By James Steinbauer, Editor-in-Chief
MIAMI, Oklahoma — It was dark when the bus arrived on the outskirts of Miami (pronounced my-am-uh by the locals). The only things to be seen were the neon lights from doughnut shops, headlights from semi-trucks and towering lights from the 10-story gas station signs that, with the community’s massive, white grain elevator, make up the Oklahoma skyline.
The bus, full of more than two dozen students, faculty and Myaamia Tribe members from Miami University, had driven for more than 12 hours — from one Miami to another — for the Tribe’s 20th annual Winter Gathering to visit family, learn and partake in cultural activities during the last week of January.
But, at first, the Miami they saw was the Miami thousands of American tourists see as they breeze through it, getting their kicks on Rt. 66.
It wasn’t until the next morning, during a tour of Myaamia Tribal grounds, that the lights and movement of The Mother Road gave way to the gray-green horizon of the Oklahoma countryside.
The John Steinbeck landscape resonates with many Myaamia Tribe members who visit their sovereign lands for the first time. It’s an image that Ian Young, a senior at Miami University and member of the Myaamia Tribe of Oklahoma, remembered from his first visit a year earlier.
“It all felt very foreign to me the first time I went, and it all felt very sad,” Ian said. “It felt dilapidated, it felt rundown and it felt like it was sick. It was unfamiliar.”
When George Ironstrack visited Miami for the first time, he was 19.
“I was kind of a typical teenager,” George said. “I didn’t necessarily oppose going [to Oklahoma], but it wasn’t something I had expectations for.”
His visit was right after an economic collapse in Miami when the major manufacturing plant in the area had just closed. It sent the community into an economic tailspin. George remembers driving through the city center, down Main Street, thinking it was a ghost town.
Now, George is the assistant director of the Myaamia Center at Miami University, and he’s always juxtaposing the trips he takes to Miami today with that first trip in the 1990s. The change is drastic.
“I’ve come to learn the tribe had a big role in helping with revitalizing Miami. There’s life to the downtown now,” he said. “I’ve not done the economic research to prove this, but it seems there’s a correlation between the increase in tribal businesses and an increase in the overall economic health of Miami.”
The economic revitalization of the Miami Community is connected to a larger cultural revitalization the Myaamia tribe has fostered over the last few years — a revitalization that has brought the renewal of language, history and self to tribal members. It’s that cultural revitalization that brought his group back to Oklahoma.
The Moccasin Game:
Chris Bowyer sat cross-legged across from Rachel Poyfair. His stern, confident gaze struggled to stay focused on her mischievous one as she deftly placed four separate marbles under four decorative, hand-stitched pads.
After a minute of flip-flopping the pieces around in an effort to trick Chris, Rachel sat back with a smug, satisfied expression.
Chris stared at the four pads, contemplating where he was going to make his first move. He pointed to the one furthest to the right and looked at Rachel, attempting to entice some sort of response. Nothing.
He flipped over the pad. His team, which, up until now, had been sitting behind him watching with a mixture of reverence and clenched teeth, erupted in applause. The piece was white.
The crowd grew quiet again as Chris leaned forward, hunched his shoulders and rested his head on his fist. He started pointing at the three remaining pads, his scrutinizing glare trying to pick out a shrapnel of uncertainty on Rachel’s face. Finally, he settled on the middle pad. He flipped.
This time, instead of erupting, both teams let out a string of theatric, melodramatic gasps. “Woahs” and “Ohs” filled the room. The piece was, again, white. This was, Chris said, the most intense, suspenseful point in the game.
For someone who has never seen or played it before, the moccasin game makes no sense. Traditionally done with shoes, or moccasins, the Myaamia have played the game for as long as they can remember, George said. Historical records show that many tribes, especially Algonquin language speaking ones, played it in various forms before it was passed on to non-Algonquin speaking tribes like the Seneca and Wyandot.
It’s a lot like a cups game — where a player hides an object under a cup and moves it around to trick an opponent. Except in this case, the player moves four pieces, three white and one black, from under one pad to another.
