Marie’s Dictionary: Keeping the Wukchumni Language Alive
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has predicted that over 130 Native American languages are endangered in the United States. With only a few speakers still fluent, the loss of these languages can result in a lost history, stories and culture. Oral traditions are a key element to Native American culture, and once the connections to the language are cut, the stories from that culture risk being lost forever.
That is why in a small home in central California, Marie Wilcox, the last fluent speaker Wukchumni, has been spending the last seven years of her life at a computer typing out the dictionary of her language. The Wukchumni tribe—which today only has 200 members—is a part of the larger Yokut tribe which before European contact had over 50,000 members.
Along with typing individual words and their definition, Marie Wilcox is also preserving an oral history of the Wukchumni, working with her grandson Donovan Malone to record traditional stories. Along with her daughter Jennifer Malone, Marie Wilcox now travels California to attend conferences on other tribes who are at risk of losing their languages.
Many indigenous groups worldwide and in Canada are similarly at risk for losing their language. Isolation and remote communities are one reason for this decline, as speakers get older and die off while more widely spoken languages are adapted by the tribe. The marginalization of indigenous tribes by North American governments can lead tribes into forced assimilation of speaking English. As of 1996, only 3 out of Canada’s approximately 50 indigenous languages had enough speakers to be considered secure.