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McCoy with the Milky Way, which his Miami Indian forebears called the “Spirit Trail.” (Photo illustration by Cade Martin)

Rediscovering a Lost Native American Language

Tim McCoy’s astronomy course is helping to revive the words of the Miami tribe

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The night sky was always important to the Miami people. They recognized a constellation in the shape of a fisher, a minklike mammal that populated their Midwestern homelands. They called the Milky Way the “Spirit Trail” and believed its stars were the campfires of the dead.

In 1846, after ceding much of their land to the U.S. government, the Miami were barged south, first to Kansas, then to northeast Oklahoma, where many Miami and members of other displaced tribes remain today. (The name of Miami, Florida, comes from the language of the unrelated Calusa Indians.) Their variety of white corn didn’t grow well in the arid prairie soil, nor did their language, Myaamia, fit the landscape—they had no word for “armadillo,” for instance. Gradually they stopped planting their staple crop and, as their children learned English in government-run schools, neglected their native tongue. By the 1960s, the last fluent speaker was dead, and Tim McCoy grew up without knowing a single word.

“My family knew of our heritage, but we weren’t enrolled in a community,” says McCoy, 48, a Miami Indian and Museum of Natural History geologist. His ancestors had stayed in Kansas after the first removal, and he grew up in Illinois and eventually settled in Northern Virginia. He roams even farther afield professionally: A meteorite expert, he helps direct NASA’s Mars rovers, among other extraterrestrial pursuits.

After McCoy named a prominent pile of Mars rocks “Miami” in 2005, he learned that another Miami was working on the Mars rovers: Scott Doudrick, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Over the next year or so, the two developed a summer-camp curriculum on the heavens and the earth for Miami children, and in 2007 they traveled to Miami, Oklahoma, and taught it to tribe members of elementary-school age. But “the style of teaching didn’t match the culture,” McCoy says. The children, he felt, needed more opportunities to explore on their own. Perhaps most of all, “we needed the language” to make the lessons come alive.

Myaamia had slowly been reviving, thanks to the Miami tribe and scholars who translated hundreds of records from 18th-century Jesuit missionaries’ efforts to document it. McCoy began to teach the language to himself and his two sons. “It’s a polysynthetic language, so it has very long words that intimidate a lot of people,” he says, “but if you get the flow of the language, you get used to it fairly quickly.” Gradually he introduced Myaamia words in his summer-camp curriculum. (Doudrick was no longer involved.)

This summer, he is running his fifth camp on geology and astronomy; he has also helped develop a science textbook full of Miami stories and art. Camp activities include scouring local creeks for chert, the stone used for arrowheads, and sampling traditional foods like milkweed. Students learn Myaamia words for natural objects, and if there isn’t one, the community devises one. For instance, “kiihkaapiikihsinka mihcalaankaw,” for Saturn, is a combination of the word for Venus and a word for the rings around a raccoon’s tail.

Meanwhile, McCoy’s immersion in Myaamia led him to become what he calls “a community advocate” in the museum’s Recovering Voices initiative, which tries to stem the loss of endangered languages. “It’s great to talk about verb conjugations,” he says, “but what communities really want to know is how to greet people, how to express relationships, how to express their daily life. They want the stories.”

Today the McCoys—Tim; his wife, Darlene; and sons Joshua, 13, and Zachary, 11—plant white corn in Northern Virginia. (Some years ago, an elder discovered that he possessed a single viable ear, and now the crop is back.) They bake acorn bread and gather cattail pollen for pancakes. At the lunar New Year, they hold a feast for their neighborhood, complete with moccasin games and stories.

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About Abigail Tucker

A frequent contributor to Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker is writing a book about the house cat.

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