Language revitalization needs to move from the rhetoric of dying, extinct languages and focus more on Native communities in transition, says a linguist and cultural preservationist.
“Indigenous communities are in transition,” said Daryl Baldwin, director of the Myaamia Center at Miami University. “We’ve been in transition for many, many years, whether it’s the ways in which we educate our youth, the political process – our cultures have been transitioning and our languages will transition.”
For the tribal communities whose last speakers are dying, turning to documentation is an option, and there’s a lot the tribal communities can do, Baldwin said.
“It doesn’t have to mean that their languages cease to exist. That’s simply not true,” he added.
Baldwin came to his passion for the language in his late 20s. Now he heads the Myaamia Center at Miami University, a joint venture with the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma. The partnership between the tribe and the school is integral to growth and enrichment in many ways. “The Myaamia Center is really the research arm of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma as it pertains to language and culture education. So there’s a number of things we focus on,” he said.
The Myaamia Center started as the Myaamia Project in 2001 and transitioned to the Center in 2013, Baldwin said. The Center is working with the National Breath of Life Archival Institute for Indigenous Languages to better understand archives-based linguistic and ethnographic research.
Baldwin is leading the effort to revitalize the cultural heritage of the tribe through the Myaamia Center and its projects. Baldwin, who last fall was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” is also an adjunct assistant professor in educational leadership. He gave the 2017 commencement speech at Miami University.
“The Myaamia language is not an extinct language, even though it was labeled an extinct language 20-some years ago,” he said. “It begs the question – do these languages really go extinct? Well, there is such a thing as an extinct language; one that is no longer spoken, there’s no documentation of it, there’s no memory of it, but most of the languages today, even sleeping languages, don't fall into this category."
“But for languages that are heavily recorded and there’s a community that wants to start speaking their language again and there’s tribal leadership that wants to help support those initiatives, then who’s to say they can’t find new domains for their language to live – whether it’s in the ceremonial realm, whether it’s formalized in some learning environment, maybe a tribal school, or maybe it’s in the home. There’s lots of places where language can be revitalized.”
Technology, done in a thoughtful way, is one industry that can help with the preservation and revitalization of a language, Baldwin said, but added: “But technology alone doesn’t save a language. It’s the people that save languages or use languages.”
Technology has played a very important role for the Myaamia Center and the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma’s effort, from providing research and education tools to social media. “Again, I think we try to be really thoughtful before we engage with a technological tool: does it actually serve the goals we’re trying to achieve? If it doesn’t, we move on to other things.”
Nothing really replaces human interaction, he notes, so although technology may play a role, the Center strives to support community gatherings, Baldwin said.
The Center and tribe are working to revitalize the culture through several avenues: cultural reclamation, language courses and cultural displays for the public. When the tribe began the work for revitalization back in the 1990s, they noticed the effect it was having on tribal citizens. That impact has since been studied, and the tribe hopes to build a broad base of novice-level speakers.
“We’ve noticed for a long time that language and cultural revitalization for us was having profound positive impact on our community, and so we knew there was a connection between the language and cultural learning and expression and the revitalization of the community, and so we wanted to better understand that process and what were the elements of that effort that were causing these positive outcomes,” Baldwin said.
The research showed that graduation rates increased after Myaamia coursework was introduced to students.