Daryl Baldwin stands at a podium.

Myaamia Center receives NSF grant for “Breath of Life” project

The Tututni language team works at the Smithsonian National Anthropological Archives during the 2015 National Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous Languages workshop
The Tututni language team works at the Smithsonian National Anthropological Archives during the 2015 National Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous Languages workshop

The Myaamia Center at Miami University has been awarded a $182,406 grant by the National Science Foundation (NSF) for the “National Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous Languages” project.

The funding is part of the Documenting Endangered Languages program, a joint effort between the NSF and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), which is designed to support projects that protect and preserve endangered languages.

This is the second time the Myaamia Center has received NSF funding for the project. Breath of Life is designed to train researchers from indigenous communities in the methods of archives-based linguistic and ethnographic research. This research is critical to the advancement of knowledge about indigenous languages and cultures and to their revitalization.

Daryl Baldwin, director of the Myaamia Center, is principal investigator. Co-principal investigators are Leanne Hinton, professor emerita of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, and Gabriela Pérez Báez, curator of linguistics and director of the Recovering Voices initiative, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.

The Native American Languages Act, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1990, enacted into policy the recognition of the unique status and importance of Native American languages. All Native American languages are endangered, and more than 120 of them have gone silent, which means there are no remaining fluent first language speakers. Experts recognize approximately 7,000 languages worldwide and estimate at least half will fall silent by the end of this century, according to the researchers.

National Breath of Life (BoL), as the program is more widely known, was awarded a $167,650 grant in 2014. The increased funding for this year’s award is largely due to a new assessment component that will be directed by Miami University’s Discovery Center for Evaluation, Research, and Professional Learning.

”The results of the assessment will inform the evolution of the institute to ensure that the National Breath of Life continues to offer state-of-the-art training in linguistics and archival research for community researchers,” Pérez Báez said.

Co-hosted by the Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives, the National Museum of the American Indian and the Library of Congress, the 2017 National BoL workshop will run from May 29 to June 9 and introduce linguistics and the language sciences. Participants are grouped by their heritage language, with each group assigned an academically trained linguist for one-on-one mentoring in the analysis of archival materials in that language. Ultimately, these efforts by citizen scientists will increase their linguistic understanding of their languages to support reclamation and further investigation of the languages.

The National BoL will train citizen scientists from some 15 language communities, bringing the cumulative number of languages investigated in these national workshops to more than 70.

The Breath of Life archival model has been successful in engaging Native American citizen scientists to work with archival language documentation in repositories in California, Oklahoma and Washington, D.C.

“Thanks to the support of the NSF-DEL program and our partnerships with the Smithsonian’s Recovering Voices and the National Breath of Life Committee, we are able to offer this unique opportunity for selected participants to research new archival resources and receive specialized training that supports their community’s language research needs,” Baldwin said.


Originally appeared as a “Top Story” on Miami University’s News and Events website.

Photo of Daryl Baldwin by Ricardo Trevino, Miami University Photo Services. Tututni language team photo courtesy of Myaamia Center archives.

Overhead view of a dessert landscape, with a cliff in the far distance. In the foreground are ruins of Pueblo Indian dwellings. A half circle is open toward the cliffs in the distance. Several round pits or indentations are visible in the ruins, as are what look like walls that would have been between rooms or buildings. A taller wall appears to have spanned the backs of the dwellings.

Historian says ancient trade route was a pre-cursor to modern global economy

An engraved, colored map, dissected and mounted on linen. Map is of Mexico and California, showing Mexican boundary of 1810 to the Mermento River in Louisiana. Insert in lower left shows the Valley of Mexico, from Humboldt map. Insert in center shows Acapulco. Insert in lower right shows Veracruz. "Engraved by E. Jones" is inscribed in the bottom of the title circle.
This map, originally published on October 5, 1810, and currently held at the John Carter Brown Library, illustrates the geographical area that contained the Indian Camino Real.

“Global economy” might be a modern buzzword, but the phenomenon has been around a lot longer. In fact, while Google’s Ngram Viewer indicates use of the phrase “global economy” peaked around the turn of the 21st Century, historian Tatiana Seijas says trade that would today be considered international has been thriving on the North American continent since at least the 10th Century.

