Native Village
Youth and Education news

Volume 2, January 2012

What these 3 MacArthur Foundation winners do is genius
Condensed by Native Village
What does genius look like?

This year, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, a genius looks like a working mother.

A historian, a chemist and a biologist who balance lecturing, teaching, research and raising kids were among 22 people named MacArthur Foundation fellows last month. The national award comes with a no-strings-attached $500,000, and the awardees have come to be deemed geniuses.

Historian Tiya Miles, 41, whose work has traced the intersecting lives of American Indians and black slaves, said the fellowship "has been the most mysterious, secretive, dramatic thing" in her life. She had no idea she'd been nominated.

Chemist Melanie Sanford and developmental biologist Yukiko Yamashita are the other local winners. They are among 24 U-M staffers who have received the prestigious award since 1981.

U-M award winner aids cultural understanding and the environment

Tiya Miles' autobiography on the University of Michigan's website is a mix of the masterly and the mundane.

It lists the two history books Miles wrote examining the relationships between American Indians and African slaves. The bio also says that Miles, 41, is an "avid reader of feminist mysteries, a passionate fan of old houses and a loyal patron of Dairy Queen."

But something is missing.

The chairwoman of the university's Afroamerican and African Studies Department also is considered a genius, by virtue of the MacArthur Foundation fellowship that she won last month, an award the news media nicknamed the genius grant.

Miles is one of three U-M professors awarded the fellowship this year, and she is the only African-American woman among the 22 MacArthur fellows across the country. Miles will receive $500,000, no strings attached, paid in installments over the next five years.

"This incredible gift that falls out of the sky," Miles said quietly from her fifth-floor office in Haven Hall. "I haven't had much time to think what I could do. It's such a massive amount of money. I never imagined. ..."

But now, Miles is imagining big -- or at least big enough to bridge the miles between hardscrabble neighborhoods in Detroit and leafy, secure sections of Ann Arbor.

Last year, she started a program called ECO Girls ( ), a club for elementary- and middle-school-age girls to help them incorporate environmentalism into their lives.

Hill said she'll use part of the MacArthur Foundation money to help the program grow and to start a summer camp.

Through ECO Girls, Miles said she wants "to prepare girls to be leaders on environmental issues, especially girls of color and girls of working-class. I wanted to shift their attention to something that is grounding and sustaining -- the natural world and the wonders of this place."

Endurance and encouragement

Miles grew up in Cincinnati. Her parents divorced when she was 2. Her father was a teacher and principal in Cincinnati public schools. Her mother went to school at night and worked for the city in economic development. She became a lawyer in 1995.

When Miles was in junior high, her mother saw an ad for a program called A Better Chance, which funds boarding school scholarships for low-income students.

After reluctantly applying and taking the test, Miles won a full ride to attend the Middlesex School in Concord, Mass. "We were all flabbergasted," she said.

It was a rough transition.

"I was a 15-year-old, African-American girl from urban Ohio, and I was living in the country with wealthy, white New Englanders, for the most part," Miles said. "In so many ways, I didn't fit in."

She wanted to leave the school, but her father convinced her to stay at least through Thanksgiving. By then, she felt more comfortable, encouraged by the mentoring of her math teacher/soccer coach. Four years later, Miles graduated first in her class.

"I think that despite the emotional pain I experienced as an outsider in that context," she said, "attending Middlesex was a critical turning point in my life that made my current trajectory possible."

That trajectory included Harvard, a master's degree earned from Emory University and a doctorate in American Studies from the University of Minnesota. She taught at University of California, Berkeley and Dartmouth before coming to U-M in 2002.

Personal and symbolic work

Miles' area of expertise -- the intertwined legacies of Indians and black slaves -- caught the eye of the anonymous nominators and evaluators who award the MacArthur Foundation grants.

Miles' work, the foundation wrote, "challenges folklore and mythology surrounding early Afro-Indian communities, while also illustrating a broader tangle of intricate personal intimacies, sovereign allegiances and ancestral tensions."

Her focus, said Miles, is fueled for reasons just as personal as they are intellectual.

While in graduate school at the University of Minnesota, she fell in love with Joseph Gone, a descendant of Indian tribes in Montana. They have been married for 13 years, and he is an associate professor of psychology and Native American studies at U-M. Miles also holds dear stories her grandmother used to tell about the family's Indian roots.

"I hope that this work can help to create greater acceptance in both black and Native communities for individuals like my own children and the many people of black and Native parentage or ancestry that I have come to know over the years," Miles said.

The MacArthur award, Miles said, is "another sign that African-American studies is receiving recognition and all that scholars do in the field is valued."

Tayana Hardin, 33, a U-M graduate student in American culture, helps with ECO Girls and relies on Miles as a mentor. Miles is counseling Hardin as she prepares a dissertation focusing on several black female performers in history.

Hardin said a class she took with Miles "was one of the most defining courses" for her at the university.

She also said she was proud of Miles for her selection as a MacArthur fellow: "She's a black woman that I know and I affirm. Just to see her honored in that way is amazing."


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