This parent reclaimed her heritage because of where her son went to college
Growing up, Kathy Carter Young knew her heritage. She knew she was Myaamia (Miami). Her father, born in Richmond, Ind., would take her to visit important, sacred sites like Seven Pillars near Peru, Ind., along the Mississinewa River.
"I knew that we were Indian, but I didn't know what that meant," she says.
Young was part of a panel discussion during the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma'sannual Winter Gathering last weekend. She and others talked about how the partnership between Miami University and the Miami Tribe has affected their lives. About 100 Miami University staff and students traveled to Miami, Okla., to participate in the Winter Gathering as the final event in a year-long commemoration of the two Miamis' partnership.
"What does it mean?" she asked as tears welled in her eyes. "This partnership has meant everything to me."
Young's son, Ian, attended Miami University's Myaamia Heritage Award Program, an outgrowth of the partnership, which offers a tuition waiver for tribal citizens along with classes on tribal history, language and culture. As her son learned about his ancestors, so did Young.
"We were not really culturally involved with the tribe at all," she says of her childhood. She had cousins who were, but her family, she says, was more isolated. Her white maternal grandfather had not wanted his daughter to marry Young's Native father. Her knowledge was limited to what her father told her, and some family documents.
"My (paternal) grandfather had a Miami name, his mother had a Miami name, but then when it came down to my brother and I, then that was kind of the end of it. We did not, (and) we were not taken to the Council."
'I was learning the history with him'
What little else she knew was based on likely incorrect "facts" taught in school about Native Americans and how they were treated by white settlers. She says she had no understanding of how her ancestors were forcibly removed in the 1800s and the devastation it wrought.
"When our son went to Miami on the heritage scholarship, and through the heritage classes, that's when I really understood that there was forced removal. We had our own Trail of Tears — I had no way of knowing that. As Ian was learning the history, as our son was learning the history, he brought it home and then I was learning the history with him."
Learning that history was hard. She would tell her son — and herself — to figure out a way to deal with all the emotions and feelings and trauma of what happened in the past, and in the more recent past, too.
"My grandfather had been orphaned at the age of four. We suspected that his mother had hung herself. Two years before she died, her sister died, possibly the same way. It was a very difficult time... So at least you're getting this in bits and pieces. ... But it really did stir up feelings that you heard this happening to other people, but all of a sudden, it was your family that it had happened to and you didn't know."
On top that, she says it was also tricky when talking with her non-Native family members "because there was the sense in which (they were saying) 'You're white. You are white. This is not important.' But it was important."
As her son was learning about their heritage, Young began learning to speak and write in the Myaamia language through adult classes. She describes the experience as spiritual.
"It was a lost language and to hear it spoken, even in story form, it's lyrical, it's beautiful. It almost sounds like spoken music."
When speaking in the Myaamia language, she says her brain sometimes freezes and she can't remember all the words, but it's been a joy to communicate in Myaamia with her family.
She calls the language renewal — a key outcome of the Myaamia Center's work at and with Miami University — the glue that has held the community together.
"The minute that we had our language back, I think that's what really propelled us forward."
After being raised without her cultural identity, Young now has her Myaamia name. It means white swan and was her great grandmother's name. She's also named her children and grandchildren, bringing family names forward from the past for the new generations.
"It was like being adopted and finding your family of origin and finding them with their arms open and saying, 'Come on, we'll teach everything we know about this side of your family.' How wonderful is that? I mean, how really wonderful is that?
"That's what it's meant to me."
WVXU's Tana Weingartner was invited to attend and report on the Myaamia Winter Gathering in Miami, Okla. She's filing a series of stories for WVXU and WMUB.