iši neepwaamici nintaana ‘what my daughter has taught me’ Part 1

Part 1: 0 – 10 months

It’s not an understatement for me to say that everything I know about Myaamia language, culture, and people comes from my family, from my wife Tina (Peehkateewa) and daughter Adeline (nicknamed Seenseewia). My first exposure and experiences with Myaamiaataweenki ‘Miami language’ began when Tina was a student in the Myaamia Heritage Course at Miami University in 2011. One day she called me and said “aya!”, and a few days later added teepaalilaani ‘I love you’ to the end of a text message. I was surprised most of all that this was a language I’d never even heard of. My education in Indiana public schools left out the fact that native people, Myaamiaki included, were still around, and therefore the idea of a Native language still existing had truly never occurred to me.

Jonathan and Tina Fox on their wedding day.
Jonathan and Tina Fox on their wedding day.
Photo by Amy Guthrie Photography

After that, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I’ve always loved languages. I took Spanish, Latin, French, and German in school (though admittedly only have retained any real ability with French) and learning to speak something so incredibly different really piqued my interest. Here was something I could work on, challenge myself with, and as a bonus impress my wife! I couldn’t think of a downside! So with considerable assistance from many Myaamia community members, I set myself on the road of language learning. Mihši-neewe to everyone who has helped me along the way!

I am really not a visual learner; reading and writing don’t help me learn very much, language included. Hands on experience has always been the most effective way for me to learn. In this case that meant speaking and listening as much as possible. Luckily for me, I was able to tag along with Peehkateewa to the Eewansaapita Summer Education Experience in Miami, Oklahoma, and was put to work as a kitchen assistant. Community member Dani Tippmann was my first “language teacher,” teaching me a lot of terms for what she needed me to do in the kitchen. I put everything down in my phone, and would take breaks in the 105 degree heat (the kitchen was actually hotter) to practice words like maalhsi ‘knife,’ kisihsitoolo ‘wash this,’ and miincipi ‘corn.’ One day, Andrew Strack saw me doing this, and mentioned that there was an online dictionary. I spent what felt like hours pouring over words and phrases I thought would be helpful and tried them with a person I’d seen speaking earlier. That was George Strack, and he encouraged me to keep trying with his kindness, but also by making jokes that I had to learn more to really understand. I knew I was making progress when, the next year at Eewansaapita, I heard Daryl Baldwin shout “šaaye-nko niwiiwa?” and immediately knew he was asking ‘is my wife ready?’ Later, I thought I would try the same phrase with Peehkateewa, saying to her “šaaye-nko mahweewa.” That was when I learned I’d misunderstood niwiiwa ‘my wifeas mahweewa ‘wolf.’ Mistakes like that happen, and having a good laugh about it was a great help with getting more comfortable speaking the language. That continues to be a very helpful way to make learning more engaging and rewarding for me.

But I hadn’t actually thought about how much I had learned until my daughter was born in 2017. Seenseewia will be one of the aanchtaakiaki ‘change makers’ who will carry Myaamia language and culture forward. Because of the revitalization work, little ones like her would grow up with Myaamiaatweenki. Just like me, she might be “taught” one day that her people don’t exist, but she would be able to stand up and say something like eehkwa eepiaanki oowaaha ‘we’re still here.’ But that wouldn’t happen without her own language journey, and I decided from the very first time I held her that I would do everything I could to help her on that journey.

Seenseewia helps me work on the Myaamia Dictionary.
Photo by Jonathan M. Fox

I took it upon myself to not speak English to her as long as I could. I’d seen research about how good babies are at picking up languages, and wanted to make the most of that opportunity for Seenseewia. I knew that she would hear English nearly everywhere she’d go. Myaamia would be heard less, and I wanted to give her as much exposure to it as possible.

At first it was pretty easy, as babies don’t mind anything you say, so it was good practice for commands, for example:

  • seehkweehsoolo ‘don’t cry’, 
  • nipaalo ‘go to sleep’, 
  • šikihsoolo ‘stop peeing!’

