Miami Indian language shift and recovery

Melissa A. Rinehart
Dept. of Anthropology, Michigan State University
August, 2006


Indigenous language shift has remained a common feature for multiple native communities throughout North America over the past five centuries. Currently, 80 percent of all native languages are moribund (Krauss 1992:5), while other language communities have shifted to English. The socio-historical processes leading to linguistic dormancy remain unknown for many of these native communities; therefore, it is the primary goal of this project to examine the historical contexts surrounding language shift in a specific native community---the Miami Indian communities in Indiana and Oklahoma. Specifically, this project examines how certain historical events premised upon nation/state ideologies that consistently devalued native languages and those language ideologies within Miami Indian communities, both contributed to language shift over the past 300 years. This project also examines the relevancy of historical contextualization for contemporary implementation of language reclamation programming including Miami language reclamation efforts. In summation, societal and personal ideologies affected Miami language maintenance and the fallout from these processes continues today.

The fieldwork for this project included ethnohistoric and ethnographic methodologies. Various archival documents were examined which illuminated, either directly or indirectly, the status of the Miami language. Close analysis was made regarding the language and physical presentation of these documents, especially concerning the fluency and literacy of tribal members in order to determine their educational and class standings. The ethnographic fieldwork for this project included participant/observation research conducted at Miami language camps held in Indiana and Oklahoma, and other Miami cultural gatherings. At these events I was able to observe various methods of language instruction, adult student responses, and ideological perspectives about the language. Also, by interviewing adult tribal members I was able to gather their thoughts about language shift and reclamation.

This project contributes to anthropological research in that it addresses mental deficiencies in our knowledge of the complexities of native language shift and how this can affect language reclamation. This project also contributes to the field on the importance of the more intangible aspects of language shift, such as language ideologies, or the ways in which people think and feel about language. History and language ideologies played definitive roles in the decisions the Miami and other non-Miamis made about the maintenance of their language and it is these same processes which continue to affect the efficacy of their language recovery efforts today.