Marie Wilcox, who saved her mother tongue from extinction, dies at 87


For many years, Marie Wilcox was the custodian of the Wukchumni language, one of the many indigenous languages ​​once common in central California, but which have disappeared or are almost extinct. She was the only person for a while who could speak it fluently.

She started writing words to Wukchumni as she remembered in the late 1990s, scribbling on the backs of envelopes and slips of paper. Then she started typing them into an old square computer. Soon she was getting up early to devote her day to collecting words and working until the end of the night.

After 20 years of toil, hunting and foraging on her keyboard, Ms. Wilcox, who died at 87 on September 25, produced a dictionary, Wukchumni’s first known comprehensive collection.

“The dictionary was her whole life,” Jennifer Malone, one of her daughters, said in a telephone interview. “The tongue was dying, and she brought it back.”

In 2014, while Ms. Wilcox was still revising and editing the dictionary, filmmaker Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee made “Marie’s Dictionary,” a short video documentary about her making for the Opinion section of the New York Times, in his Op-Docs series.

When her large extended family threw a party and watched the documentary together, they first understood what she had been up to all these years, said Ms Malone, who along with a handful of others helped her mother. to edit and format the dictionary. . Until then, she said, they had not fully appreciated her work or valued the connection between their lost language and some of their cultural traditions.

In no time, many of the family started to learn Wukchumni. And other Native American tribes have drawn inspiration from its history to revitalize their own endangered languages.

Ms. Wilcox died in a hospital in Visalia, central California. She was attending a birthday party for her 4-year-old great-great-grandson when she was struck by a ruptured aorta as she got into a car to leave, Ms Malone said.

There are around 7,000 languages in today’s world, the majority of which are from indigenous peoples. Many of them are only spoken, not written, and they don’t have dictionaries. Due to forced assimilation, relocation and other factors involving Indigenous people, most of these languages ​​are on the verge of extinction.

After the death of an elderly parent about eight years ago, Ms Wilcox became the only person fluent in Wukchumni, a dialect of Tule-Kaweah, which originated in the Tule and Kaweah rivers in central California.

“It seems strange that I am the last,” she told Mr. Vaughan-Lee, the filmmaker. “It’ll just be gone one of these days.”

But long before she became the only fluent speaker, Ms Wilcox had become obsessed with creating a lasting recording of Wukchumni. Her grandmother, who looked after her as a child, had spoken about it, and Ms Wilcox had started creating her dictionary in tribute to the grandmother, Ms Malone said. The dictionary was copyrighted in 2019 but has not yet been published; Ms. Wilcox also recorded the words so others would know the correct pronunciation.

After the documentary’s release, learning the language became a collective effort across four generations of Ms. Wilcox’s family. His 4-year-old great-great-grandson, Oliver Treglown, was raised to speak him from birth. Interest has also grown within the Visalia community, where Ms. Malone teaches the language at the Owens Valley Career Development Center.

“Learning this language brought the family closer together,” said Ms. Malone. “Mom inspired people to want to learn.”

Marie Desma Wilcox was born on November 24, 1933 on a ranch in Visalia, in the San Joaquin Valley. Her father, Alex Wilcox, was a farm laborer. His mother, Béatrice Arancis, had seven children, of which Marie was the youngest. It was often called “the end of the road”.

Marie grew up with her grandparents in a one-room house in the mountains of Venice Hills, near Sequoia National Park. After completing her eighth grade, she herself went to work in the fields as a farm laborer, mostly picking fruit.

She had four daughters and a son with Joe Garcia, and these four sisters married four of the Malone brothers. In addition to her daughter Jennifer Malone, Ms. Wilcox is survived by another daughter, Evelyn Malone; 10 grandchildren; 33 great-grandchildren; and 18 great-great-grandchildren.

Among those who helped Ms Wilcox with her dictionary, especially with her computer, was Nicholas Luna, 27, an Apache that Ms Wilcox brought to her family. Mr Luna said in an interview that when the family watched the documentary in 2014, “it gave them purpose.”

“She was training us and, boy, did she train us well,” he said. “She lit a fire under me and others to keep speaking the language and keep going. Now I am dreaming in the Wukchumni language.

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