Preserving a Native Language and Culture - Higher Education
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Preserving a Native Language and Culture

by Mary Annette Pember

At first glance, Miami University in southwestern Ohio seems an unlikely spot for a major American Indian language and cultural preservation and revitalization project. There are no reservations in the state, nor is there a significant American Indian population.

By the 1850s most of the remaining Ohio tribes were removed to reservations west of the Mississippi River, joining others who were forced from their lands by the great sweep of the Indian Removal Act. The law was enacted in response to European Americans’ demand for the fertile lands occupied by many tribes east of the Mississippi River. American Indians comprise 0.3 percent of the Ohio population, numbering a bit over 11,000 people, according to the Census Bureau.

Yet, Miami University houses the Myaamia Project, a unique collaboration between academia and a sovereign tribe, the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma. 

Named in reference to the orthography of the Miami Tribe, the Myaamia Project was created in 2001 and conducts a large array of programs for Miami tribal citizens, Miami University students and academia at large. The language component is divided into summer language camps and workshops mainly for youth; language classes at Miami University; and home learning. Myaamia Project Director Daryl Baldwin and his staff have developed extensive home-learning materials, including the Smart Pen that plays a recording of a word in the Myaamia language when rolled over a picture of an animal. 

The project is part of a tribal initiative to revitalize the Myaamia language and culture. Largely due to the work of the Myaamia Project, tribal members in Ohio and Oklahoma now speak a language that linguists declared dead in the 1960s. While working on his dissertation in the late 1980s on linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, Dr. David Costa discovered massive Myaamia writings and later realized there was a community of people interested in getting their language back. He became acquainted with Baldwin, who was working to revitalize the language, even teaching it to his children.

Descended from Miami tribal members who resisted removal, Baldwin provides meaning and context to the language revitalization and preservation efforts.

“The loss of language has placed the Miami tribe face to face with the loss of their culture. Language loss is a social loss,” says Baldwin.

The history of the Miami tribe’s forced removal from ancestral homelands is essential in telling the story of the Myaamia Project, says Baldwin.

“Our tribe’s cultural and language efforts are in direct response to this oppressive history,” he says.

Tribal member Scott Shoemaker recalls sensing the hurt among elders who grew up around the language but were told they didn’t need to speak it.

“That hurt and shame gets passed along,” he says. Learning the language now is part of the healing process, according to Shoemaker. “The hole in our hearts is now filled by the language.” 

Although the tribe secured some small grants after the passage of the Native American Languages Act of 1990, it lacked sufficient resources to develop teaching materials, Baldwin says. Tribal leaders decided to turn to their old friends at Miami University for help.

“This whole relationship between the university and tribe is remarkable; it is not a common sort of project. Having a state-supported university working with a sovereign Indian nation in which the nation gets to direct (the project) is unprecedented,” says Dr. Wesley Leonard, a member of the Miami Tribes’ Language Committee.

Although based at the university’s Office of Student Affairs, the project takes its primary marching orders from the Miami tribe and community in Oklahoma, Baldwin says. The tribe, which pays the salaries of Myaamia Project staff, maintains the copyrights to all printed and published materials produced through the project. 

According to university history, the connection with its namesake tribe began at the school’s founding in 1809 in the fertile Miami River Valley, home to the Little and Great Miami rivers. Named after the tribe, the valley was part of the Miami tribe’s traditional lands. The university sits on a former tribal village site. In the 1846 removal, Miami tribal members were loaded onto boats that carried them first to Kansas and then to Oklahoma.

Former Miami chief Forrest Olds, who showed up one day at the university president’s office in the 1960s and announced he was there “to take a look around at this school named after the Miami,” initiated the contemporary relationship between the tribe and university. A bond between the university and tribe grew. In the 1990s, university president Dr. Philip Shriver and Miami chief Floyd Leonard organized numerous exchange visits and programs for students and tribal members.

Today, all incoming Miami freshman view a video describing the relationship between the university and the tribe. In the film, Miami President Dr. David Hodge describes the relationship as “incredibly special and an important part of who we are as today.”

The special relationship includes the Heritage Scholarship that affords Miami tribal members a fee waiver at the university. Thirty tribal members have graduated from the university since the scholarship’s inception in 1991.

The Myaamia Project offers several interdisciplinary classes about Miami tribal history and culture to all university students.

“Every student who attends this university gains an understanding of the Miami tribe,” says Dr. Susan Mosley-Howard, associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students.

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