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See One Woman’s Amazing Project to Save a Vanishing Native American Language

Marie Wilcox has created a dictionary to protect Wukchumni from extinction.

Marie’s Dictionary from Go Project Films on Vimeo.

As a direct result of colonization, many indigenous languages throughout the Americas have disappeared or are in danger of doing so. In the US alone, there are 130 endangered Native American languages. Among them is the Wukchumni language, spoken by the Yokuts of California. There is just one remaining fluent speaker: Marie Wilcox, who is fighting to keep Wukchumni alive.

This short film, directed by Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee for Go Project Films, is dedicated to her. In the film, Wilcox says that she stopped speaking Wukchumni when her grandmother died. However, when she heard her sisters trying to teach their daughters, she started to go back to it word for word. Over the course of seven years, she and her daughter, Jennifer, worked on making a Wukchumni dictionary.

Though the language isn’t traditionally written, Wilcox saw this as a way to preserve Wukchumni for future generations. This task is made even more pressing by the fact that Wukchumni is the only surviving dialect of the Tule-Kaweah language.

Once the dictionary was finished, Wilcox set about on an equally important task: recording the sound of her language. Now, she works with her grandson, who in the video is shown speaking freely with her in Wukchumni, to record the sound of each word in the dictionary, as well as the tribe’s mythology. Wilcox and her daughter also offer weekly language classes so that tribe members can regain the language and achieve fluency.

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