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A Myaamia (Miami) and Shawnee view of the eclipse

drawing of the sun's path with words written in the Myaamia language
Myaamia Center Archives
The sun in its phases: eewansaapita 'east, sunrise'; maayaahkweeta 'noon'; neehsapita 'afternoon'; peenkihšinka 'west, sunset'; waahseeki 'it is daylight'; peehkonteeki ' it is dark, night'

There's a lot of excitement surrounding this year's total solar eclipse, especially locally, since the path of totality includes large swaths of Ohio and Indiana. That path also encompasses the ancestral homelands of several Native American nations, including the Myaamia, or Miami, and the three Shawnee nations.

Researchers — and citizens of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma — with the Myaamia Center at Miami University have been exploring how their ancestors processed and understood previous eclipses. Specifically, Assistant Director George Ironstrack and Education Coordinator Kristina Fox have looked at the Myaamia language and the words their ancestors used to describe an eclipse.

"The way that we talk about eclipses is the moon dying, with the understanding that it's going to be reborn," Fox explains to WVXU. "We actually would call a solar eclipse waahsee-kiilhswa neepiki, which is referring to the sun dying. It's the same way that we refer to the lunar cycle. At the end of the lunar cycle, tipehki kiilhswa neepiki 'the sun is dead,' but we always know it's going to come back."

Click the hyperlinked Myaamia (me-AHM-ee-uh) words to hear how they are pronounced.

There are no Native American nations in Ohio today. They were all removed by force in the 1800s.

Researchers went through the vast language records amassed during an ongoing language revitalization project. Linguist David Costa started studying the Miami-Illinois language in 1988, and has worked extensively with the tribe on language revitalization since 1995. Myaamia Center Director Daryl Baldwin has championed and led the effort for the tribe. He told WVXU in 2023, the language project morphed into reclaiming Myaamia culture and heritage.

"It started as a language effort with an understanding that our language is the most efficient and effective way of transmitting cultural information. 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," he said.

Fox says the Myaamia understanding of the language used to describe eclipses shows they weren't viewed as "cataclysmic endings, but rather powerful moments of transition" meant to be marked.

"One way that Myaamia people would [historically] 'celebrate' the eclipse I suppose you could say, is hollering, loud exclamations, cries, shooting bows or guns up at the sky as a way encouraging that rebirth of the sun," she says. "Today, we safely don our viewing glasses or pinhole cameras or eclipse viewers and celebrate the same way anybody else would."

Fox and Ironstrack will discuss a Miami Kiišikonki 'In the Sky' at the Cincinnati Observatory on April 24.

A Shawnee story: Tecumseh, The Prophet, and the eclipse

Portrait of Shawnee chief Tecumseh based on sketch by Benson John Lossing. Attributed to Owen Staples.
National Park Service
Portrait of Shawnee chief Tecumseh based on sketch by Benson John Lossing. Attributed to Owen Staples.
Portrait of Tenskwatawa, known as The Prophet.
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Courtesy of National Park Service
Portrait of Tenskwatawa, known as The Prophet.

The last time a total solar eclipse was visible in Ohio was in 1806. At that time the now-famous Shawnee warrior, Tecumseh, was trying to coalesce multiple tribes to push back against settlers who were expanding west and taking tribal homelands. Leading the effort against the tribes was William Henry Harrison, the future U.S. president, who several years prior had helped get legislation passed that divided the Northwest Territory into the Northwest and Indiana Territories.

As governor of the Indiana Territory, Harrison's chief goal was to oust the Native American tribes and gain the title to their lands. At one point he attempted to derail the efforts of Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa — better known as "The Prophet" following a revelation that led him away from a life of alcoholism and the 'White man's ways' to preaching a return to native nation's cultures — by publicly challenging them to "cause the Sun to stand still or the Moon to alter its course, the rivers to cease to flow or the dead to rise from their graves."

Tecumseh and The Prophet were ready for that challenge. The Prophet, using the Tecumseh's knowledge of the coming eclipse, accurately "predicted" just what Harrison challenged.

While the incident boosted the brothers credibility, especially with those they were trying to unite against expansion, it also enraged Harrison. Things came to a head at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, in which The Prophet — against the warning of his brother who was away — led the confederation of Native Americans against Harrison and lost.

That outcome eventually led Tecumseh to side with the British in the War of 1812.

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.