Miami University helps Miami Tribe reclaim language

By Lisa Cornwell
Cincinnati, Ohio (AP) 4-08

Kelsey Young – like many other members of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma – could not understand her tribe’s language. The Myaamia Project supported by the tribe and Miami University is changing that – helping the tribe reclaim and keep its language and culture alive.

The Miami language is one of many that have been threatened with extinction. Linguists have said that of an estimated 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, nearly half are in danger of disappearing in this century and are falling out of use at the rate of about one every two weeks. The Miami tribe is centered in Oklahoma, one of five hotspots around the world where languages are most endangered, according to the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages.

A long-standing relationship between the Miami tribe and its namesake university helped lead to a tribal initiative in 2001 creating the Myaamia Project to help preserve the language, culture and history of the small, non-reservation tribe. The word Miami is derived from the tribe’s original Myaamia name. A conference Saturday at the university in Oxford, about 40 miles northwest of Cincinnati, will highlight the project’s latest language revival and educational efforts.

“The Myaamia Project already has done a lot to help save our language and culture, but there is so much more to do,” said Young, a Miami University senior from Claremore, Okla., who has worked on the project-developed Miami cookbook. “I didn’t know any of our language before coming here, but now I have such a better understanding of where I come from and the closeness language gives a community.”

The Myaamia Project also has meant a lot to tribal member Joshua Sutterfield, a Miami University graduate who is now acting cultural resources officer at tribal headquarters in Miami, Okla.

“Growing up I knew I was an Indian and Miami, but I thought all Indians were pretty much the same,” Sutterfield said. “Learning our language and culture was almost a spiritual awakening for me. Now when I say ‘nilla myaamia,’ I’m not just saying ‘I am Miami,’ I’m also feeling it.”

The conference will highlight project efforts such as the April debut of an online version of the Miami dictionary. Myaamia Project Director Daryl Baldwin says the online version will make the dictionary more accessible to tribal members and others and allow people to hear pronunciations.

There also will be a preview of a video showing challenges the small community has faced in reclaiming a language whose last fluent speakers died in the early 1960s.

The Myaamia once inhabited land now within the boundaries of Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, including the Miami Valley region where the tribe’s namesake university now stands, and parts of Michigan and Wisconsin. The tribe now has only about 3,400 members scattered around the country and fewer resources than larger Native American groups working to save their languages.

“It is easier for the larger tribes and those with fluent speakers, but I think this video helps show what can be accomplished from documentation when you have no fluent speakers,” Baldwin said.

The Myaamia Project is a wonderful role model, said Leanne Hinton, professor emerita in the linguistics department at the University of California at Berkeley.

“I think more people doing language revitalization are coming to know the Miami example quite well because of its excellence,” said Hinton. “The video and other parts of the project also show the importance of documenting languages while speakers are still alive.”

Researchers still adding vocabulary to the Miami dictionary have only gotten through about 35 to 40 percent of the 300 years of Miami documentation, Baldwin said.

Baldwin has taught the language to his four children and says it’s vital that Miami children have that exposure if the tribe’s language and culture are to survive.

“Knowledge of the language gives a much deeper and richer sense of the culture and what it means to be Myaamia,” Baldwin said. “My hope for my children is that they will value it, cherish it and pass it along.”

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