s office as a (post) colonial (and indeed, Foucauldian) carceral space for native people, who are compelled by policy and economic need to seek dominant culture "treatment" for addiction problems and other effects of so called "historical trauma."

To this list I would like to add domestic spaces, homes, which we have not spoken about explicitly. (Examples for exploring this notion could include the confinement of native family members in homes via domestic violence, or the boarding school outing system that placed native school-aged children in white homes.) We must consider, too, incarceration of the mind and incarceration of the spirit, amorphous spaces that permeated our discussions here but are difficult to define and articulate.

4. Freedom

How do we imagine, craft, and create cracks in the cages of confinement that have trapped indigenous people in the past and continue to do so today in prisons and human trafficking schemes as well as in detrimental spiritual and mental states? How do we make freedom in the Quinnipiac language sense of that term, that is: freedom as "a state of self-government, safety and care" as defined by Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel in her call and response prayer that opened our gathering? What is our role as teachers, intellectuals, writers, and community organizers in enacting the dream-work of freedom? What must we do, to borrow language from Ted Van Alst, to make our descendants proud of us, their ancestors?

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