How a University and a Tribe Are Teaming Up to Revive a Lost Language
Myaamionki Nakamooni (“Miami Land Song”)
tawaana siipiiwa aciwa
trees, rivers, hills
I am going to the Miami lands
I am going to the Miami lands
I am going to the Miami lands
myaamionkiši iiyaayaani, iiyaayaani
I am going to the Miami lands, I go
For indigenous people, language and song are everything. Since language is mostly an oral tradition for tribes, songs and stories handed down through generations express history, culture, and spirituality. For the Miami people, speakers of the Myaamia language, this ability was almost lost. By the 1960s, there were no remaining speakers; linguists had declared the language to be dead.
But today, the Myaamia language is alive—and thriving. The Miami Land Song—recently created by George Ironstrack, the assistant director of the Myaamia Center—is evidence of that.
This revival is attributable to a unique partnership between the Miami tribe of Oklahoma and Miami University, located in Oxford, Ohio, on the traditional homelands of the tribe. The partnership has brought about language and cultural revitalization and also represents a step forward toward racial equity.
Miami University is home to the Myaamia Center, an initiative led by the Miami tribe of Oklahoma to assist educators in preserving the Myaamia language and culture.
Created in 2001, Myaamia Center, first called the Myaamia Project, is supported by both the tribe and university and encompasses a variety of Myaamia language and cultural revitalization programs and research projects, including Eewansaapita (“sunrise”) summer youth language camps for children in Miami communities in Oklahoma and Indiana and the Miami Heritage Award Program (a fee waiver for Miami tribal students attending Miami University).
The center’s staff have created a number of online and interactive language tools, including MIDA, the Miami-Illinois Digital Archive language database, which has emerged as a template for revitalization and preservation of other indigenous languages.
They have also created in-home language tools and a smartphone app for tribal members and students.
The center has received awards for its pioneering work in cultural and language revitalization. In 2014, the National Science Foundation awarded support to the Myaamia Center’s part in creating the National Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous Languages. Breath of Life brings together community Native language researchers from throughout the U.S. to the national archives in Washington, D.C.
And in 2016, Miami tribal member Daryl Baldwin, director and co-founder of the Myaamia Center, was awarded the MacArthur “genius grant” for his work at the center.
Tribal leaders and citizens make frequent visits to the university for cultural gatherings.
Although the center is housed on the Miami campus, its research and educational mission is led by the Miami tribe. According to the most recent Memorandum of Agreement signed in 2008 between the tribe and university, the Miami tribe maintains control over its cultural and intellectual property rights and other materials produced through the Myaamia Center.
And it’s not just language. The center has also revitalized traditional Miami art and games, such as ribbonmaking and lacrosse. Through an award from the National Endowment for the Arts, staff researched and published a book about the history of Myaamia ribbon work and offer classes in the art. Myaamia students learn to play lacrosse as part of their coursework at the university.
The university is also exceeding national standards in the education of Native Americans. So far, 133 Miami tribal members have graduated via the Heritage Scholarship. The college graduation rate is 58 percent, versus 22.5 percent, which is the national average for Native Americans.
It’s emerged as an educational and cultural hub for the tribe, too. Tribal leaders and citizens make frequent visits to the university for cultural gatherings, Myaamia language research conferences, and graduation ceremonies.
“The university is very attentive to our needs,” said Miami Chief Douglas Lankford.
He was surprised, for example, when leaders from the administration asked for his input regarding the recent hiring process for a new president.
“This tells me that we are important to the university,” he said.
“We have been able to help foster the revitalization of a lost language and culture in need of respect and support,” said James Oris, associate provost for research and scholarship and dean of the graduate school at Miami University. Oris oversees the administration of the Myaamia Center.
The relationship between school and tribe has added cultural richness and understanding for students in a way that can’t easily be measured, Oris said.
But the work between the tribe and university didn’t begin with a grand plan of ethnic reconciliation, racial inclusion, or language and cultural revitalization. Rather, the genesis of the Myammia Center is rooted in human relationships—and the tribe’s fight for survival and resilience.
