By Ryan Schnurr
The story of the Miami language over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is one of fracture and dissolution. In this it is not unique among Native languages—or cultures. In fact, it’s difficult to talk about one without the other. Miami is considered to be a dialect of the Miami-Illinois language. The name comes from its speakers, the Miami tribe, whose traditional homelands span much of the southern Great Lakes region, including parts of Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan.
Around four hundred years ago, Europeans showed up. Early arrivals were largely French. Many were trappers and traders, but some were Jesuit priests who, intent on evangelism, began to document the language and develop translational texts. These included several early dictionaries. The influences of white settlers would not stop with attempts at conversion. The Miami measure their occupation of these ancestral lands “from time immemorial until the arrival of Europeans in North America.”
The story is as devastating as it is familiar: war and disease triggered a population decline, and the nineteenth century saw the cessation of all tribal land in Indiana, culminating in the 1840 Treaty of the Forks of the Wabash. The Miami were forcibly removed—twice: once from Indiana in 1846, and later from Kansas in the 1870s—loaded onto canal boats and shipped west. They eventually landed in Indian Territory, present-day Oklahoma. According to Daryl Baldwin, a Miami linguist and director of the Myaamia Center at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, fewer than 80 people made it to the final destination. Some had stayed in Indiana, and others remained in Kansas, dividing the Miami into a series of fragmented groups.
In Oklahoma, the Miami were in close proximity with other displaced tribes from east of the Mississippi. Each of these tribes had its own language. Wil Meya, executive director of Bloomington, Indiana-based The Language Conservancy, estimates that at one time there were more than 600 Native American languages spoken in the fledgling United States. But the young nation took issue with the persistence of Indigenous cultures and languages.
“The main mission and policy direction in the U.S., beginning in the 1880s…was to assimilate the Native Americans into the common language,” Meya told me. Dozens of federally-funded boarding schools were developed across the country, modeled after the Carlisle Indian Industrial School at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. Such schools were tasked with assimilating and ‘civilizing’ Native American youth through military style programs. Carlisle’s founder, Captain Richard H. Pratt, proclaimed at an 1892 convention, “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one…In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”
For Meya, the boarding school process is key to understanding the loss of Native American languages and cultures. “This went on for generations, from the 1880s until the 1950s,” he said. “So you can imagine there was a huge gap—when you’re not raised in your family, you’re raised in an institution. You didn’t just lose your language, but you lost all of your connections.”
The Miami faced “continued social and governmental pressures to suppress all aspects of being Miami,” Baldwin wrote in a 2013 book chapter co-authored with George Ironstrack and Julie Olds, both of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma.** The United States government refused to acknowledge the legitimacy and treaty rights of the Miami, and only recognized the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma as a self-governing entity in the 1970s. Other diaspora remain unrecognized, including the Miami Nation of Indiana, though Baldwin points out that the groups are not as separate as they are often portrayed—the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma has about 500 members living in Indiana, including Baldwin himself.
The destruction of Indigenous languages and cultures was federal policy in the United States. And it nearly succeeded. Some of the languages and cultures in North America at the time of the European invasion were completely obliterated—Meya said some tribes, living around the Ohio River Valley near the Pennsylvania border, were exterminated so quickly that for a long time no one knew they had existed. Hundreds of Indigenous tribes were forcibly assimilated by the U.S. government during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including the Miami. By the early 1980s, there were no remaining speakers of the Miami language.
What does it mean to lose a language? Scholars of communication, anthropology, and linguistics stress the role of communication, especially language, in creating and maintain cultures—that is, distinct worldviews and ways of life. Meya said that language is a primary vehicle for transmitting a shared culture between generations. Embedded within a language are “all of the worldviews that have evolved over the years for those people.”
“When we use language, that becomes a tool for expressing a particular kind of experience. It’s sort of like a musical instrument,” he said. “If you’re given a flute or a banjo, you’re going to have a qualitatively different experience using those to express yourself…It’s really not feasible to expect these native groups to express their culture in English.”
Language revitalization efforts are widespread, particularly since the passage of the Native American Languages Act of 1990, which declared that Indigenous groups could use languages other than English. The Language Conservancy is currently working with tribes all across the country, and has done extensive work with the Lakota in North and South Dakota, providing what is known as ‘language infrastructure’ in order to preserve the continuity.
