‘Who Speaks Wukchumni?’
Throughout the United States, many Native American languages are struggling to survive. According to Unesco, more than 130 of these languages are currently at risk, with 74 languages considered “critically endangered.” These languages preserve priceless cultural heritage, and some hold unexpected value — nuances in these languages convey unparalleled knowledge of the natural world. Many of these at-risk languages are found in my home state of California. Now for some, only a few fluent speakers remain.
This Op-Doc tells the story of Marie Wilcox, the last fluent speaker of the Wukchumni language, and the dictionary she has created. I met her through the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival, an organization that encourages the revival of languages like Wukchumni. Through training and mentorship, it has supported Ms. Wilcox’s work for several years. Ms. Wilcox’s tribe, the Wukchumni, is not recognized by the federal government. It is part of the broader Yokuts tribal group native to Central California. Before European contact, as many as 50,000 Yokuts lived in the region, but those numbers have steadily diminished. Today, it is estimated that less than 200 Wukchumni remain.
Like most Native Americans, the Wukchumni did not write their language until recently. Although several linguists documented the grammar of the Wukchumni language in the 20th century, Ms. Wilcox’s dictionary is the longest work of its kind. Ms. Wilcox has also recorded an oral version of the dictionary, including traditional Wukchumni stories like the “How We Got Our Hands” parable featured in the film. The pronunciation of the language, including intricate accents, will be preserved, which will assist future learners of the language.
For Ms. Wilcox, the Wukchumni language has become her life. She spent more than seven years working on the dictionary and she continues to refine and update the text. Through her hard work and dedication, she has created a document that will support the revitalization of the Wukchumni language for decades to come. And Ms. Wilcox isn’t slowing down. Along with her daughter Jennifer Malone she travels to conferences throughout California and meets other tribes who also struggle with language loss.
Although Wukchumni is now being taught to tribe members at a local career center, the language still struggles to gain traction and move beyond a rudimentary level. Few seem able to dedicate the time needed to learn Wukchumni and become fluent speakers. Without additional resources and interest, I fear the language, in any meaningful form, may soon exist only in Ms. Wilcox’s dictionary.