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Myaamiaki Conference celebrates 50 years of partnership between university and Miami Tribe of Oklahoma

The Miami Tribe of Oklahoma and Miami University celebrated 50 years of partnership at the ninth biennial Myaamiaki Conference Saturday, April 9.

Since 1972, the Miami Tribe has had a presence on Miami’s campus. In 2001, the partnership led to the creation of the Myaamia Center, which focuses on research, education and outreach related to Myaamia language and culture. Since 1991, 100 Myaamia students have graduated from Miami with the Center’s support.

The conference, which celebrated Myaamia culture and research in partnership with the university, opened at 9 a.m. with a tribal song performed by six Myaamia people.

“This is to recognize that we’re coming back together as a community out of this period of isolation,” one performer said. “This is a song about welcoming guests to our homelands.”

The performance was followed by a speech from Daryl Baldwin, executive director of the Myaamia Center. In addition to the nearly 500 people attending the conference in person – the most in its history – Baldwin noted that more than 100 Myaamia people attended.

“The work of language and cultural revitalization is now a global issue,” Baldwin said. “This institution develops a level of respect and commitment towards the education of tribal youth and other members of the campus community.”

He then introduced Jerome Viles and Gabriela Pérez Báez of the National Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous Languages, which aims to analyze and reconstruct Indigenous languages, and is the first national program of its kind.

Viles talked about how a history of colonization forced Native Americans to relocate their tribes.

“One of the effects of colonization on our peoples is to disconnect us not only from our own communities, but also from other Native communities around us,” Viles said. “I believe our institution is really rooted in what I see as an Indigenous ethic of cross-cultural sharing and solidarity.”

By analyzing written records of Native American languages and cultures, Viles and Báez provide resources for Native American people to connect to their heritage. It works in three steps: gathering resources, processing materials and weaving them together into language-learning resources. 

Cam Shriver, a visiting assistant professor of history and Myaamia research associate, partnered with Douglas Troy, coordinator of application development at the Myaamia Center, for the morning’s next presentation. The pair shared information on their current project, “Aacimwaahkionkonci” or  “Stories from the Land,” which aims to build a web-based historical database of archival sources about the Myaamia people and their heritage lands.

The website is in its early stages, so only treaties and allotment events have been added so far. The two are working on growing their program, continuing research and crowdsourcing information from across the globe. The final product will include dictionaries with spoken pronunciation tracks and an interactive map which allows users to locate indigenous reserves, including their familial backgrounds.

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“I’m speaking to the Myaamia people in this room, and the people watching – this is a reference resource primarily for you,” Shriver said. 

The morning finished with “Mahkihkiwa: Myaamia Ethnobotanical Database,” a presentation led by Michael Gonella of Santa Barbara City College in California. Gonella is working to build a database of plant references to understand how Myaamia people have used plants historically and currently. 

Gonella collects information about Myaamian plants, including their usages, how they can be harvested, and their histories. He uses a diverse array of practices and views regarding these plants, directly portraying rather than summarizing what has been recorded in indigenous archives. 

“I like that it’s so transparent, because this is a very iterative community type of knowledge,” Gonella said about his database. “It’s important that everyone has a voice in it, and that’s how this knowledge is evolving.”

After lunch, the conference continued with a presentation from Shriver and Kara Strass, director of Miami Tribe Relations. The pair described the 50 years of partnership between Tribe and university, as well as the history of displacement when the university was founded.

The Miami Tribe and Miami University formally crossed paths in 1972 to discuss the university’s use of a Native American mascot. Then-Miami Chief Forest Olds was reluctant to make a suggestion at the time, but it started the conversation between tribe and university.

In 1991, Miami admitted its first three Myaamia students. By 1996, the Tribe formally requested that the university change its mascot and athletic name.

“The relationship actually … gained heat — more people surrounding that fire, more faces basking in the glow — after the nickname was changed,” Shriver said.

In 2001, the Myaamia Project was born, now the Myaamia Center, with Baldwin as the executive director, a position he still holds today. In 2003, the Myaamia Heritage Award Program began, which brings Myaamia students together for courses taught through a Myaamia lens.

“It feels like things have just continued to grow, continued to evolve, and they’re really coming to a very unique culmination at this point,” Strass said. “ … We want to take this time to think back on our history so that we can truly celebrate everything that has happened in the last 50 years.”

Today, the Myaamia Center has grown from just one staff member to 17 full and part-time employees, nine affiliates, one graduate fellow and one faculty fellow. Miami is home to 38 Myaamia students this semester, its largest cohort ever.

David Costa, program director of the Language Research Office at the Myaamia Center, and Hunter Thompson Lockwood, project coordinator, followed Shriver and Strass’s presentation with an update on The Miami-Illinois Digital Archive, a database on the Miami-Illinois language spoken by the Miami tribe.

Costa said the Myaamia Center decided in 2012 to create the database, officially called the Indigenous Languages Digital Archive (ILDA), to compile 230 years of primary language resources for language researchers and educators. For language learners, the Myaamia Center has developed a separate online dictionary.

“When we started this project out, I was fairly emphatic that we should not try to combine a researcher’s dictionary and a student dictionary at the same time,” Costa said. “Every time I’ve seen that attempted, it kind of does a poor job of both.”

The conference concluded with a student and alumni panel led by Haley Shea, a visiting assistant professor and member of the Neepwaayoni Acquisition and Assessment Team (NAAT), which analyzes Myaamia student outcomes.

Two alumni came back to campus for the panel discussion and were joined by three current students. In addition to talking about their academic experiences at Miami, the panelists also talked about how they’ve connected with their heritage through the Myaamia Center.

Kayla Becker, a first-year computer science major and mother of five, was visibly emotional when she talked about her decision to return to school at 32 years old. She said she’s learned more from her one-credit Heritage Class in ecology than any other experience she’s had so far at college because it’s allowed her to connect to her Myaamia heritage.

“I didn’t know who I was anymore,” Becker said. “I had completely turned into nothing but a mom. I didn’t know what I liked or anything, so coming here, I’ve learned more in this class than anything, but I think it’s because I’m starting to find myself.”

stefanec@miamioh.edu

scottsr2@miamioh.edu

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