A breaking and mending: the breaking
“When the Miami speak of our history, we often describe it as a breaking and mending,” Baldwin said.
The breaking began in 1795, when the Miami people began to lose their lands and population due to European encroachment and disease.
Like many other tribes with homelands east of the Mississippi, the Miami fell victim to the 1830 Indian Removal Act authorizing President Andrew Jackson to grant tribes unsettled prairie in exchange for their traditional lands. Government militia forcibly removed the Miami from their homelands in Indiana and southwestern Ohio in the fall of 1846. They were taken by flatboats via the Wabash Erie Canal to land in Unorganized Indian Territory, later known as Kansas, during the onset of winter.
The tribe was later forced to relinquish these lands in 1887 and relocate yet again, this time to Indian Territory, now known as Oklahoma. Removal appeared to function as a near-death sentence for language and culture as the tribe struggled with day-to-day survival in these desolate new lands.
This history of the Miami’s forced removal from ancestral homelands is essential in telling the story of the Myaamia Project. “Our tribe’s cultural and language efforts are in direct response to this oppressive history,” Baldwin noted.
The seat of the federally recognized Miami tribal government is currently located in northeastern Oklahoma in the town of Miami. About 5,000 members live in diaspora throughout the U.S. with population centers in Oklahoma and Indiana.
A breaking and mending: the mending
In 1972, Miami Chief Forest Olds decided to visit Miami University during a business trip to nearby Cincinnati. Olds wanted “to look around at the college named after the Miami tribe,” Baldwin said.
During that visit, Olds met and forged a relationship with Miami University then-President Phillip Shriver. An historian, Shriver had a great appreciation for Ohio history and the Miami tribe, whose homelands include the current site of the Miami University. The two men hit it off and embarked on a lifelong friendship.
Noting that the school was founded in 1809, they realized that classes were likely in session when longboats passed by in 1846 carrying away tribal members during removal.
Over the next few decades, the relationship of these two men grew into a relationship between the tribe and university.
After the 1990 passage of the Native American Language Act—which said that Native American youth have the right to be educated in their tribal language—tribal leaders reached out to Miami University. They wanted it to assist in setting up language and cultural reclamation programs. In 1991, the university established a scholarship to assist Miami tribal members to attend the school.
Shortly after Olds and Shriver’s initial 1972 meeting, the university asked for and gained tribal support to continue using the Redskins school mascot. But in 1996, the tribe sent a resolution to the school stating that the tribe could no longer support the use of the nickname Redskins and suggested that the board of trustees discontinue its use.
“I think that we got to a point in our relationship where the tribe felt comfortable being completely honest with us that the mascot was unacceptable to them,” Oris said.
“The relationship evolved organically and informally between the tribe and university.”
According to the Miami University website, in 1997-98, “out of respect for the Miami Tribe’s request, Miami University changes its mascot name from Redskins to RedHawks.”
The 1990s were also a period of rapid growth for Miami language and cultural revitalization. A new interpersonal relationship—this time between Baldwin and a linguistics graduate student—helped.
After discovering lists of Myaamia words among his deceased grandfather’s belongings, Baldwin grew driven to learn the language as a means to learn more of his heritage. Although there were no remaining speakers or recordings of the language to help guide in pronunciation, Baldwin was determined and even began teaching his children what he could of the language.
At that time, David Costa, now the program director for the Myaamia Center, was a graduate student in linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. He wanted to research a dead language, and his advisor suggested he investigate the Miami-Illinois language. So Costa traveled to Miami communities in Oklahoma and Indiana in search of a remaining speaker. Knowing of Baldwin’s interest in the language, community members introduced the two men.
Although Baldwin was pursuing a graduate degree in biology at the time, his relationship with Costa led him to change course to instead pursue a master’s degree in linguistics from the University of Montana. Costa served on his graduate committee. Baldwin’s thesis focused on Myaamia language. While working on his graduate degree, he and Costa teamed up with Miami Tribal Historic Preservation officer Julie Olds to help revitalize the language and culture.
“Julie focused on how to get things going in the community in Oklahoma; David focused on language reconstruction, and I worked on revitalization,” Baldwin said.
