Part 3 of Series – Miami Tribe Recalls Past to Help Rebuild Language

Language skills are often developed over a lifetime. But, researchers on the Myaamia Project at Miami University in Oxford have a more daunting task. They work to restore and put into use a centuries-old language that hasn’t been spoken conversationally in nearly 45 years. It starts with publication of a Miami language dictionary this month. But, Miami tribe researchers vow to again make it a living language by teaching it to English-speaking Miami children. The story is well-known. Little Red Riding Hood arrives at her Grandmother’s house. The fairy tale was recently translated into the Miami language for use in performances. A teaching tool in any language with words to build suspense and surprise. Repetition of familiar phrases. Joshua Sutterfield is a member of the Miami Tribe who also studies anthropology at Miami University. He watched the Native language performance of Little Red Riding Hood with special interest. His niece was on stage. “They knew the story, so in their minds they could be thinking it so when it came out with the Miami words I would think for them just a whole different spin on the story. Being in the audience itself was fun. My niece was in there so watching her do it and speaking in the language it was just something else it was quite an experience.” Sutterfield said. The Miami translation of Little Red Riding Hood is a triumph of academic tenacity and some hard-boiled research. Myaamia Project Director Daryl Baldwin credits dictionary co-editor David Costa with getting the language revitalization effort underway in the late 1980s. For his graduate dissertation, Costa outlined whats called the phonology and morphology of the language. The sound, structure, inflection and word derivation. Also, the discovery a large manuscript helped the project along. “Just in the last couple of years after thinking that we had the good bulk of everything there was a manuscript discovered up in Montreal. It had been sitting in a tin box for nearly 300 years and all it had on the front of it was “Algonquian Language,” and sure enough it was nearly a 600-page manuscript of the language,” Baldwin says. Baldwin says an examination of the Montreal manuscript revealed it was Miami. It contained the Miami word for corn. “Every language has its handful of terms that are uniquely only found in their language and corn happens to be one of ours,” notes Baldwin. He says language revitalization and re-discovery is culture specific. The words and usage patterns can embody values or provide windows to belief systems through accumulated knowledge. And, he says all those clues are important to individual and collective identity. Baldwin says, “When I talk to Western thinking people they oftentimes look at the past and say,they have concepts of oh that was a long time ago you know, kind of water under the bridge, long forgotten times. And that is representative of a people who are very present and future oriented. And for us, at least alot of that future orientation can be very dangerous because much of what we do today is based on what we call traditional knowledge.” Baldwin says traditional knowledge among the Miami is part of the known. The future is unknown. The Miami language gives voice to the known. Baldwin says it will take years to bring the language back. But, the Myaamia Project assures it will not be lost.

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