'No one else has a commitment like this': The two Miamis on their unique partnership
Miami University and the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma spent the last year commemorating the 50th anniversary of partnering to learn from each other. University students and staff traveled to the tribe's recent Winter Gathering in Oklahoma — a capstone to the yearlong celebration. WVXU's Tana Weingartner was invited along and brings back this look at what the partnership means to so many.
On the last weekend of each January, members of the Myaamia, or Miami, Nation gather from across the country in Miami, Okla., to be in community with one another. The crowning event is a social stomp dance, open to all, with guests from neighboring tribal nations.
It lasts long into the evening with men leading songs, women setting the beat with rhythmic stomping, and participants moving harmoniously together in undulating circles around a fire (artificial since this event is indoors). Visitors from Miami University join the festivities.
Mariah Tyner is Absentee Shawnee and Cherokee. She's lacing shell shakers around her calves — in this case 8-oz tomato sauce cans lashed together and filled with river rock to produce a percussive instrument. She estimates they weigh 25 pounds.
She learned to shake from the women in her family before her and has taught her daughter.
"This is something that we just value, we cherish," she explains. "It's something that goes way back in our tribe from before the removal. It's something that we still have. It's still here with us (and) we can still participate. (It's) something that hasn't been taken away from us yet."
It's been 51 years since Miami Chief Forest Olds showed up on Miami University's campus during a visit to Cincinnati. He would return two years later to meet with President Phil Shriver, launching a partnership celebrated as neepwaantiinki, or "learning from each other."
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By the 1990s — less than 150 years since the tribe was forcibly removed from the Great Lakes region — the Myaamia language was silent. A tribal citizen wrote "the end to Myaamia cultural identity was looming."
The tribe looked to Miami University to spark a cultural awakening.
The Miami Awakening
In 2001, the tribe and the university created the Myaamia Project, with Daryl Baldwin at the helm.
"It started as a language effort, with an understanding that our language is the most efficient and effective way of transmitting cultural information," says Baldwin, executive director of the Myaamia Center at Miami University. "However, language also has a community and cultural context, and in the context of revitalization, it became apparent to us pretty quickly that this wasn't just about language."
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The Myaamia Project would become the on-campus Myaamia Center, with a full-blown mission to revitalize the tribe's culture, language and historical knowledge. The university and tribe work directly together, and in an unusual agreement in the world of academia, the tribe owns the everything the center produces.
"The commitment is just unrivaled," states Miami Chief Doug Lankford. "No one else has a commitment from a university like this with a nation in the United States."
Lankford recalls growing up with no language, no cultural understanding — nothing of what has been returned to the tribe through the Myaamia Center's work. Now, children and adults speak the Myaamia language, create traditional ribbon work, tell re-found stories, play reclaimed games, and are learning about their heritage.
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It's called the Miami Awakening.
Julie Olds is the tribe's cultural resources officer. Her hope is for the relationship to remain strong as it enters the next 50 years. She uses the metaphor of a mutually attended fire.
"To keep our focus as partners, that's a commitment that we have to carry now, and a responsibility we have now. But part of this work is also engaging the next generation to understand the importance of it, to be willing to pick up that wood and carry it to that fire and keep it burning," she says.
Teaching the next generation
More than 100 tribal students have graduated from Miami University since the formation of the Heritage Award Program. Students who meet university admission requirements receive a tuition waiver and take a Heritage class each semester.
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Gretchen Spenn is a senior at Miami University from Fort Wayne, Ind. She says she's fortunate to have grown up in the Myaamia homelands knowing her heritage. She wants people to understand the Myaamiaki, "Miami people," are very much part of modern life.
"The Miami community and our culture is not a thing of the past. And coming to Winter Stories isn't like reliving the past, it's very much like coming together as a community and celebrating us in the now. I think what I would like people to know is that Indigenous communities are very much thriving and alive."
It's a wish spoken many times in interviews during the Winter Gathering.
"I wish people would learn more about Native American tribes," adds Chief Lankford, "because we're still here. We're still vibrant."