Feature Stories

Myaamionki today

The place where Miami people live

By Connie Haas Zuber

Today, here — in the Miami homeland — and in every other place they now live, Miami people are speaking their language, doing their jobs, growing and cooking their favorite foods and educating their young people. They’re doing all the everyday things they have done since time immemorial.

But the Miami are historically an exceptional people, and still today they are doing much more than everyday things. They are reviving their language, pulling it back from the brink of the silence that threatened it and them after the last native speakers died in the 1960s. They are reviving their culture, their old stories, their worldview and their connections to each other.

“We have a story as a people,” said Darryl Baldwin, Miami Nation of Oklahoma and director of the Myaamia Project at Miami University in Oxford, OH. “It’s an ongoing story as we’re still here. We are a living people with a history.”

Myaamionki today is enriched by all that living activity. It’s in the immersive language camp for Miami children here this month and the monthly Miami heritage days at The History Center’s Chief Richardville House, recently honored as a National Historic Landmark. It’s at the tribal lands in Oklahoma and in the cooperative work of all the other organizations with which Miami people are pursuing their purposes.

Miami University is a focal point of activity with a poignant historical twist. The university, established in 1809, probably had classes in session in 1846 when canal boats originating in Fort Wayne carried about 300 Miami through it on their forced removal to Kansas, Baldwin said. Now it is home to the Myaamia Project, where the Miami community’s needs and interests guide research and the creation of educational materials and programs to support the reclamation of the Miami language and culture. Miami also waives tuition and fees for up to 20 qualifying Miami students a year, with 81 tribal students graduating since 1991.

The project has published books, booklets, annual Miami lunar calendars and educational materials and curricula for home and summer camp use. It has developed a map of Myaamionki from the native point of view emphasizing the rivers within the historic boundaries as described by Little Turtle during the Treaty of Greenville negotiations in 1795, adding layers showing the historic vegetation along with overlays of current political boundaries and the various treaty land cession boundaries. The project supports research into the variety of white corn (the Miami were famous for the high quality of their corn) that was saved by Miami remaining in Indiana. It has collected some of the old stories, the culture-defining ones only told in winter, into a book. And it created a map and booklet describing the route of the forced removal from the homeland to first Kansas and then Oklahoma. Every Miami household receives a copy of these publications, as directed by the tribal leaders who also financially support the project. It also published the official Miami-Illinois language dictionary, which is also available (with audio) online, in collaboration with linguist Dr. David Costa, who Baldwin said has been working on the language since 1988. The tribe has hired him as a full-time linguist, and he is contracted to the Myaamia Project.

The Myaamia Project has staff of three and works in collaboration with Miami faculty and students, in addition to tribal members and researchers elsewhere. Dani Tippman, Miami and director of the Whitley County Historical Museum, is collaborating on a cookbook now being developed, for example. Tippman, as a member of M.I.A.M.I., a Miami community organization based here, also organizes a summer language immersion camp for Miami youth and children that uses the same curriculum developed by the Myammia Project staff for a similar immersion camp on the tribal lands in Oklahoma.

An iPhone app developed by computer science students was being polished as the 2011-2012 school year ended. It uses QR codes to trigger the presentation of the Miami words for household furnishings, equipment and rooms with audio files of the word being spoken and used in sentences and is expected to be available soon in Apple’s app store.

Charmingly indicative of the warm relationship between the Miami and the university, when its online collaborative learning system was set up, Baldwin said, it was named “niihka,” the Miami word for “friend,” as a tribute to the university’s relationship with the tribe.

Here are top headlines from Myaamionkia Today:

Reviving the language returns more than words to the Miami people
Myaamia Project Director Darryl Baldwin’s personal experience is a vivid example of how much more than words a Miami person regains by learning the language.

He grew up along the Maumee River in northwest Ohio, knowing and living his heritage and ancestry as a Miami but not being able to speak the language. When he and his wife Karen began having children, he realized “you want your kids to have what maybe you didn’t have. I saw the language as the way to do that.” The disappointment of learning that the last fluent speakers died about when he was born was set aside when he learned about linguist Dr. David Costa’s work on the Miami-Illinois language. Already a university-trained wildlife biologist, Baldwin said he decided to earn a master’s degree in linguistics “mostly to learn the language.”

He has learned much more. Learning to speak the language means also learning the Miami wisdom and world view embedded in the words and the ways they are used. English has an “objectified, quantified, and linear Western view of land” built into it, he said, while Miami-Illinois has “the Miami view of land, which is based on sustainable interdependence within a spatial orientation of culturally significant places.”

The different worldview, for example, means Miami maps illustrate the maker’s relationship to the landscape, perhaps where a certain kind of berries grow or where an important event happened. They are perfectly useful without being a mathematically precise bird’s-eye view of the land as contemporary American maps are.

