Nestled between the fertile soil of the Central Valley and the steep mountains of the western Sierra lies the Tule River Reservation, an expansive region once home to tens of thousands of Native Americans and distinct indigenous cultures, according to PBS.
A trading center of the Mono, Youlumne, Wukchumni and the Tubatulabal tribes, the Tule River was the crossroads of Yokut Indian culture, according to the Department of the Interior.
But today, the land is home to no more than 2,000 Native Americans, and their culture has nearly been wiped out, according to the New York Times. One woman is fighting hard to keep it alive: Marie Wilcox, an 87-year-old member of the Wukchumni tribe, Ms. Wilcox is the last fluent speaker of the Wukchumni language.
Born on November 24, 1933, Marie Wilcox has lived in the Tule River Reservation for her entire life, according to the New York Times.
About 70 years before her birth, a brutal conflict shook the Native American tribes of the Tule River. In an attempt to assert dominance and achieve sovereignty over the southern Sierras, the California militia ambushed the Indian tribes, according to the Associated Press.
Although both sides were matched in size, the Indians’ bows and arrows were no match for the bayonets of the armor-clad Americans. Soon after their defeat, the tribes ceded their expansive territory and were granted the Tule River Reservation, an expansive, but infertile 55,300-acre grassland near their homeland, according to AP News. Even though they never had to fight the western world physically again, the Tule River tribes continued to battle a debilitating, but the rising western presence that inevitably forced them to compromise their cultural heritage over time, according to AP News.
Over the course of her lifetime, Ms. Wilcox has witnessed this gradual, crippling force affect the existence of her own tribe. As the nearby cities of Visalia and Fresno grew from rest stops along the newly-constructed railroad to bustling metropolises with hundreds of thousands of inhabitants, the boundary between the western and indigenous worlds in the Central Valley grew tighter, according to New York Times.
The allure of the luxuries associated with western life disillusioned many young Wukchumni, as they left behind their old lives and converted to Christianity, learned English and adopted American customs, according to the Fresno Bee. Tribal elders quickly grew frustrated, as membership dwindled and European diseases ravaged the population, according to the Bee.
They soon gave up hope on teaching younger generations their language and even westernized the tribe to protect any last hope at revitalization. Their efforts were still in vain: a population of 50,000 Wukchumni gradually declined to a mere 200, according to the New York Times.
Once a fluent tribal elder died in the early 2000s, according to AP News, Wilcox found herself as the last defender of a once-great language.
Wilcox, who had never spoken the language since the death of her grandmother, found the 3000-year-old history of Wukchumni culture and language resting on her shoulders. After her sister began teaching her children the language in the 1990s, according to the New York Times, Wilcox was encouraged to relearn her native language. Once she began, she quickly recalled some of her past knowledge and became fluent again.
After her sister and other members of her tribe passed away in the early 2000s, she became aware that she was the last speaker of the Wukchumni language, and she started writing down translations on envelopes, notebooks and papers, according to the New York Times.
Finally, on a dark starry night in 2007, Wilcox carefully sat down in front of her 90’s era computer and put on a headset. After pressing the “record” button on her tape recorder, she began reciting an old Wukchumni folktale. She told the ancient Wukchumni story of the origin of people, how the “leader Eagle said to the animals that [they] must make people,” according to The New York Times.
Over the next few weeks, she continued to recite these Wukchumni stories, and record them so that they could be preserved for centuries. Soon, her daughter, Jennifer Malone, noticed her dedication to the language and mentioned to her that she should write a dictionary.
The next day, Wilcox sat down in front of her computer and finger-by-finger wrote a Wukchumni word, followed by its English translation. Then, she recited the word into her tape recorder. She continued this process day after day, staying up as late as midnight to continue writing down her knowledge of the nearly-extinct language, according to the New York Times. With courage and determination, she continued this process for a full seven years, and soon, she finished the Wukchumni Dictionary, a detailed collection of translations, recordings and stories, all in Wukchumni, according to the New York Times.
News of Wilcox’s miraculous story brought a flurry of press to her small home in the Tule River Reservation, according to the Fresno Bee. The story gained national attention after the New York Times published an Op-Docs named “‘Who Speaks Wukchumni?'”
But even though she has enjoyed her time in the limelight, Wilcox has persisted in her struggle to revitalize her beloved language and culture. After teaching her daughter the language, she decided to spread her knowledge to the rest of the Wukchumni tribe, according to the Fresno Bee. She has tried teaching the language to the 20 Wukchumni children that live on the reservation, but very few have taken a keen interest, according to the Bee.
To reach a more committed audience, she organized classes at the local career development, according to the University of Arizona’s Native Nations Institute. Together, she and her daughter have amassed a multitude of students, both young and old, through the five classes that they teach every week.
It is a difficult task for the two to revitalize an entire language and culture with thousands of words and stories, but they have devoted thousands of hours to it to ensure that future Wukchumni have a chance to learn about their culture. Wilcox still has a long way to go, but it seems that her dream of keeping the Wukchumni culture alive may soon become a reality.
The decline of the Wukchumni throughout the course of the 20th century epitomizes the fate of nearly all of the 574 indigenous languages in the United States, according to the United Nations Human Rights Office. Although Wilcox’s efforts to revitalize her endangered language and dying culture have allowed the Wukchumni to survive for the years to come, the same cannot be said for hundreds of other endangered native languages.
Both the Tubatulabal and Youlumne languages, which could once be heard throughout the western Sierras have gone extinct and Mono has been reduced to a mere 37 native speakers, according to the Tubatulabal tribe’s website. But efforts throughout the country have been made to preserve these vital languages.
Wikitongues, a nonprofit from New York, has been dedicated to collecting recordings of these languages. Revitalizing a language is a painstaking process that requires years of translation and teaching, and while dedicated people like Marie Wilcox have put the time to work toward it, Wikitongues employs a different approach.
Since thousands of languages across the world have been threatened by extinction, Wikitongues organizes people within communities with these endangered languages and encourages them to create recordings to document some of the words within their language. The movement has expanded to over 1000 volunteers, and languages like Tunica and Ainu have been documented for the first time ever, according to the movement’s website.
The struggle to keep languages from being lost in time is an ongoing one. Granted, it’s unlikely that all of the endangered languages in the United States can be revived before their ultimate demise.
But through efforts like Wilcox’s, we can still resurface the language of thousands of indigenous cultures. If we don’t, history will only blame us.