‘I am Miami’ represents multiple significances for writer
By Kara Strass M.S. ’18, director, Miami Tribe Relations
I am often asked to speak about the relationship between the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma and Miami University. As the director of Miami Tribe Relations, that is part of my job – to educate the Miami community about the Tribe and its relationship with the university. Usually, my audience is new to the topic, so I start at the beginning.
The Myaamia (Miami) people have lived in the lower great lakes since time immemorial – since time out of mind. Our homelands encompass Indiana, Illinois, the western half of Ohio (including Oxford), as well as portions of Michigan and Wisconsin. Although this is the land that we used to hunt, gather and trade, it did not have borders in the way we think about nations today. This land was shared with many other tribal nations.
So why are we the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma if our homelands are in the Great Lakes? This is because of our history of two forced removals, first to Kansas in 1846 and then to Oklahoma a generation later. Myaamia people stayed behind during each of those removals, and others moved across the country looking for work. Today, our 5,500 citizens live in all 50 states.
This history of wars, treaties, forced removals, allotment, boarding schools and other forced assimilation practices means that our community lost much of its language and culture. By the mid-20th century, there were no longer any speakers of myaamiataweenki, the Miami language. This is why the language and cultural revitalization work of the Myaamia Center is necessary and important. Because of extensive research and language revitalization through archival documentation, we are today able to teach and use myaamiataweenki as a community.
As I give these presentations, I have to be very specific about who I am talking about. If I say Miami, am I talking about the university or the Tribe? If I use ‘us’ or ‘we’ am I representing my job at Miami University or my role within my own community? Not to mention that I occasionally slip up, using Myaamia when describing Miami University – a mistake that I usually catch but does make me chuckle. Niila myaamia, ‘I am Miami,’ has two meanings for me.
When I first started in my job, this was something that I thought about often – am I a representative of the Tribe or of the university? Do I need to do my job differently depending on the answer to that question? But the more I think about it, I have come to understand that this dichotomy is not a challenge but in fact, makes me even better at my job. I cannot divorce my Myaamia identity from any aspect of my life, and my job is no different. Every day, I come to work thinking about what is best for the Myaamia students that I work with, the Myaamia nation that I am a part of and Miami University whom I am responsible to as well.
Similar thinking impacts my understanding of Native-based mascots as well, especially the change that Miami University made in 1996. I hope that you take the time to read the story about the history of the mascot change and the outcomes made possible because of that change. As a citizen of the Miami Tribe, there are parts of that story that I believe are especially important to my Nation and its relationship with Miami University. Miami University asked the Tribe in 1972 to sanction the use of a Native mascot, and the Tribe agreed to assist. However, as time passed, the conversation about the use of the mascot continued within the Myaamia community as we struggled to understand the implications. Twenty-four years after the initial resolution that agreed to the use of the mascot, the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma passed an updated resolution asking for the mascot to be changed.
When the Tribe asked for change, Miami University listened and acted immediately. We are in a place within our country today where many people believe that they are not heard. When the university changed the mascot and changed quickly, it was a recognition of the sovereignty of the Miami Tribe and showed that they heard what we said and respected it enough to take action. That action allowed the relationship between the Tribe and university to grow and flourish into what it is today. The Myaamia Center is nationally and internationally known for its work in language and cultural revitalization. We now have 95 Myaamia graduates of Miami University and will have over 30 Myaamia students enrolled for the fall.
I am so proud to be part of a vibrant Myaamia community that is today breathing life into our language and culture once again. Being a part of a community that is revitalizing sometimes feels like nothing is static. One day I will learn a new Myaamia word just to learn that there is actually a different word that works better in a certain situation. I am constantly coming to new understandings of our Myaamia knowledge system and worldview that make me think differently about everything I knew up to that point. This is what it means to be part of a living community. Often, people want to relegate Native Americans to the past – to tell us that if we made a decision in 1972 that we must live with that decision forever. However, Miami University has worked hard to get to know the Myaamia people, to understand us, and to recognize us as a people with a past, not a people from the past. The relationship that has been built between the Tribe and University makes both groups better and I think that it can serve as a model for how to make sure people can be heard moving forward.
‘Love and Honor’
– Kara Strass