81-Year-Old Woman, Last Fluent Speaker of Her Language, Learns to Type to Make a Dictionary

Illustration for article titled 81-Year-Old Woman, Last Fluent Speaker of Her Language, Learns to Type to Make a Dictionary

Marie Wilcox, an octogenarian Native American woman from the San Joaquin Valley in California, was born on Thanksgiving in 1933; she grew up in a one-room house with the grandmother who delivered her and spoke her native Wukchumni, and I believe this video will assure you—Marie is better than you or I will ever be.

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In this 10-minute mini-doc from the Global Oneness Project, via NYTLive, Marie talks about speaking primarily English to her children, who worked alongside her in the fields for a good part of the year. She started learning Wukchumni when her sister started speaking it again in an attempt to pass the endangered language on to each their kids.

“I was surprised she could remember all that,” her daughter says. “She just started writing down her words on envelopes... She’d sit up night after night typing on the computer, and she was never a computer person.”

“I’m just a pecker,” says Marie. “I was slow.”

She decided to make a dictionary. “Not for anyone else to learn—I just wanted to get it together.”

Marie, along with her daughter and grandson Donovan, has been working on the dictionary for seven years. “I’m uncertain about my language, and who wants to keep it alive. Just a few. No one seems to want to learn. It’s sad—it just seems weird that I am the last one. I don’t know. It’ll just be gone one of these days, maybe, I don’t know. It might go on and on.”

According to a New York Times piece on this documentary from 2014:

Before European contact, as many as 50,000 Yokuts lived in the region, but those numbers have steadily diminished. Today, it is estimated that fewer than 200 Wukchumni remain.

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Watch the whole thing and feel unworthy of being alive—specifically, of being so demanding, with all this “I want to be comfortable and I want to be noticed,” rather than devoting yourself to something so beautiful and singular and hopeless, like Marie.

UPDATED TO ADD: Here is the community center where Marie teaches Wukchumni! Contact them if you’d like to make donations, by all means.

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Contact the author at jia@jezebel.com.

DISCUSSION

It is an absolute crime that this nation does not do more to preserve its indigenous languages and cultures. The ethnic cleansing did not end with the settlers; it is ongoing. That these efforts must be private endeavours, conceived and carried out by individuals, is unspeakable. Which other democratic, developed nation would allow this?

These are our indigenous languages. And we simply allow them to die of attrition. How is this even possible much less condoned?

It is more than a damned shame; it is a crime against humanity.

And I love this woman; and I know that I should be remarking upon the positive aspect of the whole thing; her intergenerational work; and the interest of the young in preserving their language and nations.

But it honestly makes me want to cry.

As we remark upon (and combat, hopefully) ethnic cleansing in Palestine (erasing the traces of a people and its history); or in Tibet; or of the Uighurs: let us not forget the ethnic cleansing happening here at home, today. A crime of attrition is no less directed and impactful.

If there is any way, we can do something (even collectively) to help with this or in general: is there anyone who might let us know? Deerlady83? Anyone?