In 2001, Miami University agreed to three years of support for the development of the Myaamia Project on campus.
“The relationship evolved organically and informally between the tribe and university,” Oris noted.
After the extraordinary success and public recognition of the project, the school moved to formalize the relationship. It designated the project as full research partner, and the Myaamia Project became the Myaamia Center.
“The relationship between the tribe and university now has a life of its own and is unlikely to stop,” Oris said, adding, “I’ve had several interviews from other universities seeking to recreate what we’ve done here.”
“The university realizes that their work with the tribe is really special and unique. They clearly want to continue. They have bragging rights to us now,” Lankford joked.
Building racial equity one day at a time
Though the school supports a trailblazing Native American language and cultural revitalization effort, it has more work to do to achieve racial equity—not only for the Miami tribe of Oklahoma, but also for other people of color.
Exclusive and expensive, Miami is currently one of the top “public Ivy” schools with a mostly white upper-middle-class student population. In 2017, 14.3 percent of the school’s 24,672 students were people of color, with 1,022 Black students.
Median family income for Miami students is $119,000, with 54 percent from the top 20 percent, according to the New York Times. The 2016 median family income in Ohio was $50, 674.
And Miami University is not free from the racism or entitlement that can arise in predominately White institutions.
Culturally, Greek life defines the university, where more than one-third of undergraduates belong to a fraternity or sorority with largely White memberships. One Greek party there resulted in the trashing of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, while off-campus parties unaffiliated with student organizations have had themes like “Ghetto Fest” and “Indian Party,” in which attendees were encouraged to dress in stereotypical Indian costumes.
“I don’t have to defend my heritage. I’m proud to be a Miami woman.”
In April, Black students complained about a series of racist comments on social media and a general unwelcoming environment for students of color. “The student culture here is extremely racist,” Miranda Woods, a Miami University junior, told the Cincinnati Enquirer.
As a result, university administrators met with student leaders recently. According to The Miami Student, both sides felt that progress was made during the meeting.
Life for Miami tribal students can also be challenging.
“Without the support and community I found at the Myaamia Center, I might have dropped out,” said tribal member Haley Strass, who graduated in 2013.
Strass said White students would sometimes challenge her rights to the Heritage Scholarship.
“‘Who are you to receive a full ride? You don’t even look Indian!’ I heard many such questions and comments that came from places of ignorance and racism,” she said.
The center provided Strass with a safe place where she learned how to respond to these comments, she said. She would often inform students of the Miami history of removal from their land, land on which the university now stands.
“My time at the Myaamia Center helped me know who I am; I don’t have to defend my heritage. I’m proud to be a Miami woman,” she said.
Efforts like the Myaamia Project help the school move toward racial equity.
Baldwin describes his and the tribe’s relationship and work with the university as a form of silent decolonization.
In learning about their heritage and culture, Miami tribal students begin to deconstruct and challenge a historical framework that dismisses tribal belonging.
“For many of our new students, being Miami is an elder thing and may be associated with shame passed onward from the boarding school era,” Baldwin said.
As part of the Heritage Award requirements, freshmen must write a paper about the personal meaning of being Miami. According to Lanksford, those papers are usually very short. Prior to graduation, they are required to repeat the assignment.
“Those papers are usually several pages long,” he noted.
“Our youth gain a sense of purpose and place during their time here,” Lankford said. “They leave knowing who they are with a rich language and culture from which to draw.”
Baldwin recalled that in 2001, then-Miami Chief Floyd Leonard reminded him that his primary job was to do the work of the Miami community rather than try to change the university.
“But we have begun to change this institution over the years through a quiet activism. By building a deep relationship and slowly building trust and respect for each other, we’ve firmly rooted ourselves as an essential part of the university,” Baldwin said.
Baldwin’s children, homeschooled and raised speaking the language, are now adults. They have never known a time when the language was not alive, Baldwin said.
Indeed, for the current generation of Miami people, their language has always been alive.
Mary Annette Pember is an award-winning journalist, photographer, and member of the Red Cliff Band of Wisconsin Ojibwe. She writes about Native issues, people, and culture for Rewire News.