Seijas, an assistant professor at Miami University and a 2014-2015 research fellow at Brown University’s John Carter Brown Library, is studying what she calls the Indian Camino Real, an 1800-mile route that linked the Rio Grande Valley to the Mesoamerican Highlands from about the 900s through about 1850.

According to Seijas, the Indian Camino Real was used for trade by indigenous peoples in the pre-Columbian era, including Apaches, Zunis, Janos, Tarahumaras, and Otomis. Evidence of this trade, she says, comes from archaeological data that show goods like cacao, turquoise and macaw feathers, all of which are native to specific areas, turning up in other areas hundreds of miles away.

For instance, Seijas points to a circa 1000 drinking vessel from an archaeological site at the Pueblo Bonito great house in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. This cup contains residue with the biomarker for cacao, a plant that grows only within about 20 degrees of the equator. Its presence in Chaco Canyon means that the ancestral Pueblo people living there at the time must have had contact with people living 1000 miles or more to the south.

Those people, Seijas says, are possibly the Toltecs. Evidence of this connection comes in the form of turquoise found at archaeological sites on the Toltecs’ ancestral lands in Tula, in the Mexican state of Hidalgo. Turquoise is a mineral that – in the New World – occurs only in the Southwest United States, and is strongly associated with the Pueblo Indians.

“All these traders and merchants walked or rode a horse from the central valley of Mexico all the way to New Mexico, back and forth, back and forth, for centuries and centuries,” Seijas says. “So to think about their journeys is to think about how it is that people build trade networks and create markets and maintain connections to other people who speak different languages.“

By the time New Mexico became a Spanish colony in 1595, the Indian Camino Real had been thriving as a trade route for over half a millennium. Seijas says this ancient infrastructure gave the area’s new Spanish settlers access to local indigenous goods like bison hides, as well as global commodities. “They could get olive oil from Europe and Chinese textiles and crucifixes made of ivory.”

Seijas says that even though we may have come to think of access to imported goods as a convenience of the digital age, “trade and connection are constants of human history. It’s human nature to want to make connections with others, and to want stuff from other areas.”

And that’s not the only way in which thinking about the Indian Camino Real challenges our modern assumptions.

“It always struck me that the way U.S. history is taught, the story of the original 13 colonies seems to be the only founding narrative of this country,” Seijas says. “ I want to contribute to a new way of thinking about U.S. history, from a longer perspective.”

Seijas is one of seven long-term faculty fellows currently in residence at the John Carter Brown Library, and she says she’s honored to have been selected from among hundreds of applicants.

“The John Carter Brown Library has the most important collection of maps and old books about the Americas in the world,” Seijas says. “They have every book that has to do with the Americas that was printed anywhere in the world from about 1500 to 1900, so it’s important for any historian of the Americas to spend time here.”

Seijas plans to produce a book from her research on the Indian Camino Real, and has appointments lined up to pitch it to editors attending the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in January. The book, she says, will be of interest to specialists, but – thanks in part to an abundance of maps and illustrations – it will appeal to general audiences too.

“I want it to be a way of helping others to understand some of the connections that people living in the Southwest today have to Mexico and to Latin America.”

Understanding these centuries-old connections, not only helps us understand the politics and culture of a geographical region, but also, says Seijas, “helps us understand why we have an interest in thinking globally today.”

Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director & Information Coordinator, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.

Photo of map by Aaron Arrowsmith, courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.  Photo of Pueblo Bonito ruins in Chaco Canyon by SkybirdForever via Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons license.

Myaamia Center faculty affiliates study effect of self-identity on college success

A group of about 20 students sits in chairs in a circle that takes up the whole room. Twine criss-crosses the empty center of the circle, as some students hang onto a piece of it. In the foreground, a man in a red plaid shirt, whose back is the the camera, holds a ball of twine up in the air with his right hand.
Myaamia Center director Daryl Baldwin (bottom left, in red plaid shirt) leads Miami Indian Heritage class participants in a community web exercise. Researchers Dr. Kate Rousmaniere and Dr. Susan Mosley Howard have found the Heritage class is a key to Miami Tribe students’ success at Miami University.

According to Kate Rousmaniere, educational historians and educational psychologists don’t tend to share much common ground.