Meya uses the term infrastructure because providing language support to teachers is not a simple process. Textbooks aren’t enough—dictionaries, audio recordings, and other supplementary materials are all essential for teaching a new language. “We’ve even translated an entire cartoon series,” he said. “The Berenstain Bears—20 episodes into Lakota.” In November of 2015, the organization released a feature-length documentary, Rising Voices, to both inspire Lakota young people and introduce the topic of language conservation to a broader audience.
The loss of a language is a disruption in the continuity of a way of life. Languages, like cultures, change and grow, but the natural process is fluid, evolutionary. Old words take on new connotations, and new words are added to describe emerging phenomena. Reviving a language that has had a break in its continuity is extremely difficult, because it requires the resurrection of an entire worldview, a way of understanding and expressing. Having lost the last native Miami speaker, the tribe was facing this challenge in the latter half of the twenty-first century.
In the 1980s, David Costa, a linguist at the University of California-Berkeley, began work on the Miami-Illinois language. Though the language was functionally dormant—with no native speakers or sound recordings—300 years of historical documents had survived, including the Illinois-French missionary dictionaries developed by Jesuits priests in the late 1600s. Costa used these documents to reconstruct a phonology and morphology of the language, and found a Miami community eager to recover this aspect of their culture—including Daryl Baldwin.
“I was born in that vacuum of no speakers,” Baldwin said. “And I began to ask questions as a young person. And one of those questions was, ‘where is our language?’”
Baldwin was drawn to Costa’s work on the Miami language, which led him to take two specific steps: one was to pursue a Master of Arts degree at the University of Montana, with a focus in Native American linguistics. The second step was even more personal—Baldwin and his wife decided to homeschool their four children in both English and Miami, using Costa’s work and other existing documents to learn together the dialect spoken by their ancestors. In the 1990s, Baldwin’s family became the only speakers of the Miami language in the United States.
“I had grown up with ancestral names and place names, and in some cases I didn’t know what they meant,” he said. “The process of learning the language gave context and meaning to things I had heard. I began to contextualize the place where I grew up, my ancestry…reconnecting me to my Indigenous knowledge system.”
Baldwin discovered that he was not the only member of the Miami who was interested in learning the tribe’s heritage language. In the 1990s, the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma began to support community-based language work. But the tribe did not have the resources for the kind of research and development activity that was necessary for a full revival, so in the summer of 2000 they approached Miami University, located near the homeland in Ohio. The tribe and the university had a relationship going back to the 1970s, and the university agreed to work with them to try to reverse the trend of language and cultural loss.
Baldwin spearheaded the collaboration, originally called the Myaamia Project, which serves as the “research arm” of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma. In 2013, it became the Myaamia Center. Baldwin, Costa, and other scholars at the center focus on language research and training, producing educational materials, supporting daycare and youth programming, and performing extensive language development research. The Myaamia Center is also looking at developing a teacher training program to aid in the bilingual education of young people and the perpetuation of the Miami language and culture.
“The project is to restore the language, but also to allow it to continue to evolve as any language does,” Baldwin said. “What happened in the 1960s and ’70s when the last speakers died…that process gets disrupted. So when we pick it up 30 years later there’s a lot of catching up to do—creating new words for things like computers, so that it can be used in daily life, because ultimately that’s what needs to happen.”
Baldwin is particularly excited about the ways technology can help in this process. The center is currently scanning 300 years of documentation into online archives. “We’ve got this diaspora community, and to be able to make these things available to people who may not live here in Oxford, Ohio…that’s really exciting.”
Baldwin says that he believes language revitalization to be a “healing process” for the tribe. This process is important for strengthening and unifying the Myaamia under a distinct, shared culture—bridging the gap created by generations of suppression, loss, and forced removal.
“The main thing to understand is that the Myaamia people are still here,” he said. “We’re not a people from the past. That history that contains our language and culture is important to us; it’s part of the history of this continent, the history of the Midwest, but it also exists today.
“I think embedded in American rhetoric is the notion that Indigenous people won’t be here someday. And that’s unfortunate, because we’re not going anywhere.”
Cover image excerpted from a map in “History of the city of Toledo and Lucas County, Ohio…“ (Munsell & Co., 1888). Via Internet Archive Book Images on Flickr.
Ryan Schnurr is a writer from northeast Indiana. His first book of nonfiction, In the Watershed: A Journey Down the Maumee River, is due from Belt Publishing in Fall 2017.