What We Have Learned from Each Other

Retiring Native American mascots can create new relationships between colleges and Tribal Nations, write Doug Lankford, chief of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, and Gregory P. Crawford, president of Miami University.

August 9, 2021
 
Myaamia Center at Miami University
 

The New York Times has reported that about 1,900 athletics teams in the United States, including many at higher education institutions, still carry derogatory or racist Native American names. At a time when those institutions and their sports teams are being asked to reconsider their Native mascot -- or, better yet, have decided to remove them on their own accord -- Miami University is an example of how this hard decision can actually serve as an opportunity to create or strengthen relationships between colleges and Tribal Nations.

Until 1996, Miami University was among the institutions that used a derogatory term for our athletics mascot. We understand the challenges that come with changing an identity that has stood for decades and was engrained in the experiences of thousands of students, but true leaders know that doing what is right is not always easy. Over the past five decades, Miami University and the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma have forged a partnership which rests on a foundation of personal openness and trust, we have been able to create a relationship that is not only mutually beneficial, but also one in which each of us feels as though we are getting the better end of the deal. This relationship is authentic to the institutional principles upon which the university was founded and representative of the values that both the Tribe and the university look to uphold.

Both of us who wrote this essay grew up in an era when racist mascots went unquestioned and had been normalized by society. "Indians" were the mascot for Doug's high school as well as the professional baseball team in Cleveland near Greg's hometown. When then Chief of the Miami Tribe Forest Olds visited Miami University in 1972, launching a nearly 50-year relationship, university officials asked for the Tribe's permission to continue using its mascot. Tribal leaders agreed.

Yet as the relationship between the two entities grew, the Tribe formally requested, in 1996, that the university change the 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 ties we had worked hard to forge nearly 25 years earlier.

The process was not seamless. The university received significant pushback from our alumni, but the decision to change was, unquestionably, the right one. Removing the name and mascot provided an opportunity for the relationship to expand into new areas not previously explored.

In 2001, the university and the Tribe collaborated to launch the Myaamia Project to advance the Miami Tribe's language and cultural revitalization effort, ultimately deepening our partnership in learning. This new initiative was in direct response to decades of national policy and historical events that significantly impeded the ability of the Miami Tribe to preserve is most precious resource, its language and culture. The project began with one employee and has since evolved to the Myaamia Center, which today employs 16 dedicated staff including its executive director, Daryl Baldwin, who received a MacArthur Fellow "Genius" grant for his research and leadership in revitalizing the Myaamia language.

The last speakers of the Myaamia language passed in the mid-twentieth century. The work of the Myaamia Center involves using archival documentation to revitalize and teach Myaamia language and culture in the tribal community and to share this information on campus. The field of archive-based research for revitalization is still relatively new among Indigenous communities, and so the Myaamia Center has capitalized on Miami University resources to aid in the development of this work.

When no software existed to support this effort, the Myaamia Center partnered with Miami University Computer Science to create a suite of software to organize, analyze and ultimately teach the language. Today, the work has expanded to include support for the revitalization of other aspects of the Myaamia knowledge system through teaching Myaamia history, ecology and a variety of civic topics that instruct tribal members about the tribal nation today. A significant outcome of this work has been an increase in academic achievement when language and culture is implemented as part of the learning experience of tribal youth. Before this language and cultural revitalization, the graduation rate for tribal youth on Miami University's campus was 44 percent, while today, we enjoy a growing population 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 artform of ribbonwork, symbolizing the Tribe, the university and our partnership. The creation of that logo mirrored the interconnectivity of the Tribe and the university. It took time, collaboration and a very deliberate focus on not appropriating the Tribe's culture but instead creating something that feels meaningful and authentic.

As many institutions today wrestle with their own legacy of divisive and inappropriate symbols, we offer these lessons from our now almost 50 years of building a relationship.

Truth and reconciliation. Studies show that race-based mascots encourage harmful stereotypes. Among other things, they present Native Americans as relics of the past rather than full citizens in the present. They do not reference a particular tribe, and the over-generalized symbols are gathered from items associated with Native Americans, such as feathers, spears and tomahawks.

The National Congress of the American Indian, the American Psychological Association and the American Indian Education Association all urge changing race-based mascots. Acknowledging others' equality and dignity means they are empowered to choose both what they will be called by others and how that name might be used. It is the first step to unity.

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For the Myaamia community, that empowerment has fostered a community-based revitalization movement, the impacts of which have been demonstrated to have significant impacts on connectedness, sense of identity, and desire to "give back" both on the individual and community levels. Today, the research and educational development work of the Myaamia Center is implemented in tribal community education programs, including week-long summer programs for Myaamia youth, courses that focus on Myaamia culture and knowledge for students at Miami University, and online education for the Myaamia community across the country.

Personal investment. This partnership grew from the mutual respect and empathy of individuals who made the effort to know and understand each other -- beginning with Chief Forest Olds and Miami University President Philip Shriver in 1972 and continuing through the many chiefs and presidents who preceded us and now ourselves. In addition to our formal collaborations and statements, we tend the fire of our relationship through continual engagement and a resolute determination to carve out shared experiences. For example, Greg and some 500 students, faculty, alumni and staff have attended the Miami Tribe's Winter Stomp and Story Telling events in Oklahoma over the years, and Doug and other tribal leaders visit campus frequently to see the work of the Myaamia Center, connect with Myaamia students, and engage the Miami University community through class visits and athletic events.

Institutional investment. Both entities have invested significant resources in the partnership, signaling a commitment to justice, solidarity and common good. The relationship is truly distinctive. The Tribe directs the work of the center and maintains proprietary control over the language and cultural products it produces. This necessary approach has allowed the center to work in a way that truly benefits the Tribe.

In return, the Tribe has shared the abundance of its cultural knowledge and values to ensure that together we provide an authentic education and experience on campus and beyond. Leaders must have the courage to act boldly and the wisdom to educate effectively.

Shared vision. The Myaamia term neepwaantiinki -- "learning from each other" -- defines our ever-expanding relationship. It is the foundation of our frank dialogue, our energetic research and scholarship, and our creative initiatives to elevate unity in diversity and diversity in unity. The learning happens in curriculum that covers the Tribe's history, culture and language; in special events and activities that highlight our partnership; and in countless personal encounters among students on campus.

We are equal partners in a project where both sides benefit, never one at the expense of the other. It is, among other things, an arena where we habituate ourselves for successful encounters with others who are different, wherever we may find them.

The university and the Tribe now stand together as evidence that we can flourish when a relationship is shifted toward a platform of mutual respect and inclusion. We have won national recognition for our work. The Tribe received the Harvard Project's Honoring Nations Award for Myaamia Eemamwiciki, the awakening of Myaamia language and culture, in 2018, and the Myaamia Center received the Ken Hale Prize from the Society for the Study of the Indigenous Languages of the Americas for their outstanding community language work in 2019. Yet we know that the quest for equity and equality is an organic evolution, not a race with a finish line. Together, we look forward to future collaborations and the benefits of this partnership for ourselves, our institutions, and our society.

We urge all who have not yet jettisoned their Native Mascots -- those damaging relics -- to join us. When the name-calling stops, the friendship can flourish and we can all learn from each other. Neepwaantiinki.

Bio

Doug Lankford is chief of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, and Gregory P. Crawford is president of Miami University.
 

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