The Myaamia Center at Miami University is working to preserve the language of the indigenous people whose homelands include Ohio and Indiana, and the region around Oxford.
It all began in 1795. Several tribes, including the Myaamia tribe, signed the Treaty of Greenville. This left much of what became southwest Ohio to the U.S. government and opened the area to settlement. Miami University was chartered shortly after that in 1809. The tribe used the region as hunting grounds and shared the landscape with the Shawnee tribe. Many other tribes came through the area as well. It was a shared landscape and there were constant negotiations and conflicts with other tribes over the use of the land.
When the white settlers arrived, the culture of the indigenous tribes came under attack.
“For many years, there was an effort to stomp out everything that wasn’t American and English,” said Daryl Baldwin, director of the Myaamia Center. “For many years, there were attempts to forcefully colonize indigenous people.”
One of the ways colonization was accomplished was through Indian boarding schools during the late 19th up through the mid 20th century. Tribal children were removed from their homes and sent away to schools across the country. They were forbidden to speak their language or practice their culture. This broke up communities, families, and left emotional scars for generations. Another significant event occurred in 1846, when the Myaamia tribe was forcibly relocated west as a result of the 1830 Indian Removal Act. A second removal in 1870 resulted in the tribe settling on reserve lands in present-day Oklahoma. These events had negative impacts on the tribe’s ability to maintain their language and culture.
“Our current language and cultural revitalization efforts allow us to heal from the events of our past,” Baldwin said. “There is no reason we can't be multilingual here in the U.S., as much of the world is. It’s not as if we have another country to go to in order to speak our language. This is our country and our language was born here and is rooted in the landscape and history of this place.”
In 1972, the Myaamia tribe chief, Forest Olds, visited Miami University while on a business trip to Cincinnati. His initial visit would be the spark needed to connect the two Miamis. During his time, racial mascots were being challenged nationally. Miami University sent a resolution to the tribe asking for the support to use “Redskins” as their athletic mascot. Following this, the first tribe students arrived at the university in 1991. The tribe later sent a resolution to the university in 1996, asking them to discontinue the use of the nickname. This was when the mascot was changed to the “RedHawks.”
Because of the language and culture revitalization efforts, the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma and the Myaamia Center, in Oxford, have earned national and international recognition. The Miami Tribe of Oklahoma received the Honoring Nations Award in 2018 from the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, which recognized the tribe’s commitment towards community revitalization.
Baldwin said the Honoring Nations Award is one of the highest forms of recognition for tribal sovereignty and governmental development.
"It's interesting to think about language and culture as a piece of tribal economics and sovereignty, but in reality, speaking our language is one of the most direct ways of expressing our sovereign selves, and it takes a strong economy to maintain that ability in our contemporary world,” he said. "This was a unique opportunity to recognize the role of tribal governments in supporting language and culture development."
Additionally, Baldwin and the Myaamia Center staff received the Ken Hale Prize in 2019, which was presented by the Linguistic Society of America. This award honors outstanding community language work and a deep commitment to the documentation, maintenance, promotion and revitalization of indigenous languages in the Americas.
"There are many tribal communities that are today engaged in language and culture revitalization," Baldwin said. ”[The Miami Tribe has] been at it for about 30 years now, but we still have lots of work to do to ensure our cultural heritage is passed on to the next generation and Miami University plays a significant role in that effort."
The Myaamia Center is central to the building efforts and its work is well known not just in the U.S. but in places where similar efforts are underway such as Australia and Canada.
Kara Strass is the director of Tribe relations at Miami University and her job includes student advising and support. Strass first joined the Myaamia Center as a graduate assistant in 2016. In 2018, she earned her master's degree at Miami in Student Affairs in Higher Education, and joined the Myaamia Center staff as a full-time employee. Just this past January, she formally transitioned into the role of the Director of Miami Tribe Relations. "It feels like one of those things that was a little bit meant to be because it was the work I was excited about doing, moving into being able to do that within my own community," she said.
"When the first Myaamia students arrived in 1991, there wasn't a whole lot built for them," she said. "Over time, things have continued to evolve."
When Baldwin arrived in 2001, he was one of only two Myaamia tribal staff on Miami's campus. He started a series of courses for the students in 2003. The Myaamia Center continued to grow and the experience for students evolved into more of a program rather than just a scholarship.
"In addition to the courses, we have advising and support for them," Strass said. They have retreats for the students, optional workshops, and trips. "We have continued to increase our level of support for the Myaamia students."
Strass said that this has had major outcomes for students who have a much higher graduation and retention rate today as part of this program than before the Myaamia Center was on campus. "That success with our students and the success of the Myaamia Center has really solidified the ability for Myaamia students to be on this campus and be able to succeed," she said.
Preserving the Myaamia culture and language is a big part of the tribe students' experience at Miami. The students take a series of one-credit courses in their first three years. The students get together once a week, and the topic of that course rotates through language and culture, contemporary topics and sovereignty and ecological perspectives. However, only one of those three years is always specifically just about the language and culture.
"While only one of those years is specifically focused on language teaching in the class, language is woven throughout everything we do with our students," Strass said. "Not just here at the Myaamia Center but in general."
The students use the language with each other as much as they can. They work on the language learning with themselves as well as with the new students who are coming in. Some of them know it from attending summer youth programs, but a lot of the time, students come in never having heard the language at all.
"They use it with each other all the time," Strass said. "This is probably one of the times in their life where they're going to have the ability to be around the most Myaamia people daily."
Stella Beerman is a sophomore journalism student at Miami who is also a Myaamia tribe student. She said she didn’t know a ton about the tribe or the culture before coming to the university. She knew she was Myaamia, but didn’t really know what it meant to incorporate that into her life.
“It’s really cool to have learned so much over the past two years,” she said.
Beerman works as an administrative student assistant at the Myaamia Center. She is responsible for doing anything the center may need help with. Right now, her job is editing old documents through Photoshop to make them readable.
Beerman said only tribe students can take the Myaamia courses offered at Miami. “I think part of the reasoning behind this is because it’s such a personal thing,” she said. “You are learning about your heritage and you’re somehow related to everyone in the room.”
However, there is a course offered to all Miami students that covers the history of the tribe.
“I hope that I can keep learning ways to incorporate Myaamia culture into my regular Americanized life.” she said.
One of the first funding sources for the language effort was a grant the tribe received in 1996 from the Administrative for Native Americans Languages Program. "It was the community spark," said Baldwin.
The Native American Languages Act in 1990 was the first formal legislation that brought protection to native languages across the U.S.-- a huge reversal from the boarding school days. This act continues today to help many native communities gain access to important resources that support their language programs.
Throughout the years, the relationship between the Myaamia Tribe and Miami University has continued to grow. Following the 2001 creation of the Myaamia Project, Myaamia Heritage classes began for enrolled Myaamia students. In 2006, the Miami Tribe and the university signed a “Memorandum of Understanding” to continue to engage in future educational initiatives. The Myaamia Project transitioned to the Myaamia Center in 2013 and has continued to grow ever since.
In 2022 the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma and Miami University will celebrate 50 years of relationship building.