Native Americans As Slaves, Slave Owners In North

MacArthur 'Genius' Tiya Miles does pioneering research on the relationship between Cherokee Indians and African-Americans. She speaks with host Michel Martin about shedding light on the unexplored history of Native American and African-American slavery in Michigan.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We are taking TELL ME MORE on the road to Detroit tomorrow, so we wanted to get in a Detroit state of mind with some music from Detroit's own singer-songwriter K'Jon. He just might be the future of the Detroit music scene. But before we think about the future of Detroit, we want to grapple with an aspect of Detroit's past, before - long before it was home to Motown, or even known as the Motor City.

It might surprise you to know that, long ago, in the late 18th and early 19th century, when it served as the capitol of the Michigan territory, slavery of both African-American and Native American people was a part of Detroit's past. Very little research has been done on this, but our next guest is hoping to change that.

Tiya Miles is the chair of the Afro-American and African Studies Department at the University of Michigan. We met with her before when she won a 2011 McArthur Fellowship, widely known as a Genius Grant, and she joins us from member station WUOM in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Professor Miles, welcome back to the program. Thanks so much for joining us and, of course, congratulations again on the McArthur. And I'd like to ask you, when you first encountered stories of African-Americans and Native American slaves in Michigan, in the Michigan territory. I think it's a surprise to many people to know or to even think about the fact that slavery existed that far north.

TIYA MILES: Well, I first encountered this when I took a class to the Ypsilanti Historical Museum, and we also took a local Underground Railroad tour. And we learned about an abolitionist here in southeast Michigan named Laura Haviland, who did work in Detroit and also in Ontario.

And she taught a school for escaped slaves in Canada, and there were blacks, as well as native people at that school. So that, for me, was the first clue that there was something between black people and native people in Detroit history regarding slavery, as well as in the Southeast.

MARTIN: Well, what have you been able to piece together about the slave experience in Michigan for both African-Americans and Native Americans? And I realize that the research is in its early stages. I know we want to stress that. But what have you been able to piece together?

MILES: Well, the first thing that strikes me about this research is that Detroit is a very unusual place. It was a major settlement for Native Americans, for French settlers, for British settlers and then later, for the Americans. So that meant that it was an area where lots of people were moving through and passing through.

There was a good deal of contestation over who would get to control Detroit. Would it be the French? Would it be the British? And would it be the Americans? And this meant that slavery also had a multilayered aspect in Detroit.

MARTIN: Well, first of all, how did Native Americans come to be enslaved, and what kinds of things did they do?

MILES: Native American people in the Great Lakes were engaged in conflict, warfare with other groups of native people. And in these conflicts, Great Lakes Indians would take captives of war. Those captives of war were, for the most part, treated as slaves of a certain kind, and native people who captured these slaves brought them back to the Great Lakes and then would trade them to French settlers and to British settlers.

So this is a way that Native Americans from the West - from the Pawnee Nation, for example - ended up being in the Great Lakes, ended up serving as slaves in native communities in the Great Lakes, and also in French households and in British households.

MARTIN: Did slavery work the way we have come to understand it in the United States, that this was lifetime servitude, that your children would also be enslaved, that this was an institution in perpetuity?

MILES: Well, slavery in the Native American context was not exactly like what we're used to in the United States because, in Native American context, captives could be treated in any number of ways. They could be treated as second-class citizens and they could be compelled to perform labor, but captives in the Native American context could also become family members. They could be adopted to replace people in the tribe who were lost through disease or through warfare.

But I have to say here, Michel, that there was a difference French and British slaveholders, in fact. So we can almost imagine a transition regarding slavery in the Great Lakes that went from a more flexible system when native people were the captors, to a little more rigidity when French people were the captors, to a greater rigidity when the British were the captors. And that rigidity only increased when Americans were the slaveholders.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with McArthur Fellow Tiya Miles of the University of Michigan. She's telling us about some new research in its very early stages about the history of slavery in the Michigan territories. And we're talking about the fact that both Native Americans and African-Americans were enslaved under the system, but that this took very different forms.

Talk about the African-American experience, if you would. How did that happen? How did enslaved Africans come to be in this area, and what was their experience?

MILES: African-Americans who were enslaved in Detroit in the Great Lakes area were people who were sometimes themselves captives of Native Americans. So native people were moving, you know, all around, north and south, east and west, interacting with other nations of native people, and were sometimes capturing black slaves from the South. And then black slaves who were captured by Indians would perhaps be passed along, just like the native slaves that I just described.

Another way that black people came to be enslaved in Detroit is that Detroit merchants actually sought them. So Detroit really made its mark in the Northwest Territory by being a mercantile site. It was an incredible location for the fur trade, and it was a place where a number of merchants decided to set up their businesses and to make their livelihoods.

Many of them became wealthy, and they wanted to have black slaves. So they would actually send orders to New York for black slaves. You can see these orders dating back at least to the 1760s with Detroit merchants, whether they be French or British, trying to order in black slaves of certain specifications. So they might ask for a young man who can - who is strong and can lift things. They might ask for a black woman who is a very good cook. And these black slaves would come into Michigan in that way.

MARTIN: Can you share a story that you find particularly fascinating about the experience of enslaved people in Michigan at this time, just to give us a taste of what you're discovering?

MILES: There is a family known as the Denisons that was first owned by two brothers named the McCombs, who were very wealthy. They actually, at one time, owned Grosse Ile and Belle Isle, the Detroit city park. This family once owned it. The Denisons were a black family who had been owned by the McCombs. They were then sold to a white family named the Tuckers and the Tuckers said they were going to free the father and mother, Peter and Hanna Denison, upon the death of the father in the Tucker family, but they did not keep their word.

And Peter and Hanna were then transferred, sort of lent out to the new mayor of Detroit. So Detroit only became a town officially in 1802, and in 1805, Peter and Hanna found themselves the rented slaves of the mayor of the city, who was Elijah Brush.

MARTIN: That is interesting.

MILES: It is. And for some reason, the governor of the territory noticed Peter and put him at the head of a black militia, which was charged with fighting Indians to protect Detroit, an Indian threat that was perceived.

MARTIN: That is interesting and complicated. Well, we certainly look forward to more. Tiya Miles is the chair of the Afro-American and African Studies Department at the University of Michigan and, as we mentioned, she was a 2011 recipient of a McArthur Fellowship, often called a Genius Grant. And she was with us from member station WUOM in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Professor Miles, thank you so much.

MILES: Thanks, Michel.

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