This semester, Ian Young enrolled in IDS 259, “Introduction to the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma,” a course that offers an overview of the people and culture that are the university’s namesake and, since the 1970s, have shared close ties with the school.
For the first two weeks, Ian sat quietly in class, listening to discussions about the history of the tribe and the class’s opinions on Native American stereotypes. After those two weeks were up, the professor, Alysia Fischer, called on Ian to introduce himself.
“aya aya ceeki. lenipinsia weenswiaani neehi niila myaamia,” he said. “Hi, everyone. My name is lenipinsia, and I am Myaamia.”
niihla myaamia: “I am Miami”
Ian Young always knew he was Myaamia but, for 18 years, that was pretty much it.
“It was like a fun fact that I would mention occasionally,” Ian said.
When the Miami tribe was forcibly removed to Kansas in the mid-nineteenth century, Ian’s great-great-great maternal grandfather decided to stay behind and instead settled down in Western Indiana. The removal embittered some of the family, Ian said. His mother was raised without any interaction with the tribe whatsoever.
As a senior in high school, Ian already knew who he was. He was going to attend the University of Chicago and, eventually, attend graduate school for physics.
“The University of Chicago was the school I had my heart set on,” he said. “It just felt like the place I needed to go.”
So when his mother made an off-hand comment about a school she had heard of in Ohio where Myaamia students go, he hardly gave it a thought. On a whim, though, he decided, instead of only applying to the University of Chicago, he would send an application to Miami University, too.
On Christmas Eve, he received a large, rectangular envelope with his acceptance to Miami. Ultimately, the University of Chicago accepted him, too. Although he doubted it would change his mind, he decided to visit Miami.
“There was something that felt right about it,” Ian said about his first visit.
It wasn’t that he felt right at home — he actually felt like he was in foreign territory — the clothes people wore, the homogeny in appearances, the average household incomes of many students’ families. Miami didn’t feel like home, but it felt like a challenge.
What really motivated him to enroll that day, though, was his visit to the Myaamia Center. It wasn’t until then that he realized, if he went to Miami, he could learn the language his ancestors spoke.
“That was the real hook.”
taanisi weenswiaani:“What is my name?”
In traditional Myaamia culture, children were not given names at birth. The parents would wait a couple years, and then, when the time was right, they would bring a gift to an elder in the tribe who had the wisdom to bestow names and ask the elder to name their child.
After the removals in the nineteenth century, the traditional systems for naming slowly deteriorated as the Myaamia community became more fragmented. Fewer people, and eventually none in Ian’s family, had the authority to give names. Ian’s grandfather was the last person in his family to have received a Myaamia name.
When Ian walked into his first Myaamia Heritage Class, the room was uncomfortably quiet. Some people sat in pairs, talking quietly. Others sat silently to themselves. Ian, who thrives in lively, conversational environments, was wildly uncomfortable. It didn’t help that his incoming class was particularly small — only three students.
“There was the idea, at least, that we had this shared heritage,” he said, “but there was no sense of community.”
The summer after his freshman year, Ian started journaling. If he hadn’t, the events of July 5, 2013 and the following months would probably be even hazier than they are now.
A cop car. His friend Pat’s motorcycle overturned in a ditch. Two of his best friends — not 50 feet away from him — lying on the pavement.
“The whole thing was a blur. The way people responded to it varied. I fared through pretty well,” he said. “But it caught up with me.”
When he came back to school that fall, though, the loss of two of his childhood best friends left Ian with a renewed determination to form a deeper connection with the Myaamia students.
A 2015 Miami grad and now a graduate student in philosophy, Myaamia student Chris Bowyer has known Ian since his first year at Miami.
“Ian seemed like the funny guy who didn’t waste time having the people around him not enjoying themselves — the thought never crossed his mind,” Bowyer said.
And people were starting to enjoy themselves; it was visible. At the same time though, almost imperceptibly, things were catching up to him. By winter break that year, it was clear to Ian what was happening.
“I started very quietly falling into depression, smoothly enough that I didn’t even notice for awhile.”
So smoothly that no one else had really noticed, either.
The next several months were a series of blows — his father falling seriously ill, a painfully isolating summer abroad, the anniversary of his friends’ deaths, a difficult breakup and the realization that — in his junior year of college — he had lost all passion for his major.
His freshman year, Ian declared a double major in philosophy and physics, fully intending to follow through with his plan to attend graduate school. But by the fall of his junior year, he couldn’t possibly see himself having a career in physics for the rest of his life.
So he went to Daryl Baldwin, one of his mentors and the director of the Myaamia Center.
“I came to him and said, ‘Daryl, I don’t know what I want to do for the rest of my life. Can you help me?’” Ian said. Baldwin agreed and, over the next several months, set up a series of mini internship experiences for Ian, all in some way connected to the Miami Tribe.
Ian spent the summer all over the country — Oxford, Oklahoma, Washington D.C., the East Coast —trying everything from Myaamia educational programming to linguistics to archeological scanning.
He spent the last leg of his internship at the Jacobson Law Group in St. Paul, Minnesota getting his introduction to Indian law.
“It was absolutely the best two weeks of my life,” Ian said.