“We come to our research with very different approaches. Historians tend to look at social and cultural influences, while psychologists tend to focus on the individual,” says Rousmaniere, a professor in Miami University’s Department of Educational Leadership.

That makes Rousmaniere, who characterizes herself as a “qualitative person” and Susan Mosley-Howard, a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and self-described “quantitative person,” unlikely collaborators.

Despite being colleagues in the University’s College of Education, Health, & Society (where Mosley-Howard is currently the interim dean), the two had never collaborated before becoming faculty affiliates of the Myaamia Center, an interdisciplinary research unit dedicated to the preservation of Myaamia language and culture.

The Myaamia Center itself grew out of an unconventional partnership, this one between the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma and Miami University, an institution that occupies land the Native tribe was required to cede to the government in 1795, prior to the Tribe’s forced removal west of the Mississippi.

Today, the Tribe describes its relationship with the University as “thriving and mutually enriching,” and the University is home to the aforementioned Myaamia Center. (“Myaamia” is the Native word from which the English name “Miami” is derived.)

In addition, there are a number of Miami Tribe members enrolled at Miami University, thanks in part to the Miami Indian Heritage Award, which waives tuition for qualified Myaamia students. Rousmaniere and Mosley-Howard are interested in the factors that affect retention and the collegiate experience for these students. Among the pair’s initial findings are that in contrast to the low – below 20% on average – federally-reported graduation rates of Native Americans from most non-tribal colleges, the graduation rate of Myaamia students from Miami University is much higher – 75% in 2012. They attribute much of this success to a series of one-credit-hour courses Miami Indian Heritage Award recipients are required to take each semester for the majority of their tenure at the University.

Taught by Myaamia Center staff, including director Daryl Baldwin and assistant director George Ironstrack, these courses cover ecological perspectives and history of the Miami Tribe, Miami Tribe language and culture, and contemporary issues of American Indian tribes.

Rousmaniere and Mosley-Howard interview each Myaamia student twice the student’s first year and annually after that. As a result, says Mosley-Howard, “we’re able to evaluate the impact of this curriculum, not just in terms of student learning outcomes, but also in terms of helping them make sense of who they are.”

Rousmaniere and Mosley-Howard say the literature in the field shows the issue of self-identity is key to the college success of Native students globally, not just on the U.S. mainland, but also in Hawaii, New Zealand, and other societies.

“Even though we can’t say it’s a direct causal relationship,” says Mosley-Howard, “there’s evidence that students who are exposed to their cultural context – whatever it is – have more positive outcomes.”

Rousmaniere says that this requires understanding that goes deeper than a superficial recognition of ancestry. “The Heritage Award students obviously identify as Myaamia, but they don’t always have an understanding of how that has impacted their own lives,” says Rousmaniere. “The Myaamia Center staff, through these classes, help the students figure that out.”

The Myaamia Center staff and classes also help Tribal students deal with stereotyping and other negative experiences. “Even though these students are at a university that takes great pride in a relationship with a Native American tribe, it’s still a microcosm of the world, so of course things happen here that are not respectful,” says Mosley-Howard. She and Rousmaniere have found that the support provided by the Myaamia Center helps students cope with these challenges.

This is one element the researchers will be paying especially close attention to as they continue their longitudinal study. That’s because the University will soon begin seeing students who have participated in the Miami Tribe’s Eewansaapita Summer Educational Experience, a language and culture program for 10- to 16-year-olds that began in 2005.

“I suspect that the Eewansaapita students will come in with a better sense of what it means to be Myaamia,” says Mosley-Howard, “and it will be interesting to see not only the differences between how those students and previous students view themselves, but also whether that has an effect on how they navigate the views of others.”

While the effect the Eewansaapita experience may have had on incoming students remains to be seen, what is immediately evident is that Rousmaniere and Mosley-Howard are committed to working together to tell the full story of Myaamia student success.

“Our disciplines are quite oppositional theoretically,” says Rousmaniere. “But in practice,” continues Mosley-Howard, “we found these points of intersection, and realized it was going to work quite well, and it has.”

Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director & Information Coordinator, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.

Miami Indian Heritage class photo and photo of Kate Rousmaniere presenting at 2014 Myaamiaki Conference by Andrew Strack, Myaamia Center, Miami University.