“Our indigenous language is filled with ecological knowledge,” he said. “For me, it was a nice complement.”

Baldwin and Julie Olds explain the essential link between language and culture in a chapter on the Myaamia Project’s work in “Beyond Red Power,” editecd by Daniel M. Cobb and Loretta Fowler, published in 2007.

“We are not just teaching language, but also a worldview that is based on the language. We find that when students are learning these unique concepts through the language, the language becomes the primary means for understanding traditional knowledge. We want students to value the ideas, which are best expressed through the language. Thought and knowledge are essential to cultural learning, and if done well, our traditional language will do for our traditional culture something English has not evolved to do.”

Given the loss of the homelands and forced removal of so many of the Miami people, the language and culture reclamation work is of great benefit.

“What happened to our ancestors is a long time ago, but to think we don’t have feelings about it is wrong,” Baldwin said. “This work is very much a healing process for this community.

“To lose self in the wake of losing your lands, being told being an Indian is bad in the face of English-only movements — it’s a painful process. Regaining self, which is really what this process is, is a healing process, in my mind.”

The annual powwow is an invitation to learn more and support native artisans and craftspeople — as well as enjoy some delicious food
The 17th annual Mihsihkinaahkwa Pow Wow will be Aug. 10-12 at Morsches Park in Columbia City. This year’s theme is weecikaamankwi weentaapiikasiyankwi — We Dance For Our Ancestors.

The pow wow opens at 5 p.m Aug. 10 with 32 vendors selling Native crafts and products. For dinner, enjoy buffalo burgers, buffalo tacos, fry bread and more. Events and performers will be in the Family Tent, and Adam Strack will perform.

Saturday opens with the “Healthy Traditions” fun run/walk. The Pow Wow gates open at 10 a.m., with Erik Vosteen leading the Living Native History area, where he will be making replica woodland earthenware pottery from Indiana clays and cooking in them. He will also have atlatl sets, an ancient weapon system, and pottery making for attendees to try. A silent auction will be in the information tent. Bud Eagle Wolf will perform flute throughout the day. Grand entry dancing is at 1 and 6:30 p.m. with dancers in full regalia dancing to drums and singers.

The gates open at 10 a.m. Sunday with grand entry dancing at noon. All proceeds from the 10:30 a.m. scholarship auction will help Native American college students. The Pow Wow closes at 5 p.m.

Admission is $4 with children under 12 free and free parking. For more information, go online to www.miamipowwow.org.

National Landmark designation spotlights Chief Richardville’s exceptional leadership
Civil chief Jean-Baptiste de Richardville (1761-1841) is the key to how and why the Miami people are exceptional in Native American history and have maintained their residence here and their ties to their ancestral homeland unbroken though through great hardship and loss. His Miami name is Pinšiwa, which means The Wildcat.

“Not many tribes remain where they were in any way whatsoever,” ARCH Executive Director Michael Galbraith said at the History Center announcement of the Richardville House being named a National Historic Landmark. He paid tribute to the “continuing persistence of the Miami in our affairs. They remain committed to our area here in northeast Indiana.”

That geographical longevity is possible because Richardville won ownership of land — the kind of ownership the Americans recognized — for individual Miami leaders, among other benefits other Native American nations never had.

“He was able to delay removal and allow half of the Miami people to stay in Indiana,” Galbraith said.

History Center Executive Director Todd Maxwell Pelfrey called it “a brilliant strategy.”

Richardville was taken very seriously by the U.S. treaty negotiators, such as federal Indian Agent John Tipton who had to write a difficult letter to the Secretary of War in 1826 justifying what the Miami got from the Treaty of Paradise Springs.

Jay Gitlin quoted Tipton in a paper titled “Private Diplomacy to Private Property: States, Tribes, and Nations in the Early National Period” in a 1998 issue of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations journal.

“The Miamis are reduced to a small number,” he wrote, “but well organized in their kind of government, with one of the most shrewd men in North America at their head.”

Winning the National Historic Landmark designation for the Richardville House required five years of research, Galbraith said, gathering “more information about Pinšiwa than has ever been known. We are hopeful for further scholarship.”

The connections are active and strong
For the most complete understanding of the warmth and vigor with which the Miami people everywhere are pulling together to reclaim their language and culture, go online to the Myaamia Project (www.myaamiaproject.org) and to the tribal website (www.miamination.com), where the newspaper archives are particularly informative and you’ll see articles and photos about Miami artists, experts and families from here among all the others. A Miami Community History Blog is at myaamiahistory.wordpress.com. To hear Miami words properly pronounced, go to www.myaamiadictionary.org.

Posted: Mon, 07/02/2012 - 1:50 pm
Last updated: Fri, 09/14/2012 - 11:33 am