University President and Indian Tribe Chief Share Lessons From Working Together (Opinion)
The New York Times has reported that approximately 1,900 track and field teams in the United States, including many in college, still use derogatory or racist Native American names. At a time when these institutions and their sports teams are being urged to rethink their Native American mascot – or better yet, have decided to remove it of their own accord – Miami University is an example of how that tough decision can actually serve as an example can be an opportunity to build or strengthen relationships between colleges and tribal peoples.
Until 1996, Miami University was one of the institutions that used a derogatory term for our athletics mascot. We understand the challenges of changing an identity that has lasted for decades and is anchored in the experiences of thousands of students, but true leaders know that doing the right thing isn’t always easy. For the past five decades, Miami University and the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma have forged a partnership based on personal openness and trust that we feel will get the better end of the deal. This relationship is consistent with the institutional principles on which the university was founded and is representative of the values that both the tribe and the university seek to uphold.
The two of us who wrote this essay grew up in a time when racist mascots were not questioned and normalized by society. “Indians” were the mascot for Doug’s high school and the professional baseball team in Cleveland, near Greg’s hometown. When the then head of the Miami Tribe Forest Olds attended Miami University in 1972 and began a nearly 50-year relationship, university officials asked for the tribe’s permission to continue using their mascot. Tribal leaders agreed.
However, as the relationship between the two entities grew, the tribe formally requested in 1996 that the university change its name. The Miami University Board of Trustees voted to change our mascot to “Swoop” the RedHawk, out of respect for the sovereignty of the Miami tribe of Oklahoma and in recognition of the connections we had worked hard nearly 25 years earlier.
The process wasn’t smooth. The university received a lot of resistance from our alumni, but the decision to change was undoubtedly the right one. The removal of the name and mascot gave the relationship an opportunity to expand into new realms that had not previously been explored.
In 2001, the university and the tribe worked together to launch the Myaamia Project to fuel the Miami tribe’s efforts to revitalize language and culture and ultimately deepen our learning partnership. This new initiative was a direct response to decades of national politics and historical events that severely hampered the Miami tribe’s ability to preserve their most valuable resource, their language and culture. The project started with one member of staff and has since grown into the Myaamia Center, which now has 16 dedicated staff including its Managing Director Daryl Baldwin, who has received a MacArthur Fellow “Genius” grant for his research and leadership in the revival of the Myaamia language received.
The last speakers of the Myaamia language died in the middle of the 20th century. The work of the Myaamia Center involves the use of archival documents to revitalize and teach the language and culture of Myaamia in the tribal community and to share this information on campus. The field of archive-based revitalization research is still relatively new among indigenous communities, and so the Myaamia Center has leveraged Miami University’s resources to help develop this work.
When there was no software to support these efforts, the Myaamia Center worked with Miami University Computer Science to develop a suite of software to organize, analyze, and ultimately teach the language. Today, the work has expanded to support the revitalization of other aspects of the Myaamia knowledge system by teaching Myaamia history, ecology and a variety of civic topics that educate tribal members about today’s tribal nation. A significant result of this work has been an increase in academic performance when language and culture are introduced as part of the learning experience of tribal youth. Before this linguistic and cultural revival, the graduation rate of tribal youth on Miami University campus was 44 percent, while today we have a growing number of tribal youth on campus and a graduation rate of nearly 90 percent.
In 2017 we created the Myaamia Heritage Logo, which references the traditional Myaamia art of the ribbon and symbolizes the tribe, university and our partnership. The creation of this logo reflected the bond between the tribe and the university. It took time, collaboration, and a very deliberate focus on not adopting the tribe’s culture, but rather creating something that felt meaningful and authentic.
As many institutions today wrestle with their own legacy of divisive and inappropriate symbols, we offer these lessons from our nearly 50 years of relationship building.
Truth and reconciliation. Studies show that race-based mascots encourage harmful stereotypes. Among other things, they present Indians as relics of the past and not as full citizens in the present. They are not related to any particular tribe, and the overly generalized symbols are gathered from items associated with Native Americans, such as feathers, spears, and tomahawks.
The National Congress of the American Indian, American Psychological Association, and American Indian Education Association are all calling for changes to race-based mascots. Recognizing the equality and dignity of others means that they are empowered to choose both what others are called and how that name might be used. It is the first step towards unity.
For the Myaamia community, this empowerment has fostered a community-based resuscitation movement, the effects of which have been shown to have significant implications for connectedness, identity, and the desire to “give back” at both the individual and community levels. Today, the Myaamia Center’s research and educational development work is translated into tribal community education programs, including week-long summer programs for Myaamia youth, courses focusing on the culture and knowledge of Myaamia for Miami University students, and online education for the Myaamia Community across the country.
Personal investment. This partnership grew out of the mutual respect and empathy of individuals striving to know and understand one another – from Chief Forest Olds and Miami University President Philip Shriver in 1972 to the many chiefs and presidents who preceded us and now ourselves. In addition to our formal collaborations and statements, we cultivate the fire of our relationship through ongoing commitment and the determined determination to share experiences. For example, Greg and approximately 500 students, faculty, alumni, and staff have attended the Miami Tribe’s Winter Stomp and Story Telling events over the years, and Doug and other tribal leaders visit the campus frequently to watch the Myaamia Center work see, connect with Myaamia students, and engage the Miami University community through class visits and sporting events.
Institutional investment. Both institutions have invested considerable funds in the partnership, thereby signaling a commitment to justice, solidarity and the common good. The relationship is really distinctive. The tribe directs the work of the center and maintains ownership control over the language and cultural products it produces. This necessary approach has enabled the center to operate in a way that truly benefits the tribe.
In turn, the tribe has shared the wealth of their cultural knowledge and values to ensure that together we can provide authentic education and experience on campus and beyond. Leaders must have the courage to act boldly and the wisdom to educate effectively.
Common point of view. The term myaamia neepwaantiinki – “Learning from one another” – defines our constantly growing relationship. It is the basis of our open dialogue, our energetic research and science, and our creative initiatives to promote unity in diversity and diversity in unity. Learning takes place in a curriculum that covers the history, culture and language of the tribe; at special events and activities that highlight our partnership; and in countless personal encounters among students on campus.
We are equal partners in a project in which both sides benefit, never one at the expense of the other. It is, among other things, an arena in which we get used to successful encounters with others who are different, wherever we can find them.
The university and the tribe now stand together as evidence that we can thrive when a relationship is centered on a platform of mutual respect and inclusion. We have won national recognition for our work. The tribe received the Harvard Project Honoring Nations Award for Myaamia Eemamwiciki, The Awakening of the Language and Culture of Myaamia, in 2018, and the Myaamia Center received the Ken Hale Prize of the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas in 2019 for outstanding collaborative language work Justice and Equality is One organic development, not a race with a finish line. Together we look forward to future collaborations and the advantages of this partnership for us, our institutions and our society.
We urge everyone who has not yet tossed their native mascots – those noxious relics – overboard to join us. When the abuse stops, friendship can flourish and we can all learn from one another. Neepwaantiinki.