Film

Wukchumni

Length: 16 min.
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At the age of eighty-five, Marie Wilcox is the sole fluent speaker of Wukchumni, a dialect of the Tule-Kaweah language from the Yokuts tribal group, which originated along the Tule and Kaweah Rivers of Central California. For twenty years, Marie documented her language— word by word— in the form of a written and spoken dictionary, the first work of its kind in the Wukchumni language. Now Marie and her daughter, Jennifer Malone, alongside other family members, are embarking on an ambitious project of language revitalization.

We first met Marie in 2014 to make the film Marie’s Dictionary. Wukchumni classes were being offered at the local tribal community center, but the language was gaining little traction and few were dedicating the time needed to become fluent speakers. Marie and Jennifer continued their work on the dictionary, undeterred but uncertain about the fate of their language.

Five years after filming Marie’s Dictionary, we returned to visit Marie and her family. Jennifer is teaching regular Wukchumni language classes to members of the community; Marie and Jennifer sit with anyone else who wishes to join them to speak Wukchumni. Through conversations, questions, and laughter, the language is spoken amongst family and community members. Classes are often structured around words and phrases related to Wukchumni culture and tradition. For Jennifer and Marie, providing cultural context is an essential aspect of language revitalization.

The dictionary has become an inspiration to other Native communities working to revitalize their own languages. Within Marie’s family, speaking Wukchumni has become a collective effort across four generations. Marie’s great-great-grandson, Oliver, is the first person in four generations who is being raised from birth to speak the Wukchumni language.

Despite widespread community interest in the language, the challenges and needs of daily life, work, and transportation remain obstacles for many to dedicate the time to learn and revitalize the language. For as long as they are able, Marie and her family will continue to work toward a future where the Wukchumni language is spoken.

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