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Miami University and tribe unite

ANDREW STRACK, COURTESY MYAAMIA CENTER ARCHIVE George Ironstrack (middle), Miami citizen and Myaamia Center Program Director, leads Miami tribe members in lacrosse.

By Libby Mueller, Senior Staff Writer

For a university that bears the name of the American Indian tribe, the student body's knowledge and understanding of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma is questionable.

For instance, many don't know as they walk the sidewalks of the university, they are walking on the historical hunting grounds of the Miami Tribe.

When the Treaty of Greenville was signed in 1795 by the United States government and leaders of various Indian tribes, including the Miami, land including southern Ohio was ceded to the U.S. in exchange for goods amounting to the value of $20,000.

Many places around the region still carry the name Miami (Little Miami River and Great Miami River, for example) because southern Ohio American Indian tribes who used these rivers to travel to the Miami Tribe village in present day Ft. Wayne likely named them. The university inherited its name from landmarks such as these and is thus indirectly named for the Miami Indian Tribe.

The word "Miami" is the Anglicized version of the native word "Myaamia," which was bestowed upon the tribe not by its own people but by an Algonquian speaking tribe to denote the location of the Miami people.

"'Myaamia' is a name given to us by other people and it means, 'those folks downstream,'" Miami tribe citizen George Ironstrack, who serves as the Assistant Director and Education Coordinator of the Myaamia Center, said. "The name stuck and began to be applied to all of our village sites."

Although the heartland of the Miami Tribe was northwest of Miami University, the current location of the university was significant to the Miami Tribe as well.

"Where MU is situated was considered Miami hunting grounds," Ironstrack said.

Today, the Miami Tribe is headquartered in northeastern Oklahoma. They share a section of this territory with the Peoria Tribe, whose people spoke the same language. There are nearly 40 tribes today in Oklahoma, where they had originally reserved lands for themselves.

However, the U.S. government later forced the native people into allotments, or individual parcels of land, hoping to assimilate them.

The Miami Tribe settled in Oklahoma following the Civil War, when the U.S. government forcibly removed the tribe from their reservation in eastern Kansas. The first forced removal had occurred in 1846 and moved those tribal members who had not been granted federal exemption to Kansas; however, settlers had been encroaching on the territories of the American Indians for years, ignoring the boundaries drawn in multiple land treaties.

The land loss and removals changed the lives of American Indians of all tribes.

"Hunting, farming and gathering was how the people fed and clothed themselves," Ironstrack said. "In one generation, all of that was gone. They were consuming wheat, beef, alcohol, things you can trade for."

According to Ironstrack, this had negative mental and physical effects on native people. In addition, the U.S. government set up a boarding school system to "remake" Indians, eliminating their culture and especially their language.

However, 40 years ago, MU and the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma began to establish a partnership, which served as a way to forge a new, enlightened path of mutual education, a way of acknowledging the past and defining a new future.

Bobbe Burke, Coordinator of Miami Tribe Relations at the Myaamia Center, said both the university and the Miami Tribe are dedicated to learning.

"I think the emphasis on education is the overarching theme," Burke said. "From 1990 on, the university became more devoted to on-campus educational programming about the tribe or native people in general. In 1991, the first three Myaamia students came to the university, which was a collaborative effort between the Chief of the Miami Tribe at the time, Floyd Leonard, and Myrtis Powell, the Vice President for Student Affairs."

Since the 1990s, many Miami Tribe students have received their educations at MU.

"Since 1991, 102 Miami people have been enrolled at Miami," Burke said. "Eight graduated last spring."

Although not all Miami Tribe students who were enrolled at MU graduated, the retention rate is over 70 percent, well above the national percentage of American Indians who graduate college in four years, which is only 10 percent.

Burke said moving forward, she hopes the Myaamia Center will be able to develop a network of MU Miami Tribe alumni from which future Miami Tribe students can draw for help with jobs, internships and more.

"This tribal unit needs to make sure that its young people stay invested in it or it won't be a unit any longer," Burke said. "We want these people to stay connected."

Building community is part of the way these connections are cultivated. MU provides tuition waiver through the Heritage Award to all Miami Tribe students meeting the program requirements. Heritage Award recipients must also participate in a class each semester comprised of Miami Tribe students. These classes aim to teach them about their heritage and create a bond grounded in a shared history.

Junior Evan Theobald is one of these Miami Tribe students. He said he had known a little about his culture and heritage from Myaamia camps he attended before high school, but since coming to MU, he has learned much more.

"Every semester, all the Myaamia students take a class together," Theobald said. "Last semester, for example, we covered language and the semester before that, history of the tribe."

Theobald said from the classes, he has learned the importance of the cultural bond between members of the tribe.

"Even though we are distantly related, we are still one big family," Theobald said. "I'm starting to understand why community is so important."

Theobald said he is still learning about the Miami Tribe. He believes he and his peers still hold misconceptions of American Indian people.

"I'm still learning, but I would say it's important to know we [American Indian tribes] still exist and we're still a strong community," Theobald said. "A lot of people in the U.S. view native people as what we used to be or how Hollywood portrays us. Although we do try to carry out cultural traditions, what we used to be doesn't define us as who we are today."

Burke said it is important for Americans to dismantle those notions about American Indians that are rooted in the past.

"They are a modern, contemporary group of people," Burke said. "We have this wonderful opportunity [as a university] because of our placement. We're in their homelands and we carry their name. It's a privilege for us to be allowed inside this culture to learn about it."