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Chief of Miami Tribe talks about 50 years of partnership with Miami University

people walking on a sidwalk processional.
Miami University
Two young people carrying a Miami Nation flag lead a procession in fall 2021 marking a day of reflection on the 175th anniversary of the Miami Tribe's removal from its homelands. They're followed by Miami Chief Doug Lankford and Miami University President Gregory Crawford.

Miami University is celebrating50 years of partnership with the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma. Chief Doug Lankford is in town to participate in the biennialMyaamiaki Conference as part of the year-long commemoration. The event focuses on the ongoing work and research coming out of the Myaamia Center. Lankford spoke with WVXU about the partnership.

"It's really exciting to have such a partner as Miami University," Lankford says. "It's just a special relationship that both parties feel like they get the better end of the deal. For us, (it's) a university that's helping rebuild our education system and our language revitalization effort."

Miami University and the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma first met in 1972 when Chief Forest Olds, having heard about a university in Ohio that shared a name with his tribal nation, showed up on campus unexpectedly during a visit to Cincinnati. At the time there were no speakers of the Myaamia (pronounced: me-AHM-me-uh) language, and the tribe was struggling to hold onto its language and culture.

Through the work of the Myaamia Center at Miami University, under the direction of educator and tribal member Daryl Baldwin, the language has been recovered as have tribal songs, rituals, games and more. In short: culture.

"So many things have been returned to our people, and as we learn about other new things, hopefully those will return also," says Lankford.

He points to monthly tribal meetings where votes are now taken in the Myaamia language. Prayers, also, are said in the language and, he notes, people are starting to reclaim Myaamia names.

"Prayers are said in the language when we have get togethers. Naming has came back to the community - people are taking actual Myaamia names as they used to. Funeral ceremonies are performed for tribal members now by myself and the families... Our games have returned to us from all the work that's happened up there. The songs that we sing when we're playing the mahkisina (moccasin) game - those things have returned to us. Our Stomp Dance has returned to us from all these efforts."

man stands at a podium
Miami University
Miami Tribe Chief Doug Lankford speaks on Miami University's campus during a day of reflection in Oct. 2021.

In January, a group of Miami staff and students visited Miami, Oklahoma, for the tribe's annual Winter Gathering and Stomp Dance. Students also work with the tribe on special projects in Oklahoma. The university has been sending staff, faculty and students to that annual gathering for roughly two decades to meet with and learn from the people there.

Lankford also visits the university occasionally to speak with the board of trustees and the university president.

"We discuss where are we going as partners. It's never what do they want, it's always what do we want. And we always ask them, 'How can we help you?' We brag on this unique relationship that no other university has with the tribe. A lot of universities have programs that are Native American, but they're geared to multiple tribes, and the problem with that is not all tribes are alike. Some things that are sacred to us are not sacred to another tribe. This one-on-one relationship is what makes our partnership so unique. They are very conscious of who we are and what is sacred to us," Lankford explains.

The next 50 years

Lankford sounds optimistic about the the continuing partnership. He sees the board of trustees and President Crawford as committed to the relationship.

He wants to see the educational efforts and opportunities continue as well as more work on the research already underway.

"We've got 30 years worth, at least, of data to decrypt and unlock and those efforts will continue past myself as chief and Daryl Baldwin as director of the Myaamia Center," he says. "Being able to groom replacements is a big thing for myself and Daryl. That's what we're looking to do — continue to build our placements— so this work never stops."

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.