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Tribe member finds heritage in language

Daryl Baldwin
Daryl Baldwin

Photos courtesy of Myaamia Center Archive

Miami citizen Daryl Baldwin helps MU tribe students learn what it means to be myaamia

Daryl Baldwin settled down in his new office. It was at the end of a long hallway on the third floor of King Library. Its dimensions were strikingly similar to those of a closet.

It was the first day of his new job at Miami University.

"Now what?" he asked himself.

King Library was Baldwin's latest stop on his journey to bring his tribe's language, myaamia, back from dormancy.

He had no model and no one to advise him, but in 2001, he began his work with the Myaamia Project.

It was a moment hundreds of years in the making.

In 1846, the federal government under James K. Polk drove the Miami Tribe, Baldwin's ancestors, from central Indiana to present-day Kansas. In the 1870s, after a second removal forced members of the tribe to Indian Territory in modern-day Oklahoma, the Miami people were scattered across the center of the continent

Baldwin was born to a Miami father and an English mother who raised him near Maumee, Ohio.

"I was literally on the landscape where a lot of that history played out," Baldwin said. "In many ways, that landscape is the history book."

He was always aware of his heritage, but never really knew what it meant.

"I always knew I was a Miami Indian," he said. "But I didn't know much about that as a kid, because I grew up in an environment where there weren't any other native people."Attending high school in the late 1970s, he experienced first hand some things that would become contentious later - like mascot issues.

Baldwin attended Anthony Wayne High School - the Fighting Generals - named after an 18th-century U.S. general. Wayne led American troops in the Battle of Fallen Timbers against, among others, the Miami Tribe. One of Baldwin's ancestors signed the treaty that ended the fighting. Naturally, Baldwin objected to his school's choice of mascot. He didn't want to be a Fighting General.

It wasn't until later in his life, though, Baldwin began to dig deeper into his people's past.

"I was in my 20s when I started to ask questions," he said. "Things like: 'Well, where's our language? I know we had a language. Where is it?'"

Aside from ancestral names, he had never heard the language spoken. It wasn't until he was leafing through his grandfather's papers that he had his first real encounter with myaamia words. There, in between old legal documents, was a list of Miami words and their English translations. It was just a simple word list, the translations dating back to the early 1900s, tapped out on a typewriter. He started to feel the itch of curiosity.

He decided to visit Miami enclaves in Indiana and Oklahoma and see if there were any speakers left. There were not. The last, he learned, had died around the same time Baldwin was born in the early '60s.

Baldwin was not satisfied.

"I had questions," he said. "If I was claiming this heritage, well, what does it mean?"

Baldwin had begun to study wildlife biology at the University of Montana. But questions about the lost language haunted him. On a trip to Oklahoma, he crossed paths with someone asking the same questions. David Costa was a graduate student in linguistics at the University of California-Berkeley. He had come to Oklahoma in search of a native language to study. He chose myaamia. The two men began to exchange materials. They kept in touch.

At home, Baldwin and his wife Karen were committing themselves to the language. Baldwin wanted to learn. He wanted to pass it on to his children. But it was not an easy process. At the time, Baldwin only had rudimentary word lists - the names of birds, animals and household items. He had no idea how to pronounce them. The family started small. They taped vocabulary lists to their walls and cupboards. Baldwin kept notes in his pocket throughout the day. They began to teach the words to their children.

Meanwhile, Costa was traveling to old archives and amassing a huge amount of documentation. He unearthed centuries-old documents from French Jesuits and translations on field cards from Swiss and English linguists.

Photo by Reis Thebault | The Miami Student

However, there were no sound recordings of the language and no phonetically spelled words, so recovering the exact pronunciation was next to impossible. But, Miami-Illinois, as the language is officially called, is in the Algonquian language family. So, Costa was able to use his own materials and closely related Algonquian languages to construct his doctoral dissertation, which would become the first book of Miami-Illinois grammar.

Baldwin had no formal linguistics training when he received Costa's work in the mail. The academic jargon overwhelmed him. He needed to study linguistics. He went back to school.

Baldwin enrolled in a graduate linguistics program at University of Montana. He didn't want to be a linguist. He just wanted to arm himself for the reclamation of his own language.

With a degree in linguistics, Baldwin was ready to bring myaamia back to his people.

In 1992, Congress passed the Native American Languages Act. The bill set aside money for a grant program to support language regeneration. The Miami Tribe of Oklahoma applied for one of these grants and received it. The tribe called on Baldwin to go to Oklahoma and lead the first community level workshop for the Miami language.

When Baldwin arrived, he found other like-minded people - people in search of their heritage.

"I come from a generation of people that are like, 'Where is my culture? Where is my language? What happened?'" he said.

After brief stints working with the tribe in Oklahoma and at a museum in Indiana, Baldwin connected with Miami University. The tribe and the university have had a long relationship.

Much of the early dialogue between Miami and the tribe focused on the university's use of the Native American mascot. In 1996, the Miami tribe urged the university to abandon the "Redskins" mascot. By 1997, the university had complied. This forced the two sides to work through a divisive issue. But what came out of that, Baldwin said, were some really positive things - especially after the mascot was terminated.

One of these positives would become the Myaamia Project, something Baldwin said could not have happened without the existing relationship between tribe and university.

The tribe and the university agreed to give the project a try and, in three years, to reevaluate. While Baldwin wasn't certain what would become of it, he knew he wanted to focus on language regeneration and education.

So, from his office in King Library, that is what Baldwin decided to do.

The new relationship proved mutually beneficial and the Myaamia Project blossomed into what is now the Myaamia Center in the Bonham House. Baldwin now has a bigger office.

When he arrived on campus in 2001, there were six myaamia students on campus. There are now 26. And they are hungry for more.

"A lot of them come here for the opportunity to learn about their heritage and there is no other institution they can go to learn that," Baldwin said. "They want to engage in the process."

When tribe students first arrive on campus, Baldwin asks them to write an essay: "What does it mean to be a Miami Indian?"

"Some can be really intimidated when they get asked that question because, for some, not much was passed on," Baldwin said.

He knows how that feels. And now, he is helping students with the same questions.

"That becomes my mission in life," he said. "That's exactly why I'm doing it."

Language, Baldwin said, is the key to the Miami tribe's past.

"When two people use a language that's unique to their culture, they connect in a way that we can't feel any other way," he said.

Because of Baldwin, Costa, and numerous other myaamia people, more and more kids are growing up in the language. And while there is still a long way to go - Baldwin estimates they have used just 30 percent of language documents - the myaamia language is being spoken again. What started as the subject of a master's thesis and a gnawing at the back of Baldwin's mind has taken root.

"We have reached a point where it doesn't feel like it'll fizzle out."