The goal: to find the black piece. The catch: to find it on the third flip. That awards a player full points and the ability to hide. If the black piece is found on the second flip a player is awarded half points. If it’s found on the first, or not at all, the player loses.
“It was mainly just a pretty simple kids game with a 25 percent chance of guessing right,” George said. “But for all of us adults who were teaching, we secretly really wanted to have a time where we could learn to trick each other and really try to read our opponents.”
One of the ways to do this is to watch for micro-expressions in a person’s body language to see where they hid the correct piece. Chris tends to look for hand movements and mouth shrugs, which mean the opponent isn’t confident in what they’re doing.
Chris says a good way to avoid giving oneself away is to randomize the pieces and not actually check to see which one is which. The thought is that if a player doesn’t know where the right piece is, there is no way to give away its position to their opponent.
“Every single person you sit across from will do things differently though,” Chris said. “So, in the end, it’s all about knowing your community.”
When Chris visited Miami, Oklahoma for the first time, the thing he noticed wasn’t the flat landscape or dilapidated town, but a strong sense of relief.
Chris didn’t grow up with the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma as his community. Instead, he grew up with the Miami Nation of Indiana, which is not acknowledged by the U.S. government, a recognition that the Nation has tried to achieve to no avail. Because of this, Chris was raised with an ‘us versus them’ mentality. It wasn’t until he went to Oklahoma that he realized this attitude wasn’t healthy.
“All that bad blood that I was told would be out there waiting for me just wasn’t there. The feeling that these people didn’t have it out for me was a huge relief. They made me feel like I was home.”
Chris said that as his college education went by and he spent more time at the Myaamia Center, he realized the people back home were misleading him — that they were turning him away from a culture he never knew he could have.
Now, by participating in the moccasin game at Winter Gathering, he is in the middle of helping rebuild that culture.
Chris flipped over the last pad. As both teams erupted again, one with cheers, the other with despair, Chris sat back and smiled at Rachel, his eyebrows raised in a silent “touché.” Every time he thinks he has broken the moccasin game down to a science, he’s humbled. The piece was white.
“There’s very much an ethic of celebration when you win,” George said. “By competing in a healthy manner, it builds group unity in a really unique way. We could just use classic icebreakers, but that wouldn’t have the same impact as building this sense of team and community through our own language and culture does.”
This builds on a very old tradition in the Myaamia community — one that comes from the traditional Native American sport, lacrosse. The energy expended on the lacrosse field was seen as a gift that could be directed to individuals, but also impacted the entire community.
“Every single one of these activities means community to me,” Chris said. “At this stage of the Tribe’s cultural revitalization, all of these activities are centered around fostering our community.”
“These are our winter stories” George said as he paced in front of a crowd of Myaamia community members. “These stories can only be told after the first winter frost and up until the first thunderstorms bring the spring peepers and the thaw.”
The reason why the Myaamia winter stories are confined to a natural period of time is open to interpretation. There was a belief, George explained, that if told out of season, all the critters and frogs and nasty things in the world would crawl into the storyteller’s bed.
For George, it’s not so much the season that confines the stories, but the context. The stories carry the ages-old history of the Tribe — a history that is tied to a specific time and a specific place.
The first story George told at the Winter Gathering was the story of rabbit and bear. In the story, bear wants it to be night all the time so people would not find and kill him, but rabbit wants it to be day all the time. Rabbit and bear decide to have a shouting match around a fire to determine the winner.
In the story, it’s not made clear if the rabbit and the bear are really two humble, forest-dwelling creatures, or two greater beings in a violent battle.
The more and more George heard the story, the more he has come to identify it with the memory of a time when the Tribe lived in a place where it was dark for much of the year and light for much of the year. Whether people believe those periods of darkness and light were made possible by greater beings or not, the memory of living in that place has been carried through the story.
“When you think of these stories containing a deep memory of a cultural experience that’s over a thousand years old at the minimum, it’s really deeply meaningful,” George said. “While the story might not tell history, it’s a touchstone of the past when we have no other historical stories to reference.”
These deep meanings weren’t something George always recognized.
