This 81-Year-Old Woman Is Saving Her Tribe, One Word at a Time

Marie Wilcox is a great-grandmother on a mission to preserve a dying language. 

The 81-year-old Native American woman set out to create a Wukchumni language — the first ever of its kind.

It's been estimated that there are more than 130 endangered Native American languages, with many on the verge of extinction. Even more so, there remains a small number of fluent speakers. Wilcox is the last living native speaker of Wukchumni.

The Wukchumni tribe is believed to have about 200 people left living in their native San Joaquin Valley of California — a considerably small population given the estimated 50,000 living tribe members accounted for before colonization. 

Wilcox grew up understanding the language thanks to her grandmother, but once her grandmother passed away, Wilcox left the Wukchumni language behind without ever returning to it until a burst of inspiration propelled her into action.

When Wilcox's sister began teaching her children the language again, Wilcox felt a surge of inspiration to pick up her learning where she left off.

"Hearing the girls try to speak their language made me want to learn again," Wilcox shared.

In a short film chronicling Wilcox's background titled, "Marie’s Dictionary," produced by Global Oneness Project, Wilcox described herself as "a picker," scribbling on sheets of papers and envelopes, making notes of words she remembered.

It took her seven years to complete the dictionary.

Though Wilcox says she is "uncertain" about the language and "who wants to keep it alive," the film highlights how the help of her daughter Jennifer and grandson Donovan, have been fundamental to the project's success. 

Currently, she and Donovan are working on recording the audio version of the dictionary.

Marie's Dictionary will surely serve as an inspiration to not only future Wukchumni tribe members, but also to other indigenous groups who seek for their language and culture to be celebrated, remembered, and preserved in the same capacity.

For more information on Marie's Dictionary and the process of recording a dying language, visit The Global Oneness' website for an accompanying lesson plan.

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Photo Credit: YouTube/Global Oneness Project