Then as she became more mobile, we learned more commands, but I also started having to add some statements to address certain situations:

  • aaweeplo, piloohse ‘come back, kid!’
  • pyaalo ‘come here!’
  • aapooši eetakinki ašiikani ‘her butt’s wet again’

Again, as her mobility and aptitude to get into trouble increased, so did the things I had to say in order to keep up:

  • nintaane….teehši neepaani kati ‘I just wanna sleep, daughter’
  • miiciihsoohlo ‘don’t eat that!’
  • oonaana alemwa, moohci waapimotayi ‘that’s a dog, not your blanket’

All told, between the language I already knew and phrases I worked on to adapt to our ever changing baby-situation, I made it about 9 months before I had to start using English one day.

“Where did you put the red pointy thing I was using to fix the sweeper?” I asked her.

What a silly first English phrase for koohsa ‘your dad’ to say, right? Seenseewia rolled over onto her side and gave me a very confused look. It only then occurred to me that in my exasperation, I hadn’t even used a single Myaamia word in that sentence. Šoowiteehiaani ‘I’m sorry’ I told her, and felt like I’d somehow failed her. For the next several days I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had made a mistake, that her learning was over, that she was going to think I gave up or didn’t know enough to really help her.

A few days passed. I scooped her up, and like I’d done probably hundreds of times, said “aya, nintaane!” She almost immediately answered me with a very happy “aya!” All at once, a great sense of relief washed over me; she was using Myaamia! She’d said a few English words at this point, I don’t actually remember her first English word, but this was the first Myaamia I’d heard her use. Maybe I hadn’t totally failed! A couple of weeks later, I was feeding her mangos. She gobbled them right up (they were her favorite), and immediately said “yoka!” What was “yoka?” I hadn’t the foggiest. Tina heard it too, but we were both confused. Our friend George Ironstrack had taught her the American Sign Language gesture for “more” recently, and suddenly, she signed that, and repeated herself “yoka!” It suddenly clicked: “yoka” was ayoolhka ‘more.’ She wanted more mangos!

So I started using more complex phrases with her, and she kept right up!

Video of Seenseewia physically answering the question taanaaha kikya ‘where’s your mom’?

I finally accepted that I hadn’t messed up, or failed, not even a little bit. I was still learning then and I’m still learning today. Now though, niwiiwia, nintaana and I would be learning together. From there, Seenseewia started attempting more and more words and phrases, in Myaamia and English, and we could barely keep up. It was then that I realized I needed to keep track of the words she used. I started recording them exactly as she said them in a note on my phone. I still have that list and constantly update it. And from then on, our language journey with Seenseewia was a tangible, measurable experience. We didn’t have to guess anymore if she was picking things up; we knew it, and so did she.

Part of the list of Myaamia words Seenseewia had used as of December 2017
Part of the list of Myaamia words Seenseewia had used as of December 2017. Photo by Jonathan M. Fox

Sometimes, it can be discouraging to learn or teach Myaamiaataweenki, but even learning a single new word can have a powerfully positive impact on yourself and your Myaamia relations. Challenges along the way can become stepping stones to more learning, which might not even be related to the language itself. My experience with Seenseewia and the vacuum cleaner taught me that your children won’t mind if you make mistakes, and likely won’t even know it. They’ll just be glad you’re trying, even if they can’t tell you that right away.

In case you were wondering: when I used English to ask Seenseewia where the screwdriver went, she pointed to the vacuum cleaner, cackled, and speed-crawled away. I’d taken the vacuum apart to clean it out, and she took that as an opportunity to shove the screwdriver into the wind tunnel. The vacuum didn’t work properly for months after that, and my distress caused me to totally miss that she had learned enough English without my help to tell me what happened. So don’t let a screwdriver in your language learning stop you…just keep speaking!

One Comment Add yours

  1. Kai says:

    My brother’s girlfriend is speaking Navajo to my 2-year-old niece. I have been learning Navajo in serious for five years now so we’ll see who ends up fluent first! My partner’s sister is speaking Russian to her 3-year-old son and I am trying to learn that too but I think that will take longer to achieve fluency. It’s an exciting time when you can learn a new language even if you live far from your homeland.

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