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Special Series - Miami Tribe Works to Restore its Native Language - Part 1

To tell the story of a language being recovered some history helps.

Approximately at the time Columbus stumbled into the shores of America there were approximately 300 different languages spoken.

Daryl Baldwin, a member of the Miami tribe, is director of the Myammia Project at Miami University in Oxford. He says the Miami language was among those nearly lost until the tribe and the University combined efforts to recover and revitalize it. Of the 300 languages spoken in North America before 1492.

Baldwin says, "Today there are about 175 that are still spoken. However, most of those, about 90% are no longer taught to children as a fluent language and that has become a real concern for tribes because the question that arises is: can we preserve our unique cultural heritage in the absence of language and I think most language activists and tribal cultural preservation individuals would say no that it can't be done."

Baldwin's efforts to help bring back his native language are informed by his experience growing up in northwesterern Ohio and by his work as a researcher interested in compiling the first dictionary of the Miami language. In the autumn of 1846, the Miami tribe was forcibly removed from its camping and hunting grounds in Indiana and Western Ohio.

The Miami were forced into a treaty in 1840 and that treaty called for the removal of the tribe in five years. The Miami signed that treaty with no intention of moving.

Despite the tribe's intention, by October of 1846, The US Government enforced its will. The Miami nation would be re-located by boat to the Great Plains. And the journey started along the newly completed Miami-Erie canal.

"They were loaded onto several canal boats, at gunpoint, and there were threats made. Some of them were clutching handfuls of earth. They wanted to take that land with them. We have stories of elders today that at removal time many elders took plant seeds with them because again they were about to move to a strange country where they didn't know the flora and the fauna and so their whole world was about to change." An estimated 550 of the Miami tribe were moved west to Kansas and then in 1870 to the nation's current lands in Oklahoma. Hamilton Journal-News columnist and history teacher Jim Blount says the canal boats moved 4-miles-per-hour from northwest Ohio to Cincinanti. At some points, Blount says onlookers would watch Miami nation move slowly by. Blount says its probable October 11th, 1846 was the last night members of the Miami tribe spent in the land they knew and loved. The canal boats had stopped in Middletown. "Of course one of the landmarks in Middletown was the old U-S.Hotel. And, according to the newspaper reports they fixed the evening meal for everybody, the Indians and their escorts at the U.S. Hotel. And they all couldn't get in the hotel, the building is still there on South Main Street in Middletown. And, so all of them couldn't get in so most of the Indians ended up eating out in the street and ended up sleeping in the street. As most accounts said this was a night long thing and ended up being more of a big party," Blount says. The next day, October 12, Columbus Day, its likely the Miamis reached Cincinnati and boarded a larger boat to travel West to Kansas. Baldwin takes some comfort in saying that native people are the lone indigenous group that has preserved its right to self-governance. So that today, hundreds of tribes control nearly 56-million acres of American soil where they determine local codes and ordinances.

"Most people know them as reservations or Indian lands, " Baldwin said.

Now, nearly 160 years after the Miamis were removed from Ohio and Indiana the tribe has a dictionary and Baldwin and others involved in the Myammia project vow to re-teach the Miami language to English speaking Miami children.