A couple of the firm’s associates in their early thirties were asked to shove aside boxes in the spare room of their apartment so Ian could sleep on an air mattress there for the next two weeks. The youngest in his family — the closest in age to him being 33 — Ian felt both comfortable with and understood by his hosts.
“As I was working with this firm, I knew that the work we were doing mattered,” said Ian. “And if I don’t think something is important, I won’t do it.”
From there he put the wheels in motion — taking an LSAT prep course, studying for the test in June and setting up a gap year to work in the tribe’s legal department at their headquarters in Miami, Oklahoma. Right now, he has his sights on law school at his almost-alma mater, the University of Chicago.
Finally, he feels like he’s working toward something important.
lenipinsia: “Underwater panther, whale”
“When I was younger, my mother told me, ‘You weren’t born nice. You’re going to have to learn to be nice,’” Ian said, tossing his head back and laughing mischievously.
Luckily — just as he had with physics, philosophy, the Myaamia language and now the material for his June LSAT — he did learn.
“Just about anyone can get along with him,” said Megan Mooney, a sophomore and fellow Myaamia student.
There’s still something else, though, behind the easy conversation, warm brown eyes and almost comically large smile, something that’s hard to put a finger on but had to be captured when he was given his traditional Myaamia name last year.
After acquiring a list of names that had been passed down in his family, Ian went to his mother and asked her to think about naming him. Ultimately, she came upon the story of their ancestor, John “Bull” Mongosa, who lived around the time of the removal. “Bull” made bows and played
the fiddle. He was known for being a bit of a partier, the kind of guy that would affectionately be labeled a “character.”
His mother decided to give Ian the same Myaamia name as Bull, “lenipinsia.” In the official Myaamia dictionary, lenipinsia has two definitions — underwater panther and whale. Although a commonly appearing character in Myaamia stories, his form remains vague and undefined. Sometimes he’s described as having antlers like an elk, sometimes scales like a serpent.
“He’s a very complicated character,” Ian said, “not straightforward at all.”
Lenipinsia has been described as malicious, and, in some stories, has a mischievous, ornery bent. His motives, though, are open to interpretation. In one story, lenipinsia almost drags a disrespecting fisherman into the water. In another, he saves a child’s life.
neepwaantiinki: “We learn together”
Bobbe Burke, the coordinator of Miami Tribe relations for the university, loves watching students find a connection with the tribe. When tribe students come to Miami, Burke said, her colleagues at the Myaamia Center, Daryl Baldwin and George Ironstrack, give the Myaamia students a basic amount of information.
“If you want more, they wait for you to tell them they want more,” said Burke. “And that’s exactly what Ian has done.”
When she looks at Ian, Burke said, she can see that he’s found multiple ways to be engaged in the Miami community — as an RA, a tour guide, an Honors student — but she’s truly seen his interest sparked by the tribe and its language.
“He’s hungry for information. He is challenged by the use of the language,” Burke said. “He is really strongly encouraging the students to use more language, and it’s fun to hear that happening.”
At the first Heritage Class after Winter Break this semester — about three and a half years since Ian’s first class — there was so much chatter amongst the students, hugging and greeting each other, asking about study abroad trips and other winter term activities, that Burke said they could hardly get the class started.
“Ian’s played a big part of livening up our class,” Burke said. “That’s a really exciting thing that’s just now beginning to blossom. That’s just really heartwarming to me.”
Mooney described Ian as the big brother of the group — always watching out for everyone and there whenever someone needs anything. He’s the one to count on in class when someone doesn’t understand a concept or wants to know how to say something in Myaamia.
“…he’s always eager to share his knowledge with others,” Mooney said. “Ian is one of the most interesting people I know.”
Burke admitted she’s a little nervous about Ian leaving. Who’s going to take his place? She’s confident that someone will step up and fill his shoes — or at least try — but it’s hard to imagine someone else being able to bring the same kind of infectious energy to a room.
“He’s a leader, intentionally or otherwise, wherever he goes…” said Bowyer.
nipwaahkaalo: “Go forth and seek wisdom”
Language fascinates Ian — it always has.
Learning Myaamia, though, wasn’t just fascinating. Every word was like a tiny thread connecting him to his Myaamia ancestors. The more he learned, the more threads he picked up, the stronger the connection. The more he spoke it with others, the more the knowledge weaved together into something substantial that felt ancient and powerful.
He felt the same way when he first tried ribbon work — a craft involving sewing intricate geometric ribbon patterns that emerged in the 1700s when the Myaamia people traded with settlers for silk ribbons. After his first ribbon work workshop, Ian said, he stayed up until 4 a.m., inexplicably struck with the need to finish it, making every stitch as exact as possible.
Jarrid Baldwin, who earned his anthropology degree from Miami in 2013, has been able to watch Ian grow closer and closer to his heritage every year, first as fellow student and now as the community language programs coordinator for the Myaamia Center. Baldwin said he could see the impact the Myaamia community has had on Ian over the years.
“It has really given him a direction in his life that he hasn’t had before,” said Baldwin.
“The Myaamia community has just done just done so much for me that it’s instilled in me this desire to give back as much as I possibly can,” Ian said.
Ian’s favorite word in Myaamia is nipwaahkaalo, “Go forth and seek wisdom.”
“I will stop needing to learn the day that I die,” he said. “Until that point, I have an innumerable amount of things to learn.”