George remembers where he was the first time he heard a traditional Myaamia story — at a Myaamia gathering at the Seven Pillars in Indiana, on the Mississinewa River. He remembers an elder woman sitting down to read a story to a crowd of community members and children.
“It was a Wiihsakacaakwa (pronounced we-sock-uh-chock-wuh) story — one where he ends up falling down a tree trunk and is trapped. She was reading this in English and it still didn’t make any sense to me,” George said. “We were babies wandering around in the dark then.”
In the story, several women come to free Wiihsakacaakwa with an ax. When they break the tree trunk open all they can see is Wiihsakacaakwa’s crotch and pubic hairs. They think it’s a black bear and call for the men to come kill it.
“So there is this elder woman reading this story to a bunch of kids and she gets to the part where the woman see the pubic hair,” George continued, chuckling. “There is just this moment where she pauses and hiccups on the word.”
At that point, the Myaamia Tribe was in the beginning of their cultural revitalization, still struggling with how to fit very natural Myaamia traditions into daily lives that are dominated by modern American morals.
George said the Myaamia Tribe has to recognize that, today, an audience may come in with no understanding, just like he did.
“There were American morals at work in that story,” George said. But from a Myaamia perspective, there is this moment of hilarity based on the woman’s reaction. “Wiihsakacaakwa is an event by which our people have dealt with things that were not funny, like a lot of people do, by transforming them through humor into something they can process.”
For George, the story of Wiihsakacaakwa represents the Myaamia Tribe’s understanding of what happened during the fur trade era — of the irresponsible actions with hunting and trade and the darkness and violence that occurred because of it. The humor, George said, is just one way the tribe processes that horrible time period.
“These stories end up representing the whole realm of sticky philosophical dilemmas and my life would be impoverished without them,” George said. “The Cree storyteller, Louis Bird, says that their winter stories are the means by which Cree people wrestle with the unknown. And while we don’t have a Miami storyteller saying that on record, I think I can see the same trends.”
For George, the stories became the elders he didn’t have as a young person growing up surrounded by an overwhelming and confusing culture. In many ways, the stories, and the Myaamia language, become the elder to turn to.
“Growing up there were no fluent speaking, culturally knowledgable elders to talk to. So, for many of us, when we hear our stories, it’s as though the leaders of generations untold are living through them. Through them, I understand better. But I also understand now that my understanding will continue to develop.”
When Ian was in high school, he was dead-set on studying at the University of Chicago. He had lived his entire childhood life completely disconnected from his Myaamia heritage. Growing up in Chicago, all he ever considered was his family in Michigan and Indiana.
“I had never even considered the family that I had in Oklahoma,” he said. “I had never considered the experience of all these tribal members who were now living in this very different landscape.”
He was surprised one day when his mom suggested he apply to Miami University, that she had heard it was a school where Myaamia could study with other tribal members. He knew nothing else about the school, but he decided to apply to placate his mom.
Now, Ian’s education at Miami has given him the opportunity to be the first person in six generations of his family to play an active role in the tribe.
“I applied on a whim and it ended up being one of the most pivotal decisions of my life,” Ian said. “It’s the most amazing story of the failure of the federal government’s attempt at snuffing out a culture. Some kid, who has spent the first decade of his life moving happily through a generational assimilation process, suddenly decides to break out of it. All on a whim.”
Ian knew that if he came to Miami, he would have the opportunity to learn the Myaamia language. That was the hook for him. What he didn’t know is that he would also fall in love with the cultural knowledge he would be exposed to at the same time.
“One of my favorite hobbies, today and at that point in my life, were languages. I love languages, because I have found that there was so much philosophy of a people embedded in their language.”
Like the winter stories and the moccasin game, the Myaamia language contains the genes of the Tribe’s history and culture — a history that has, at some times, been dark, and a culture they are passionately fighting to revitalize.
“Because a group of people were removed from their homeland. Because a group of people were the victims of a legitimated and focused effort to annihilate their culture and society,” Ian said. “Because as that group of people were trying to maintain the threads of continuity with their ancestors, things got lost. And all of this is a way to bring that back.”