Myaamia Center Director Daryl Baldwin stands with Miami University President Greg Crawford and Miami Tribe Chief Doug Lankford at Crawford's 2016 inauguration.
Myaamia Center Director Daryl Baldwin stands with Miami University President Greg Crawford and Miami Tribe Chief Doug Lankford at Crawford's 2016 inauguration. Photo: Scott Kissell

Miami Tribe and university strengthen relationship with new agreement

By Margo Kissell, university news and communications

Kara Strass always felt connected to her Native American ancestry because of her grandmother, who often shared stories about her experiences growing up. But it wasn’t until Strass came to Miami University that she discovered other aspects of her identity.

As she pursues a master’s degree in student affairs in higher education, Strass is learning the Myaamia language and more about her Miami Tribe’s history and culture.

The graduate assistant at the Myaamia Center — a research-focused collaboration between the tribe and university — works with the 31 undergraduate Myaamia students taking classes on the Oxford campus.

“The language, culture and games and extending that kinship network, all of those have been really important to me coming to a deeper understanding of who I am,” she said.

Relationship between two Miamis

Breath of Life

Kara Strass and Jarrid Baldwin, community language programming coordinator for the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, examine a Myaamia language document at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. (Photo by Gabriela Perez-Baez, National Museum of Natural History)

Strass is part of the first generation in nearly 100 years learning to speak the language. (Myaamia is “Miami” in the Miami language.)

The center is leading this language and cultural revitalization effort. Director Daryl Baldwin credits the relationship between the two Miamis — the sovereign tribal nation and the public educational institution — with reaching this significant milestone.

This month, they embark on a collaborative agreement to increase recognition of the relationship, which spans 45 years and is rooted in common geographic, historic, educational and cultural interests.

There’s a new jointly designed Myaamia Heritage Logo that is part of the agreement Miami Tribe Chief Doug Lankford and Miami University President Greg Crawford will sign Saturday, Oct. 21. Afterward, they will celebrate with a ceremonial coin toss to begin the RedHawks’ home football game at 2:30 p.m.

Partners in learning

The Myaamia word neepwaantiinki, which means “learning from each other,” embodies the core understanding of this relationship. It captures the desire to mutually engage with each other by creating opportunities for learning and sharing.

Several noteworthy steps have occurred between tribal leaders and university officials since 1972 when then-Chief Forest Olds visited Miami during a business trip to Cincinnati.

Miami officials welcomed him and gave him a tour of campus. Two years later, Olds was made an honorary lifetime member of the university’s alumni association.

Another significant step came in 2001 with the creation of the Myaamia Project (the Myaamia Center’s predecessor) to conduct research supporting tribal initiatives to preserve language and culture and expose university students to efforts in those areas.Chief Lankford and President Crawford playing the moccasin game.

Chief Lankford, left center, and President Crawford play the moccasin game during last January's winter gathering in Miami, Oklahoma. (Photo by Karen Baldwin)

Being able to carve out space for the tribe to reposition itself and heal from the past through the Myaamia Project was a critical step in strengthening the relationship, said Baldwin, a linguist and cultural preservationist who last year was awarded a “genius grant” as one of 2016 MacArthur Fellows. He was recognized for his work to revive his Miami Nation's cultural heritage and language, which had all but vanished after a 19th-century, forced removal from their homelands in what is now Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.

When he came to Oxford as founding director of the project, Baldwin wasn’t sure where it would lead. University officials didn’t know either, but they gave him a three-year contract and a small room on the third floor of King Library.

“We just knew that we needed help trying to re-establish ourselves because we saw a whole generation of youth disconnected from their cultural heritage,” Baldwin recalled. “And we knew if we didn’t do something, that disconnection was going to further erode the community.”

A growing youth movement

The Myaamia Project in 2005 started offering summer language-based camps for the tribal youth in Oklahoma.

They called the camps eewansaapita, which means sunrise, “because we very much viewed this movement as the beginning of a new day,” Baldwin said.

The program easily reached its maximum of 20 children, showing tribal educators that the community was ready for something like this. Eventually the tribe expanded the eewansaapita summer youth program to Indiana, where many Miami tribe people reside today.

Daryl Baldwin teaching children the Myaamia language.

Daryl Baldwin teaching the Myaamia language to children. (Photo by Andrew Strack)

Three years ago, the tribe added a new program called saakaciweeta, meaning “emerge,” for even younger children in Oklahoma. Next year, a new saakaciweeta program will get underway in Fort Wayne, Indiana. At that point, nearly 80 children each summer will be learning about their language and culture.

Most of the camp counselors are tribe students at Miami, who take a series of courses about their language and culture at the university.

“That gives them a chance to take what they’re learning here, take it back to the community, engage with the youth and help them learn,” Baldwin said.

Reed Anderson, former associate dean of the College of Arts and Science who was instrumental in obtaining approval for the Myaamia Project, has enjoyed seeing the programs thrive.Reed Anderson

Reed Anderson

Anderson, whom the tribe made an honorary member when he retired from Miami in 2004, visits Miami, Oklahoma, once or twice a year to take part in tribal events. He sees the enthusiasm young people show in learning the language.

“This is everything we imagined and hoped for — and even more,” said Anderson, who met Crawford in Oklahoma last winter when the Miami president made the trip out there.

To date, 70 tribe students have earned degrees from Miami, said Bobbe Burke, coordinator of Miami Tribe Relations. The first three students came to the Oxford campus in 1991 and since that time others have participated in the Myaamia Heritage Program, which provides a tuition waiver and additional course work relative to their heritage.

Tending the fire

When it came to creating the Myaamia Heritage Logo, an image that would capture the tribe’s special relationship with the university, Julie Olds found inspiration in her tribe’s ribbonwork and its bold colors, geometric patterns and elongated diamonds.

But, the tribe wanted this new icon to be different in some ways from the traditional ribbonwork and to stand on its own.

Myaamia Heritage Logo

The Myaamia Heritage Logo was inspired by ribbonwork.

The tribe’s cultural resource officer for 20 years, Olds is also an artist. As such, she worked to incorporate meaning and symbolism through the use of colors — a red diamond representing responsibility, a black one for respect and a central white diamond for unity.

A red circle at the center represents a fire (koteewi) — a symbol of warmth of the partnership but also the shared responsibility needed to continue the relationship.Julie Olds

Julie Olds

“It’s something that has to be tended, something that gives off light, gives off warmth … but if you don’t take care of it, it will go out,” said Olds, who collaborated with designer Alyse Capaccio of university communications and marketing.

Olds views the logo as “the ultimate stamp of respect.” She hopes people will learn from it and embrace it.

Olds is the current chief’s twin sister. She knows well the shared history of her tribe and the university, which Chief Forest Olds first visited in 1972. She has witnessed the benefits of neepwaantiinki, “learning from each other.”

“That commitment has been there from the beginning,” she said, “and it grows every year.”