The last native speaker of Myaamia died in the 1960s.
The language had been spoken by the Myaamia people, Native Americans who originally lived in what is now Indiana. Also known as the Miami, they were forcibly relocated twice in the 19th century, and ended up scattered throughout the Midwest and beyond — a situation that put pressure on the language even a century ago.
By the 1980s, linguists and tribe members alike thought the language was gone. But then Daryl Baldwin came along. He'd always known he had Myaamia heritage, but it wasn't until his late 20s that he got interested in the language.
"I remember very specifically stumbling across these language materials, several pages of what I believed to be was Myaamia language," Baldwin tells our podcast, The World in Words.
The pages had belonged to his late grandfather, and while Baldwin had no idea where they'd come from, he was intrigued. He wanted to find out more about his ancestral language, but there was a lot happening in his life at the time: After 10 years working in construction, Baldwin had gone back to school to get a college degree. And he and his wife Karen were expecting their first child.
Despite all that, Baldwin made time to travel to Indiana and Oklahoma to see if there were any remaining speakers of the Myaamia language. He couldn't find anyone, but his curiosity had been piqued, and he decided to try to learn the language anyway.
They began with words — household items, animals, the names of birds — taped to their walls and kitchen counters, or carried on pieces of paper in their pockets to be consulted throughout the day.
The Baldwins’ efforts might have stalled without outside help, but in the early 1990s, Daryl Baldwin crossed paths with a graduate student from the University of California, Berkeley, who was doing research on Myaamia. The student, David Costa, was delving into archives and had uncovered a vast store of documents about the language, including dictionaries compiled by French missionaries in the 17th and 18th centuries. Prior to Costa’s research, linguists had believed that there weren't many records of the language.
After his unexpected finds in the archives, Costa went looking for native speakers. The quest took him to Oklahoma and Indiana, but just like Baldwin, he couldn't find any. But it was on one of these trips that he met and learned of Baldwin's interest in the language. In 1995, when Costa finished his dissertation, he decided to mail a copy of it to Baldwin. "I just packaged it up and said, 'Here, this might be of interest to you.'"
Baldwin went on to get a master's degree in linguistics — not because he wanted to be a linguist, but because he wanted to learn his language. As his linguistic knowledge deepened, he and his wife ramped up their efforts. When their kids got old enough for school, Karen Baldwin, who was a schoolteacher, quit her job so she could home-school the kids in Myaamia.
Meanwhile, the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, which is the sovereign entity of the Miami Nation, was becoming interested in the language, too. In 1997, the tribe got a grant for language revitalization from the Administration for Native Americans, a federal agency that supports Native American communities.
The grant funded a new position, "Language Clerk," a job that was filled by Julie Olds. Olds was a Miami Tribe member, and she would become another crucial player in the effort to bring back the language. She recalls that when she began her new job, her boss asked her to get in touch with two people: Daryl Baldwin and David Costa.
"Julie called me one day," Baldwin remembers, "and said, 'Would you like to serve as an instructor on this grant that we have.'"
Olds, Baldwin and Costa all point to the grant as a turning point for the language. It wasn't the actual project that was important, but rather, the fact that it brought these three people together, as a team, for the first time.
"I think it was David's work in linguistics and the reconstruction of the language," Baldwin says, "my passion for language learning in the home, and Julie's passion to bring language back to the community, that really kind of came together and I think really launched this."
Since then, the effort to reclaim Myaamia language and culture has moved forward at an increasing rate. One of the key developments has been the establishment of the Myaamia Center, a joint project between the Miami Tribe and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. The center's staff have produced a steady stream of resources, such as an online dictionary, language learning materials for children, and Myaamia cultural curricula for schools.
They also research the tribe's traditions. Daryl Baldwin is the center's director; Costa is in charge of language research.
"There’s easily 500 people using the Myaamia language on a regular basis," says Baldwin, "even if it is just a word or two."
While that number may not sound large, Baldwin says it's significant, "because 25 years ago, there was no language used."
Olds, who's now the tribe's cultural resources officer, says bringing back the language has brought a new kind of strength to the Myaamia people.
"None of us can remember it being like this, ever," she says. "And so we have a healing that began with the return of language, and it's given us back our life."
So has Myaamia been "revived"? There's no easy answer to that question. There's no doubt that the language is part of people's lives in a way that it wasn't 30 years ago. But none of the people I spoke to, not even Baldwin, considers themselves to be a fluent speaker.
Baldwin, who was recently awarded a MacArthur "genius grant" for his work, says the language won't come back overnight.
"The hardest thing is patience, for an effort like this," he says. "We represented a community that you didn’t want to become. And some were as bold as to say that once you lost your language, you ceased to exist as native people."
But Baldwin sees a new generation growing up now, including his own young granddaughter, that has never known the tribe not to have their language.
"It’s taken a long time for us to be confident about what we’re doing, and to know, through our own experiences that languages don’t necessarily die when the last speaker passes," Baldwin says. "And for communities that are trying to reclaim their language from documentation, they have a right to do that."