'We should honor all parts of who we are': Nichole Prescott on reviving indigenous cultures
After graduating from the University of Texas, Nichole Prescott managed a coffee shop on South Lamar Boulevard.
She received a call from the chief of her Myaamia — in English, Miami — tribe.
Chief Floyd Leonard: "You need to go to graduate school."
Prescott: "People like me don't go to graduate school."
Chief Leonard: "You need to go to graduate school, then you need to come back and help your people."
Prescott, who was born in Miami, Oklahoma, and grew up in Del Rio, Texas, did go to grad school. Nowadays, she serves as an assistant vice-chancellor for academic affairs in the UT System, primarily focused on the "P-20 pipeline," which works to ensure high quality education from preschool through entry into the workforce.
She also works with the Native American and indigenous studies programs throughout the UT system.
Miami University and the Myaamia people
Chief Leonard sent Prescott to Miami University, a respected public research university that is built on former Myaamia land in Oxford, Ohio.
It had undergone a modern metamorphosis.
Not unlike Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., which offered preferential admission to the descendants of 272 enslaved people who were sold by the Jesuits to finance that school, the leaders of Miami University Oxford, established in 1809, created a special center for Myaamia studies at the request of the tribe and gave selected scholarships to the mostly scattered descendants of Prescott's tribe.
Prescott, who landed a working fellowship there, didn't take advantage of the Miami scholarship, but while studying for a master's degree in history, she became passionately involved in the revival of Myaamia language and culture.
In fact, the Ohio university's Myaamia Center, which opened in 2001, could serve as a model for schools in Texas, which exterminated or expelled all its indigenous Native American tribes during the 19th century.
Depending on how one defines them, the remaining groups with recognized Texas reservations — Tiguas, Kickapoos, Alabamas, Couchattas — are not precisely indigenous to our state, but rather immigrated here after being driven out of other parts of what is now the United States.
Away from her UT job, Prescott spreads the word about her tribe's history, culture and language revitalization efforts.
"Following in the footsteps of her mother, who was a respected elder, Nichole has served the tribe in many capacities over the last 25 years," says Akima Doug Lankford, chief of the Miami Nation of Oklahoma. "Starting with the first language workshops we held in the mid-1990s, she has been and continues to be an ardent advocate of our culture and language revitalization efforts.
"Nichole has also served our community in various leadership roles throughout the years. Currently, she is serving on the board of directors of the Miami University Foundation Board, an important role given the close relationship between the tribe and the university."
"My mother, an elder in the tribe, gave me the Myaamia name Neehweeta," Prescott says. "It means 'she speaks,' or 'she goes forth.'"
Diluting Myaamia culture
Prescott was born at the Claremore Indian Hospital in Claremore, Oklahoma, last resting place of iconic humorist and stage, radio and movie star Will Rogers (1879-1935), who was born in the Cherokee Nation.
Prescott's family was living in Miami, Oklahoma, at the time she was born, but she grew up mostly in Del Rio.
This is a compression of a lot of tragic history: Her people lost some of their original homelands after the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1795, which led to the Treaty of Greenville. The Americans under Gen. "Mad Anthony" Wayne drove many tribes from their lands in the Northwest Territory, including the Myaamias, whose capable akima, or chief, Little Turtle, helped negotiate the treaty.
After President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, the Myaamia, greatly reduced by disease, war and forced marches, were pushed west of the Mississippi River to Kansas.
"When they were moved by boat from Cincinnati to Kansas City, they would have gone right by the Miami University campus on the Ohio River," Prescott says. "And classes were in session."
The process was finalized in 1846, when they were expelled again, this time to the northeastern section of what was then officially called Indian Territory, later renamed Oklahoma.
"About 300 of the tribe moved to Kansas," Prescott says. "Our tribe was split in half at this point. Some tribal members were allowed to stay on personal reserves in Indiana and not move to Kansas if they renounced tribal citizenship, but we still maintained close ties and were still bound by family.
"The folks who went to Kansas were still considered — by the federal government — the Miami tribe," she continues. "Over time, the gulf widened between those who stayed in Indiana and those who were forcibly removed. Much of this was exacerbated by federal policies toward those tribes who were federally recognized and those who were not."
The story of the Myaamia tribe was repeated hundreds of times as Americans moved west — broken treaties, inept or corrupt agents, rampant vigilantes, and constant reversals of official policy, as recorded in Dee Brown's classic book, "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee."
"It was: 'Oh, we want to help you,'" Prescott says about the pinwheel policy. "Then: 'Oh, we want to eliminate you.'"
The 1887 Dawes Act further reduced tribal ties by eliminating the Myaamia reservation altogether.
