As we settle into the waning light of late fall here in the Northern Hemisphere, we are reflecting on those who carry sacred, ancestral knowledge and create space for others to come together to listen and learn in community.
On September 25, a greatly admired woman, respected elder, and language keeper passed away. Marie Wilcox, the last fluent speaker of the Wukchumni language, was 87 years old. Marie lived a life that was deeply committed to her family, to the Wukchumni people, and to the Native language revitalization movement.
Wukchumni is a dialect of the Tule-Kaweah language from the Yokuts tribal group, which originated along the Tule and Kaweah Rivers of Central California. Like all Indigenous languages, it is deeply rooted within an interrelated network of place-based relationships and carries an understanding that the world is alive and sacred. For twenty years, Marie documented her language—word by word—in the form of a written and spoken dictionary, the first work of its kind in the Wukchumni language.
For many years we have shared Marie’s story through the work of our grantee partners, as well as through stories about language revitalization from our initiatives. The Global Oneness Project created a curriculum around the film Marie’s Dictionary—which documents Marie and the dictionary she created—prompting students to explore what it means when a language is lost and what it takes to keep a language alive. Language Keepers is a six-part multimedia experience created by our initiative Emergence Magazine and produced in partnership with our long-standing grantee partner Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival. Chapter four of Language Keepers follows Marie’s efforts to revitalize the Wukchumni language and culture. For a deeper look, Emergence also created the Language Keepers Podcast Series. Additionally, The New York Times published a beautifully written obituary honoring Marie and her story on October 6th, 2021.
While the loss of the last fluent speaker will be tremendous, the future of the language is now much more secure than it was even just a decade ago. Marie’s story and her dictionary will continue to bring people together in a spirit of curiosity and learning.
It is such an honor to share Marie’s story with the world. We hope you will help to share her story and her legacy.