Diversifying the Oppressor: Native American Participation in the History of Enslavement

Abstract: This essay examines the particularity of historical fiction as a tool for rectifying the gaps distorting our understanding of the history of enslavement. Specifically, I explore Tiya Miles’ representation of enslaved women in the context of Cherokee slaveholding in her 2015 The Cherokee Rose: A Novel of Gardens and Ghosts. This novel is part of the redemptive literary tradition of Black women’s liberatory narratives that, since its conception in the 1970s, has worked to redress the myriad gaps in the historical archives. Miles’ concern with Cherokee participation in the history of enslavement reflects the most recent expression of the shifting historiography influencing the arc of this literary tradition. My analysis thus takes an interdisciplinary approach, demonstrating the imbrication of historical fiction and historical scholarship. Citing the example of The Cherokee Rose: A Novel of Gardens and Ghosts, this essay argues that historical fiction provides a particularly intimate representation of enslaved women’s experiences under a Cherokee enslaver. Miles explores Indigenous participation without allocating blame, revealing through the complex junctures of gender and race that the power dynamic of oppressor and oppressed cannot be categorized simply by race.

The history of enslavement is characterized by silences and absences. The extant written records of this past have kept the individuals at its core enigmatic, problematically limiting our understanding of the personhood of enslaved women. This essay takes up this history in order to argue for the particularity of historical fiction as a tool for redressing the archival gaps distorting our understanding of enslavement. I examine Tiya Miles’ representation of enslaved women in The Cherokee Rose: A Novel of Gardens and Ghosts (2015), which confronts the contentious historical realities of Native American participation in the enslavement and racial oppression of peoples of African descent. I propose that because of its subject matter, Miles’ novel can be categorized as part of the broader redemptive literary tradition of the Black women’s liberatory narrative originating in the 1970s.1 This genre, as identified by literary scholar Angelyn Mitchell, “disrupts history as we know it in order to illuminate what has not been told, what has been ignored, [and] what has been silenced” (21). Simultaneously, the liberatory narrative is concerned with representing “African American women […] more authentically as […] subjects,” focusing upon “the protagonist’s conception and articulation of herself as a free, autonomous, and self-authorized self” (5, 4).

1For additional examples of the liberatory narrative genre, see Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979), Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), and Yaa Gyasi’s Home Going (2016).

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