By Tiya Miles (University of California Press, 2005)
“Being in possession of a few Black People and being crost in my affections, I debased myself and took one of my black women by the name of Doll, by her I have had these children named as follows...” So begins an 1824 petition by a Cherokee man named Shoe Boots, requesting tribal membership for his and Doll’s Afro-Cherokee children. In this book, Tiya Miles reconstructs Doll’s biography, nothing less than a prism on nineteenth-century America.
Race was complex among the Cherokees. The tribe had mixed-race and full-blood factions, free black members, traditional forms of captivity, and African slaves purchased from slave-traders — like Doll. Shoe Boots, a full-blood Cherokee, bought her as a maid for his first wife (the one who “crost” him in love), a white Kentucky teenager he kidnapped in 1793 and allowed to return home a decade later with their children. Doll, however, remained among the Cherokees, sharing their fortunes during several turbulent decades, and joining their deportation from Georgia in 1838, the Trail of Tears. Outliving both Shoe Boots and a later owner, she died in 1860, a free woman and landowner in Oklahoma.
Miles tells Doll’s story with care and simplicity. Sometimes frustrated by the opaqueness of Doll’s inner life, she reaches for analogies in other slave narratives, as well as (less effectively) in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. She is at her best in close readings of the few available documents, such as an account of Doll sitting next to Shoe Boots at the dinner table, which Miles points out a traditional Cherokee wife would never do. Miles ends the book with Doll’s “Negro” descendents’ frustrated attempts to establish Cherokee citizenship, framing her story in contemporary struggles over authentic Native American identity. Along with a fascinating biography, this book offers an utterly original angle on American history itself.
Jeremy Ravi Mumford teaches at the University of Michigan.