Meet the Great-Grandmother Writing a Dictionary to Preserve Her Dying Language
As the last fluent speaker of Wukchumni, 81 year old Marie Wilcox is working to ensure her native culture will live on.
image via youtube screen capture
It is estimated that Central California’s Wukchumni tribe—part of the larger Yokuts Native Americans ethnic group—numbered in the tens of thousands during the years prior to European contact. Today, there are fewer than 200 remaining, and of those two hundred Wakchumni peoples, only one actually knows their native tongue. But 81 year old Marie Wilcox, the last fluent speaker of the Wakchumni language, isn’t letting her culture disappear without a fight. Instead, Wilcox, a great-grandmother, has spent much of the last decade creating the world’s first complete Wakchumni dictionary.
To work on the project, Wilcox learned how to use a computer in order to record both the written, and later an oral version of her Wakchumni dictionary. It’s an accomplishment made all the more impressive by the fact that, at one point, Wilcox also had to relearn much of the language itself, having spoken it as a child, abandoning it for English as she grew older, and becoming inspired to use it once again after hearing it taught to younger members of her family.
A short documentary, put out by the Global Oneness Project (along with an accompanying classroom lesson plan), shows the process by which Wilcox’s dictionary began as simple notes written on scraps of paper, before ballooning into the compendium it’s since become.
Wilcox and the film’s director, Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee, also spoke to National Geographic about the project.
In addition to the dictionary project itself, Marie and her daughter Jennifer, along with several other instructors, teach Wakchumni language and culture at the Owens Valley Career Development Center, an educational, vocational, and social service provider for native peoples in Visalia, California.