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Bearing Witness

During the summer of 1964 Freedom Riders trained at Western University, which is now the white bricked portion of Miami University. It was a cool walk that February morning in Oxford, Ohio and the signage about that training was almost hidden by the foliage. The last time I had been in Oxford had been the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Summer and this would have been the 60th. I walked with the Miami tribal member who had volunteered to lead me to the Peabody to see a collection of “found art” pieces created by Brian, a graduating senior. After seeing so many creations done by local artist John Scruggs, I was all about seeing his take on the genre. We found the door locked.

This allowed us time to visit the Art Museum located just across the hand-built stone bridge. What laid within, my student guide had no cause to read the text on the walls. He knew it fully. We walked slowly up to hide art called Minohsayaki by the Miami and the Peoria who had traditional homelands in Ohio. We saw replicas of the hides that are on display for real at the Musée du Quai Branly - Jacques Chirac in Paris, France. We viewed a video of current Chief Lankford and many other people I know doing the physical work it takes to prepare a hide to be painted. The connection to the more recent past, faded as the link from the 1600-1700 replica to the summer’s hide tanning appeared before me.

I like to say the Cherokees discovered DeSoto in a valley in northern Georgia, and the Miami discovered the French in the territory we were standing. The relationship with the French ended up in many ways being a gift that they are still learning from. Their priests wrote down what they heard the tribal people saying and learned the language well enough to create dictionaries and still these works are finding translation and new words from the past are emerging.

There is a magical secret there on the campus of Miami University and it started by an elected tribal leader walking into the president of the university’s office and beginning a relationship that will be the model for tribes and universities with tribal names to follow for centuries to come. It is no secret now. Right in the middle of the campus is the Myaamia Center, begun by Daryl Baldwin, a recipient of the MacArthur genius award, who had a vision to revitalize the language and culture of his tribe. And he and his sister and the tribal chiefs who followed Chief Olds and the tribal council members since see the relationship the best collaboration possible. Everyone gains. Everyone learns.

30 years ago, was my first trip to Miami University. They still had an Indian mascot, and he made mock of our dancing every time he emerged on the field or on the basketball court. And that was one of the reasons we went. I loaded a yellow school bus and filled it with Miami tribal youth, my son and a few others and we drove the many hour trip with our windows down on the school bus that summer. One of the students who came was in junior high and later did attend Miami University without the support Miami tribal members now have available in the Myaamia Center. On a second visit, I had seen the Center just as it was beginning, so coming back I was able to see the growth and the depth of the work done on the campus that then reaches our own community’s Miami Tribe and members.

For more than four decades, this tribally-led, university-supported relationship has evolved as the university came to grasp the unique gift the Center is to the campus and the students and the tribe has continued to find the value in what they gain by funding the center.

I was honored to be invited recently by Jonathan Levy to this year’s FOCUS Initiative on Environmental Justice with the Altman Program to speak. The title of my presentation was Demanding Justice for Tribal Lands: Environmental Wrongs Must be Made Right. Professor Levy and another researcher Jason Rech had come to visit the Miami Tribe a decade ago with several others and I was able to give them their Toxic Tour, which they still remembered!

Professor Levy arranged my schedule, so his office as Director of the Institute for the Environment and Sustainability in Shideler Hall allowed easy access to the Karl E. Limper Geology Museum just down the hall. There were geological specimens of minerals, rocks, fossils, and meteorites from all over the world but many of the most striking ones to me, or any other viewers were from Galena, KS, Picher, and Miami, OK.

I think about how these specimens must have been saved because someone in charge of sorting through the tons of ore saw their unique forms and set them aside for posterity and not merely for the value the ore would have brought the company. We will never know who that was, we will never know who made the hide robes on display in France. But we can honor their insight to tell the story, to pass it on to the future. Like the tribes in Ottawa County are reclaiming their old ways and connecting the past to the future. Like the Freedom Riders, rode into history to change the minds of the South and make the right to vote real there. Which reminds us all to cherish that right and vote.

Respectfully Submitted ~ Rebecca Jim


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