As part of the Museum’s National Education Initiative, the Partnership and Extension Services team had the pleasure of working with the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma. The Miami—or Myaamia in their language,meaning Downstream People—are originally from the Great Lakes area. Today, Myaamia families are found throughout the United States and are working diligently to revitalize their language and culture through annual educational gatherings and cultural events, and to bring the geographically disparate communities together through the use of technology. One of the most significant annual events is the week-long Eewansaapita(Sunrise) Summer Educational Experience, held in Miami, Oklahoma, where Myaamia youth (ages 10 to 16) participate in cultural experiences. This June, the National Museum of the American Indian was able to bring some of the museum’s Myaamia tribal collections to people at Eewansaapita virtually through the use of simple videoconferencing technology. Despite a thousand miles of physical separation, the sense of the students’ pride in their culture was palpable.
For this year’s theme, mihtohseeniwinki ašiihkionki (living on the land), the Myaamia explored and strengthened their relationship with plants that have been important in their culture, reaffirming those relationships and learning from elders and senior counselors. Cultural and educational activities such as hiking through prairie and wooded areas were grounded in the use of myaamiaataweenki (the Miami language) to reaffirm their Myaamia culture and identity and strengthen community bonds.
During one hike, students learned to identify the pahkohkwaniši (elm tree), handled the bark, and drew the striation of dark and light bark in art journals. Then they recorded their observations in myaamiaataweenki. During my two days at Eewansaapita, many youth proudly shared their personal Myaamia names with me, which were beautiful to hear; those became some of the most memorable moments of our time together. Interestingly, I learned that many Myaamia names refer to trees and plants, an example of the abiding relationship that Myaamia have with the land, which is eloquently carried on through the language.
To build upon their learning experiences, Myaamia Eewansaapita educators collaborated with the NMAI to identify objects in the museum’s collections that connected to the camp’s theme and could be shared with students. On June 26 Myaamia youth explored selected historical objects with the NMAI’s Associate Director for Scholarship, Dr. David Penney. Myaamia youth, along with tribal leaders and other community members, gathered in a classroom to share with Dr. Penney what they had learned of their maple sugaring tradition. In preparation, the students had read, for example, the passage that describes sugaring in the primary source A Mission to the Indians. From the Indian Committee of Baltimore Yearly Meeting, to Fort Wayne, in 1804. Then the students posed questions they had formulated from carefully examining a maple sugaring sap bucket made from elm bark in the museum’s collection.
This bucket, which was also pictured in one of the two historical photographs from the museum’s archives that the students discussed during the videoconference, was tangible evidence that the Myaamia had indeed shared a rich sugaring tradition on their homelands along the Wabash River and in the Fort Wayne, Indiana, area. Guided gently by cultural knowledge bearers, students learned that their ancestors were more interested in making blocks of sugar than maple syrup, which was hard to store before glass containers became cheap and widely available.
Some of the most profound learning moments during the videoconference occurred when the students discussed their observations about the historical photograph titled The Last of the Miamis 1810–1910 Kil-so-quah and son (see sidebar). The students posed questions of Dr. Penney that related to cultural and historical inaccuracies they saw in the staged photograph. For instance, a tipi is shown in the background rather than the traditional Miami home, a wiikiami. Other inconsistencies, such as the title, drew considerable laughs from the room when someone pointed out that 40 Miami people sitting together in a classroom, using a smart board, with a live videoconference to Washington, D.C., were direct evidence that Kiilhsoohkwa was not the last of the Miamis!
Dr. Penney used stories and anecdotes to explain that, in the early 1900s, Native people often dressed up in ways that supported other people’s expectations of what “real Indians” should look like, exemplified by the long wig and Plains-style headdress worn by Kiilhsoohkwa’s son Waapimaankwa. During the adolescent years, young adults invariably explore their identity and stereotypes, trying to reconcile popular ideas of what they “should” look like as contemporary American Indians and their daily experiences that may not fit into people’s expectations.
Both historical photographs were taken in 1910 by L. M. Huffman, who had a studio in Laud, Indiana, and who became well known (according to NMAI’s catalog card) for his photographs of Kiilhsoohkwa and her family members. Kiilhsoohkwa herself was certainly better known than Huffman inside her own community. She was an important midwife in Indiana and carried plant knowledge related to childbirth and labor. In fact some of the youth at the videoconference were related to her, and one counselor explained that his great-grandmother had been delivered by Kiilhsoohkwa, who also gave the baby her Myaamia name after the delivery.
A conversation between Native youth and museum staff about items in the museum’s collection is an engaging way for knowledge of Myaamia history, language, and culture to be practiced and internalized by a younger generation and for the museum to add to its own store of knowledge. Additionally, with a continued focus in America’s classrooms on 21st-century skill building, young people benefit from developing critical thinking skills and using technology in educational formats. The NMAI is proud to have been able to support the Myaamia in nurturing their culture, and honored to have this opportunity to share information, especially given that museums are still resented by some Native communities for the unethical collecting practices of the 19th and 20th centuries.
By using dialogue, listening, respect, and practicing the Myaamia term neepwaantiinki—learning from each other—the National Museum of the American Indian and Native communities can continue to find ways to ensure that cultural objects are seen by youth, and that the stories they contain are preserved.
—Renée Gokey, NMAI
Renée Gokey (Eastern Shawnee/Sac and Fox/Miami) is the student services coordinator at the National Museum of the American Indian and is working in the Partnership & Extension Services Group for the National Education Initiative.
To read more about the Myaamia, visit: