Part 1 of a series for Native American Heritage Month
When we talk about CILTI nature preserves, we often focus on very recent history. We note names of individuals or families who had the foresight to work with the conservation community. We are indebted to all those who contributed to the effort to permanently protect these special places.
However, we know that the history of land stretches back so much farther. The tribal nations, people whose lives were inextricably linked to the land, often go unmentioned.
Myaamia were early stewards of much of our service area here in Central Indiana. The anglicized name for this tribe is the Miami Nation.
The Miami Tribe of Oklahoma notes that Myaamia means “the Downstream People,” reflecting the riverine origins of the tribe’s history.
According to Scott Shoemaker, a member of the Miami Tribe, the tribe’s origin story references a confluence along the St. Joseph River. The ancestors emerged from the river and grasped tree limbs to pull themselves out. “We became the Miami people through this transition of lifting ourselves out of the river,” he said during a recent interview.
The exact place is unknown. It may have been the St. Joseph confluence with the Elkhart River or with Lake Michigan in Benton Harbor, MI. From there, the people moved down the Wabash River valley and built communities at major confluences from Fort Wayne southwest to Vincennes.
Shoemaker, who is the former curator of Native American art, history, and culture at the Eiteljorg Museum, appeared on a recent White River Alliance podcast. He joined George Ironstrack, citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, who serves as assistant director of education in the Myaamia Center at Miami University.
Ironstrack noted that the Myaamia began to cede their homelands in the 1790s. For the next 50 years, they were forced west of the Mississippi, a removal that fragmented the people. About 150 people were allowed to remain in Indiana while many more were forcibly relocated to Indian Territory (now Kansas). Eventually they were forced to move again, into present-day Oklahoma, while some stayed behind in Kansas.
This forced removal unfolded alongside the altering of land and water, as wetlands across the region were drained, rivers channelized, forests clearcut, and canals dug. Colonization caused irreparable harm both to the native people and to the land they had stewarded since time immemorial.
The Myaamia language, which weaves relationships into place names, emphasizes how crucial water is to the people.
As Ironstrack says, “The flow of water carries living things… We live in a landscape you could call a waterscape, and the rivers are like veins or arteries moving through our homelands and our people.”
Situated as it is along the White River, it’s a safe bet that Oliver’s Woods was home to the Myaamia after the people moved south from Lake Michigan. Historians place this southward movement in the early 1700s.
But because of archeological records, we have documentation of very early residents from hundreds of years before that. In Part 2, we will explore that earlier history.