Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (AP)
More than 40 years after the last fluent speaker died, the first modern dictionary of the Miami-Peoria language will be published this spring.
For members of the Miami Nation of Oklahoma, the 200-page book due out in March is a milestone in the effort to rescue their language from the brink of extinction. But the dictionary also represents a unique relationship between the small Oklahoma tribe and its academic namesake, Miami University of Oxford, Ohio.
“The relationship, that’s the key,” said Daryl Baldwin, one of the authors. “To have this kind of relationship between a university and a single tribe, that is rare.”
Baldwin is a Miami and director of the university’s Myaamia Project for Language Revitalization, established in 2001 to research and preserve the tribe’s history, language and culture.
Faculty members are mapping the Miami Tribe’s historic territory, studying the plants they used for food and medicine, and translating centuries-old, Miami-language documents.
For more than 160 years, the only connection between the university and tribe was a shared name.
The university’s name comes from its location at the confluence of the Great Miami and Little Miami rivers, said Bobbe Burke, the university’s liaison with the tribe. But the rivers were named for the Indian tribe, and as early as the 1930s, the university was making that connection too, calling its athletic teams “the Redskins.”
Before long, the university had established scholarships for tribal students. Collaborative research projects followed, along with visits – students traveled to Oklahoma to attend cultural events or perform service learning projects; tribal leaders traveled to Ohio to participate in discussions and give lectures.
Like many tribal leaders, Baldwin thinks reviving the language is key to revitalizing the 3,000-member tribe, which may have numbered 15,000 when French missionaries lived among them in the 1600s.
The last fluent speaker of Miami died in the early 1960s, and surviving elders remember only scattered words, greetings and prayers. But Baldwin rejects words such as “dead” or “extinct” to describe the language.
“We say ‘sleeping’ or ‘dormant,”’ Baldwin said. “Names and prayers continue to be used. There’s just no one carrying on conversations.”
Baldwin and David Costa, a linguist who studied the Miami language as a graduate student, are considered today’s foremost authorities on the language, and they collaborated on the dictionary.
Costa said when he started his studies in the late 1980s, Miami had a reputation as a language no one knew anything about. Eventually, he discovered dozens of language records dating from the late 1600s to the early 1960s.
“There’s a huge amount of data on the language, it’s just that almost none of it was published,” Costa said by e-mail from his home in California.
From those documents and their own databases, Baldwin and Costa spent years honing lists of words and morphemes – the building blocks for the long words common in the Miami language, which sometimes is called Miami-Illinois or Miami-Peoria.
The new dictionary will include 4,500 words, but Baldwin estimates they cover only 10 percent of the language’s morphemes.