Part 2 of Series – Native Language Project publishes Miami Tribe Dictionary

The Miami Nation, a nation that once encompassed much of western Ohio, was lost to white settlers through a series of battles and treaties and finally forced removal by the US Army in the mid 1840s. With the tribe’s removal, their language declined too. But, a joint project of the tribe and Miami University seeks to restore what’s known as the Miami-Peoria language.

Researcher Daryl Baldwin says the Miami Language is part of the Algonquian linguistic family. It was spoken widely through the Central Great Lakes until the early 1800s. By 1960, the language was nearly lost as the last tribal member to speak Miami conversationally died.

In his corner office at Miami University’s Center for American and World Cultures, Daryl Baldwin, drops a 200 page draft copy of the Miami-Peoria Dictionary on his desk. The restoration of the ancient language was a long time coming.

“Native languages have long been under attack through federal policy and federal institutions for a number of years. And it wasn’t until 1990 when the Native American Languages Act was passed which gave a legal foothold for tribes to begin pursuing language revitalization,” Baldwin said.

The new dictionary contains about 3,500 word and phrase entries. It has a cross-reference section for English. Baldwin and co-editor David Costa used written records, remembrances of tribal elders who may have heard the language as children, and Miami University resources to build the vocabulary and syntax used in the dictionary. Baldwin says the original lands of the Miami in western Ohio and Indiana also yielded clues. “If you go over to Indiana, the Wabash river and most of its tributaries are either corruptions of Miami words or English translations of Miami words. So, the way we see the land is that our language is still very much on the land,” Baldwin said. In Ohio, the town of Piqua was a well-known Miami settlement. The Great Miami river watershed drains much of the land west of Columbus. A glance at a present day map of Ohio also shows a Miamitown, New Miami, and Miamisburg. The language and culture which went silent in this region so many years ago keeps a grip on the state’s geography. Some river names take on the names of other nations. A good example is in Northwest Ohio. The Maumee River, what’s known as the Maumee River just outside of Toledo, flows from Fort Wayne, Indiana or near there over to Lake Erie. And on one end were the Miamis in Fort Wayne and on the other end were the Ottawa people. And so the Miamis we call that river “Ottowawasipiwi” and that means the Ottowa River because the river lead to the Ottawas and of course the Ottowas call it “Omaumee” which meant it lead to the Miamis. While the Miami dictionary catalogues centuries-old words and sounds, Baldwin says the structure of Miami allows for an unlimited number of new words. “Recently we created a word for computer ….and what that literally translates as is ‘that thing that thinks fast,’” Baldwin noted. Even with the addition of entries in the Miami dictionary, the success of the Myaamia language project will be measured in other ways. Ways more personal. Joshua Sutterfield, a Miami tribe member and an Anthropology major at Miami University, says he’s begun using Miami in some daily exchanges, ” For me its phrases, greetings. I’ll call home to mother and, you know, we’ll do a couple greetings back and forth. Your typical greetings that you would do in any language, you know, Hi, How are you. What’s going on.” Sutterfield says learning Miami and visiting some tribal ancestral spots in Ohio and Indiana has helped him spiritually. Baldwin smiles as Sutterfield relates his personal journey. He says the language revitalization effort will be slow for want of fluent speakers.