"Families received land to farm," Prescott says. "But it was whittled away and mostly sold off. So much of our culture is in the land. Our language is in the land, and our education and worldview are based on the land. As are our medicines. So every mile we traveled diluted our culture."
To make matters worse, Myaamia children, like other Native Americans, were often sent off to boarding schools meant to squeeze out the last of their culture.
"There are stories of being made to kneel on corn cobs or broomsticks for speaking our language," Prescott says. "The last fluent speakers of the Myaamia language probably died in the 1960s."
A Myaamia revival
First and foremost, Prescott credits her tribe and Julie Olds, its cultural preservation officer, who initially made the call that established the Myaamia Project, which later became the Myaamia Center, at Miami University.
"The university has been a great partner in this work and has allowed for the tribe to determine priorities and projects," Prescott says. "The university even removed the mascot name 'Redskins' upon our request. I had the great honor and privilege to work with the former university, President Philip Shriver, as his graduate assistant. He presided over the university when the relationship with the tribe began. He was an amazing man."
The Miami University mascot is now the Redhawks.
"The Myaamia Center has been instrumental in helping us reclaim our language," Prescott says. "In 1995, our tribe received a grant to do language revitalization. Since there were no more fluent speakers, the process was archival, partly based on dictionaries written by French Jesuits in the 1600s."
The key scholar involved in this effort has been Daryl Baldwin, who won a 2016 MacArthur Fellowship for his work as a linguist and cultural preservationist. He emphasizes that reviving the intellectual legacy of the Myaamia involves reconstructing their entire worldview.
"According to Baldwin, the best way to a reclaim a language is to live it," says Prescott, who, with her partner, continues to learn the Myaamia tongue. "Baldwin and his wife brought up their children in Myaamia. They were first modern fluent speakers who could create new language for things that didn't exist before the 1960s."
Prescott was among the first of her tribe to attend the university with any kind of formal presence.
"This was our land," she says. "And what they are doing with the Myaamia Center is changing the course of our lives as Myaamiaki. Indeed, language and culture reclamation changed my life. Now I have something tangible to affix to my identity."
Prescott eventually earned her Ph.D. in history at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York — she wrote about women in early modern Spain — which left her with a choice.
"I could either continue teaching history, or work on educational reform, and on reviving indigenous culture," Prescott says, then jokes: "That's what makes me so much fun at cocktail parties."
At the UT System level, she has supported indigenous studies — hiring more professors, recruiting more students — and has backed the creation of land acknowledgements at the various UTs across the state. She would like to see the city of Austin to do the same thing.
"It's an important thing to do and it has great impact," Powell says. "Acknowledging the continuous indigenous presence and contribution is the first step. The next step is to put actions behind that to support indigenous communities, along with cultural and language revitalization efforts and education."
The widely shared work done on Myaamia culture during the past 25 years has brought about unexpectedly tangible results. Whereas the federally recognized portion of the tribe had once dwindled down to about 100, it now claims 5,000 members.
Imagine if Texas universities attempted something similar to Miami University's project for the state's expelled tribes, especially the smaller ones without resources.
"Developing formal partnerships with tribes and indigenous communities would be amazing," Prescott says. "The first thing you do is name it. Then you have to do something about it."
The other indigenous Texans
As we chatted outside at a cafe on West Sixth Street, I brought up a conundrum that has bothered me my entire adult life: What about those with indigenous heritage who arrived from the south, meaning across the Rio Grande, rather than from the north, east or west? Who is counting them?
I have yet to see a serious study written for the general reader on that subject, which doesn't mean nobody is doing the research.
Consider that, on the latest census forms, less that 2% of Texans identified as indigenous. Meanwhile, almost 40% identified as Hispanic. Most of them are Mexican Americans.
According to Mexico's National Institute of Statistics, more than 20% of Mexicans identify as indigenous, mostly based on language, and another 25% identify as mestizo, or mixed European and indigenous.
Without even considering the immigrants from Central America or further south, it's not improbable to guess that almost half of Hispanics in our state could broadly be counted as bearing indigenous heritage.
"A lot of Hispanic indigenous people speak Spanish and are Catholic, therefore they can say: 'I'm not exactly indigenous,'" Prescott says. "In the end, I believe we should honor all parts of who we are."
Prescott thinks that the state values Hispanic identities over indigenous identities.
"And, in fact, our histories, policies, etc., erase indigenous identities," she says. "It is easier for folks just to claim the Hispanic identity. And maybe for them, that is the identity that is most meaningful for them."
She also emphasizes the need to verbalize cultural puzzles such as this one.
"We just don't talk about what happened to Native Americans," she says. "We push it under the rug."
Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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