More than 130 indigenous languages are considered “endangered” in the United States. For many of these, only a handful of fluent speakers remain.
By Dave Fountinelle | firstname.lastname@example.org
Marie Wilcox didn’t set out to save the Wukchumni language from extinction. When her grandmother passed away in the late 1990s, Wilcox began working on a tribute to her – a makeshift dictionary of their native language. Wilcox’s grandmother had spoken Wukchumni to her since Wilcox was a little girl, so creating the dictionary was a way for Wilcox to keep her grandmother’s memory alive. Wilcox began the project by jotting words down on slips of paper, the backs of envelopes, and in notebooks. Eventually, she acquired a desktop computer and started transcribing her handwritten notes into a digital format, hunting and pecking each letter on the keyboard. After twenty years of painstaking effort, with help from her daughter, Jennifer Malone, and Apache tribal member Nicholas Luna, Wilcox finally finished compiling her dictionary. Wilcox’s great-grandson, Donovan Treglown, even helped her to record audio pronunciations of each word to further ensure the language was preserved accurately.
Several years into the project, one of Wilcox’s elderly relatives passed away, leaving Wilcox as the last living fluent speaker of the Wukchumni language. Still, many of Wilcox’s family members were unaware of the scope and importance of what she was working on.
“A lot of our family didn’t really understand why mom was so fixated on writing her dictionary,” Malone explained.
It wasn’t until 2014 when filmmaker Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee made a short documentary called “Marie’s Dictionary” for The New York Times, that much of her extended family finally realized the impact of Wilcox’s work.
“The dictionary was her whole life,” Malone said. “Our language was dying and she brought it back.”
Soon after watching the documentary, many of Wilcox’s family members started learning Wukchumni. Wilcox’s story inspired other indigenous tribes to restore and preserve their languages as well.
Sadly, Marie Wilcox passed away in 2021, but not before finishing and copywriting the dictionary of the Wukchumni language. (It is still awaiting publishing.)
In October, a new chapter of Marie Wilcox’s story began in the town of Three Rivers. The “Native Voices” exhibit celebrated its grand opening on October 28th in the Mineral King Room at Three Rivers Historical Museum. The exhibit is a collaboration between members of the local Yokuts tribal community, the Mineral King Preservation Society, and the Three Rivers Historical Museum. “Native Voices” is an interpretive exhibit about the history of the various indigenous tribes of Tulare County, known collectively as Yokuts. The exhibit features indigenous hand tools, artifacts, and crafts, including several examples of the basket weaving techniques for which the Yokuts were well-known. The exhibit’s centerpiece is the story of Marie Wilcox’s dictionary and how it demonstrates the importance of guarding the language of each indigenous tribe as a foundation for preserving their cultures and history.
Before Europeans arrived in California, there were over 50,000 members of the Wukchumni tribe. Today, fewer than 200 Wukchumni remain. Forced assimilation, relocation, and genocide have had a devastating impact on indigenous peoples across North America. Equally tragic has been the erasure of the culture and beliefs of various tribes that occurred as a consequence of those actions. One of the most egregious examples was the campaign by European settlers to eradicate indigenous spirituality and replace it with Christianity, specifically by taking Native children from their families and placing them in Christian residential schools. Children as young as four years old were shipped off to schools that were hundreds of miles away from their villages. At these schools, the children were punished harshly for speaking in their native language or practicing their spiritual beliefs. Because indigenous knowledge was passed down orally rather than kept in a written record, separating children from their parents completely severed the generational conduit for preserving indigenous language and culture. This was devastatingly effective at replacing indigenous spirituality with Christian dogma while also disconnecting an entire generation of indigenous children from the language and history of their people. Presently, several indigenous languages are still on the verge of dying out. Marie Wilcox’s diary is a poignant reminder of just how easily indigenous language can be lost forever. At the same time, it is also an inspirational example of how impactful the effort of just one dedicated individual can be in saving that language.
In her documentary, Marie Wilcox regards being the last remaining fluent speaker of Wukchumni wistfully, telling filmmaker Vaughan-Lee, “It seems weird that I’m the last one. It’ll just be gone one of these days.”
However, after helping Wilcox catalog and document the Wukchumni language, her daughter Jennifer Malone and great-grandson Donovan Treglown were inspired to become fluent in Wukchumni. And Wilcox’s great-great-grandson, Oliver Treglown, has been raised speaking Wukchumni since birth. Interest in the language has further spread within Visalia, where Malone teaches Wukchumni at Owens Valley Career Development Center. Today, there are close to a dozen speakers of Wukchumni in Tulare County, and that number is growing slowly but steadily.
When Mineral King Preservation Society’s Executive Director Lisa Monteiro took on the Native Voices project, she wanted the direction and focus of the exhibit to come from the local Yokuts tribal community. “It was important that we didn’t dictate what we thought the story should be, but rather we surveyed the local Native American community and took our direction from them.”
The feedback Monteiro received was that featuring the story of Marie Wilcox’s dictionary would be the perfect starting point for educating visitors about the Yokuts. The dictionary demonstrates the value of language and the need to preserve all facets of indigenous culture.
“Our exhibit is not perfect,” Monteiro confesses. “The story is far too deep to tell on three walls, but we hope it is a jumping off point for visitors to hear the Wukchumni language and learn about a culture that is still here.”
“Native Voices” is currently open in the Mineral King Room at Three Rivers Historical Museum. The museum is located at 42268 Sierra Dr. in Three Rivers. Admission is free. Three Rivers Historical Museum is completely volunteer-staffed, and business hours may vary depending on volunteer availability. To confirm business hours or for any other questions, including how to volunteer your time or resources, call (559) 561-1000 or visit www.3museum.org.