Myaamia Center seeks to preserve culture of earliest residents

Preserving the language is only part of the efforts of the Myaamia Center dedicated to the people who originally inhabited this area. By researching and preserving the Native American language, the work seeks to preserve the culture of the earliest residents.

The center is the research arm of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma in a unique partnership with the university to revitalize the culture of the people forced from their lands in Ohio, Indiana and Illinois in November 1846. They were first moved to what became the state of Kansas and later moved to Oklahoma.

There are now 39 tribes based in Oklahoma.

“We’re recovering from that history,” said Daryl Baldwin, director of the Myaamia Center. “We are not a people of the past. We are a people with a past.”

It’s that past the tribe seeks to preserve through the partnership with Miami University. Baldwin said it’s more than just the language. He objects to characterizations of the tribe’s language as being dead, even though the last tribe member to speak Myaamia conversationally had died by the mid-20th century.

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For members of the tribe, it was as if much of their communal understanding went to sleep.

Baldwin said there are now members of the tribe living in every state but the sense of “village” remains very much a part of their heritage.

“We survived it by sticking together,” he said.

George Ironstrack, assistant director of the center, said that is what drives the work of the Myaamia Center and its programs to research and teach the language to children and adults.

“Language is part of everything we teach. We teach community and discuss who we are as a people,” Ironstrack said. “Revitalization of community is revitalizing a sense of community to return to a place of stability and health of a village-centered people.”

The tribe’s work with the Myaamia Center was recently recognized with a national award citing its cultural heritage and language revitalization program, which has resulted in the first generation in nearly 100 years learning to speak the Myaamia language.

The Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development presented tribal leaders with an Honoring Nations Award, with the distinction of honors.

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The tribe was recognized during the 75th Annual Convention and Marketplace of the National Congress of American Indians in Denver Oct. 25.

“I am so honored to serve the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma as chief at this time in our history and to witness and support the great awakening we are experiencing with the return of our language and culture,” Chief Douglas Lankford said. “Our relationship with Miami University, their commitment to our Myaamia Center and the incredible work accomplished there are key components to our success in community revitalization.”

The Miami Tribe was honored for its program myaamiaki eemamwiciki (pronounced ay-mom-witch-EE-kee) in Myaamia. It means Miami Awakening.

The program serves about 5,300 residents in the tribal community by delivering a wide range of educational projects and publications designed to restore the Myaamia language and culture to every tribal household, free of charge.

Baldwin described the work of the center as built on four pillars—research, education development, assessment and collaboration and outreach.

Baldwin said it is an evolving field with no tools available so projects in the work are watched and shared for ways to advance the effort. He cited work done in California which laid groundwork for efforts across the country. He pointed to the Smithsonian’s Recovering Voices Program.

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He pulled several collections of writings of Jesuits who transcribed ideas and words of Myaamia people in the 1800s, which are used in the research being done in the center.

Ironstrack said the research leads to language lessons for adults and children, often in a summer camp model.

“We are teaching language but not just teaching language,” he said. “We teach a wide variety of things.”

Baldwin’s research has written about the work of revitalizing languages in “The Routledge Handbook of Language Revitalization” and was co-author of a chapter on The Breath of Life Workshops and Institutes, which are used in the work.

The Harvard Project award noted, “These finalists are exercising their self-determination and implementing effective solutions to common governmental challenges in the areas of environmental research and management, health provider training, language revitalization, agriculture, child welfare and restorative justice.”

It hosts gatherings to provide a place for the community to engage and share through language use and cultural activity. That includes playing games and creating ribbonwork like their Myaamia ancestors did.

This semester, 30 Myaamia students are enrolled at the university. To date, 76 Myaamia students have earned undergraduate or graduate degrees (two students earned both), said Bobbe Burke, coordinator of Miami Tribe Relations.

Tribal leaders took a leap of faith when they sought a federal Administration for Native Americans grant in the mid-1990s. The ANA funding, awarded in 1996, supported the tribe’s first steps toward language revitalization.

Those efforts toward revitalization have been building momentum over the past several decades bringing the Myaamia culture back to the people whose ancestors saw it stripped away from them.

“That’s why the pushback against death and dying language. It’s not about loss. It’s about change and how we deal with change,” Baldwin said. “It is an intergenerational effort.”

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