Miami University collaborates to revive history through education
Sharing a name and homeland, members of the tribe and the university community are working to preserve tribal culture and reinvigorate its language.
The Myaamia people once occupied the lands of present-day Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan before they were forcibly relocated “to lands lying west of the Mississippi in what would become the state of Kansas, and then from Kansas to Indian Territory, which later became the state of Oklahoma,” according to their official history.
Today, their descendants, officially recognized as the Miami Tribe, are largely concentrated in an area of northeastern Oklahoma which shares their name. But through the generations, the tribe’s language and some of its history and cultural practices got lost.
Julie Olds, a cultural and resource officer for the tribe and former tribal council member, said when her husband’s great uncle, Chief Olds, was in leadership back in the 1970s, “he was extremely interested in learning more and more about our history — I know that sounds funny to say that the chief needs to know more about our history, but to really know our history, to know what happened to this tribe.”
“When you make long trips, things get lost along the way,” she added.
“His interest is what took him, as I understand it to Oxford, OH, and there meeting [then-Miami University] President Phillip Shriver and the two, I think shared an equal interest. Dr. Shriver was a history professor, as I recall, so his interest was matched across with Chief Olds and that very first meeting really planted the seeds that would grow slowly, at first, and as we get into the 80s and 90s would start to really get some root there and the heritage board was created.”
The Myaamia language “was completely dormant at that point for us,” she said.
And so leaders at Miami University, motivated by common geographic, historic, educational and cultural interests, “started building a language program for the tribe,” Olds said. “Around 2000, things were moving in a direction where we knew we needed to put ourselves in a place where we had access to tools and opportunities that the [main seat of the tribe] couldn’t offer at the time.”
Since then, the effort to help restore and preserve and revitalize those aspects of the language and culture have taken off. Today, the groups are proud of a full-fledged center charged with research and development of language tools, language learning and education for the tribe.
“Very slowly, [Myaamia] students started to enroll there,” Olds said. “In my role as liaison, I used to try to go to the university at least once per semester, just to visit. And I would always ask Bobbe [Burke, the student affairs staff member for the Myaamia Center,] to get the students together … they came from various parts of the country, and they grew up away from tribe.”
“Unfortunately, a lot of those students really didn’t have any information, and when they thought about being tribal members, it really was sort of grandma or grandpa [was a member of the tribe]. It really wasn’t sort of self” as a tribal member, Olds said.
For the university, Burke said, the partnership has been about “becoming rooted in who Miami University sees themselves to be, and that’s connected with the Myaamia tribe.”
“Miami means so much more than just Miami University and just the rivers that run through Ohio,” she said. “There’s something about a place that carries their name that exists in what was traditionally their homeland … in a place where a strong heritage for them has always existed.”
As the program grew in popularity, Olds said it “wasn’t very long then that we felt it was time that there needed to be a unique class for those students that would provide them a unique opportunity to learn … the very things that were being discovered in the research and the revitalization and reclaiming work.”
Transformational, life-changing work
“Once the class started, and once we started to see the incredible effect that immersion in knowledge ... to expose those young people to specific language and cultural information that they simply had never had the opportunity with before, and to see the change … this knowledge, once internalized and once allowed to thrive in these young people, it’s a life-changing thing,” she said.
Burke said the “transformational experience” she sees with students — most of whom are traditional-aged students, who are “very much developing from adolescence into adulthood” — is “really affecting how they see themselves as the develop into adults.”
Even “the non-Myaamia students who are involved with this, they have a transformational experience as well,” she said, and faculty and staff are also impacted. “We are really lucky that this Native American tribe trusts us enough to allow us to share in this experience.”
George Ironstrack, who now serves as assistant director of the Myaamia Center, first experienced the center as a graduate student.
“I wasn’t necessarily going through the same kinds of exploration and development that our undergrads are … in terms of emotional and cognitive development,” he said. “I came here to be a part of the Myaamia community nestled within the university.”
He found a “very supportive [environment], a home away from home and a place to expand my learning of, especially, our heritage, learning and culture in a way that isn’t really possible at any other institution of higher learning,” Ironstrack said.
“When I left the university, I definitely felt the absence of that support community and it just reinforced for me the value of this extended network of family that we create here for our students … both inside the classroom and outside … our sense of belonging is deepened by involvement” in the campus community, he said.
Deepening community ties
The center is open to members of the tribe, regardless of age, to serve as a hub of research and learning, and Olds said it isn’t just the students who experience this life-changing sense of self, particularly around the exploration of language.
“It is that way for every tribal member,” she said, “and we’ve seen it for every age. Once knowledge is received and understood and learned, it really does change people.”
Ironstrack said “there’s the continued sense that Miami University is a home away from home, and it’s not just for our tribal students, but also our tribal leadership when they come to visit, and even members of my extended family who never went to school here, they still love to come visit, they still love being here. It’s like a homecoming for them.”
“I think the important thing that oftentimes gets, maybe lost isn’t the right word, is that we are not a Native American studies program,” he said. “That’s not really what we do. By being tribally specific, we don’t look or behave at all like a Native American studies program. And that doesn’t mean that we’re better than those programs, it’s that we need to look and feel different.”
“This is really about a relationship between a university and the tribe who once called these lands home, and as that relationship has had almost 40 years of history and deeply personal relationships developed over time, and it’s been that history of respect and friendship that has allowed this partnership to evolve,” Ironstrack said.
“As we look backwards at the birth of the relationship in time and what it meant then as opposed to — it still means the same thing now, but with a much broader sweep of the landscape,” she said. “It’s an incredibly respectful relationship, first of all. With incredible levels of communication.
“There’s a lot of trust that’s been built up over the years. We’ve never been disappointed and we certainly hope that the tribe has never disappointed. So the impact that having the Myaamia Center located at the university has had on the tribe … has empowered the tribe to revitalize and restore language and culture that had been dormant for a very long time,” she continued.
“It’s not that we couldn’t have achieved it without them,” said Olds, who also serves as the tribal liaison to the university. “I think over decades, we could have — but the time and the resources [contributed by the university] has been immeasurable.”
Current Miami University President Gregory Crawford is “very keen on this. I think he’s very excited about this” partnership with the tribe, Burke said, recalling that very early on in his tenure as president, Crawford made the trip to Miami, OK to meet with tribal members and learn more about their perspective. Having the president’s buy-in has helped to raise the visibility of the center on campus.
Olds agreed, noting that the “presidents in the last two decades, they can see the very positive influence the program has on the students who participate, and they can see the positive influence that the center has on the understanding of university and faculty life. There’s this wonderful reciprocity that exists, because everybody comes to the learning table together and everyone brings something — it’s not a one-sided relationship.”
“From the naming of the university to that outreach by the university from President Shriver … now it’s because of how the Myaamia Center’s work has affected the tribe, in our sharing, our open sharing that we often do with the university, it’s also affected the university,” Olds said.
The center's work has resulted in significant milestones for the tribe, including the first generation of students in nearly 100 years learning to speak the Myaamia language again. Next summer will mark the birth of the eewansaapita summer youth programs, which will allow 80 tribal children to learn their native language and culture.
Olds said the growth of the center has been because the relationship between the two entities is “so incredibly respectful. And the energy from it is just intoxicating. It’s for the number of faculty who have traveled to Miami, OK to participate in some of our gatherings, the number of students who come, they are just as much a part of the growth of this relationship” as the leadership, she said.
“We just enjoy so much just this open sharing environment and the incredible support," she added.
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