Terms of farewell in English are usually understood to be mere pleasantries rather than important words of instruction. In the Miami or Myaamia language, however, when speakers say nipwaahkaalo before parting, they are offering a wealth of guidance that does not translate well into English.
“When we say nipwaahkaalo, we are telling people more than, ‘Be safe,’ says Jared Baldwin, Community Language Coordinator for the Miami tribe. "The word also refers to the general concepts of wisdom and intelligence. Part of the word also has the same root as the word referring to learning. So, to say nipwaahkaalo, we are saying not only to go safely and wisely on your journey but to be sureyou learn something worthwhile along the way.”
Given all that has happened to the Miami tribe, and the near-extinction of their language and culture, this dense word of guidance holds special meaning for them. Daryl Baldwin, Jared’s father, began to learn the language of his ancestors in the early 1990’s. He is a Myaamia (Miami) linguist and cultural preservationist at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, the original homeland of the Miami tribe. The tribe was removed from the region in 1840 during the infamous Indian Removal Act years and sent to Oklahoma.
Now, over 20 years later, after intensive work revitalizing the language and raising his four children to speak Myaamia at home, Daryl’s beloved language is, like all living speech, actively changing and growing. “You can’t control language; it takes on a life of its own, especially when the younger generation is involved,“ he says.
For instance, his children and other younger tribal members commonly use their traditional Miami names when speaking with each other. Daryl, however, was taught that one's traditional Miami name was precious and to be used mostly in ceremonial orspecial settings. Jared, for instance, routinely uses his Miami name, Ciinkwia or Thunder Spirit, explaining that “some people say my Miami name matches my personality, which has been described by some as a bit loud and obnoxious.” He laughs. “If I’m being loud, my Miami friends will say, ‘Be quiet, we know your name already!’”
Daryl is very proud of his dedication his children have shown in helping him keep their language alive, and says there are 40 students from the Miami Nation in Oklahoma enrolled at Miami University and taking language classes at the Miami Center.
He is very optimistic about the survival of Myaamia. “There is great enthusiasm among tribal members to learn the language.”
For his work on the Miami language, Daryl was in 2016 awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, often referred to as the 'genius grant.' Which leads to a final question: What is Daryl’s Miami nickname?
“I haven’t gotten one yet,” he says with a self-deprecating laugh. “When people ask me if I have a Miami nickname, I tell them there’s no word in the language for 'genius.'”