Marie Wilcox saved a dying language before she died

Woodlake woman was one of the last fluent speakers of the Wukchumni and the first to create a dictionary of the Yokut tribe’s language

VISALIA – Marie Wilcox of Woodlake, Calif. was laid to rest on Friday, Oct. 8, but not before she saved the language of her indigenous people. The 87-year-old spent the last 20 years of her life producing a dictionary to preserve the language of Wukchumni, the name of the Yokut tribe of Native Americans which settled along the Kaweah River and the name of their language.

Marie Desma Wilcox was born on Nov. 24, 1933 on the Cutler Ranch near Visalia. She was the youngest of seven children of Beatrice Arancis and Alex Wilcox, a farm hand. She was raised by her grandparents in a one-room house in the Venice Hills and after completing eighth grade, she worked for most of her life at a fruit packing plant in Exeter. She and Joe Garcia lived in Woodlake and she had four daughters and a son: Jennifer Malone, Valerie Holladay, Teresa Malone, Evelyn Malone and David Garcia.

Wilcox’s grandmother, Dinky Wilcox, taught her Wukchumni, an unwritten language only passed on to other generations through the spoken word. Less than 200 members of the Wukchumni tribe remain and Wilcox was the only fluent speaker of the language just 10 years ago. She enlisted the help of daughter, Jennifer Malone, and Nicholas Luna, an Apache, to begin chronically every word she knew and that other shared with her and began recording them to assist with the pronunciation. Wilcox’s work of typing the dictionary into a computer, one finger at a time, earned her a feature in a short documentary series by the New York Times in 2014. Locally, her work earned her a Lifetime Achievement award at Woodlake’s annual community awards dinner in 2016. The dictionary was copyrighted in 2019 but has yet to be published.

“We have to remember our past generations and keep our Wukchumni language going or it will die off,” said Wilcox who got a standing ovation at the Woodlake Award dinner.

After a career as a nurse’s assistant, Wilcox took a position as a Wukchumni Language Master at the Owens Valley Career Development Center where she also taught traditional skills of the culture, such as basket weaving and beadwork. In that position she traveled to local schools presenting lessons on the skills and talking about her heritage.

Wilcox has also served as Secretary for Venice Hill Valley Tribes, is a member and teacher of California Indian Basketweavers Association, and the California Indian Education Association helping her people in various ways for higher education. She has been recognized by the Michigan Language Institute, the American Indian Language Development Institute, the Tule River Indian Health, Advocates for Indigenous California Languages, and the Owens Valley Career Development Center in Bishop.

Wilcox died at Kaweah Health Medical Center after her aorta ruptured while leaving her 4-year-old great-grandson’s birthday party. The youngest of her great-grandchildren already speaks some Wukchumni words and will have a few family members and the dictionary Wilcox created to keep their ancestral language alive for generations to come.

“Her dream for us was to keep it going,” Malone told the Fresno Bee. “So no matter what, we will do this and teach as many people as are willing to learn.”

In addition to Malone, Wilcox is survived by daughter Evelyn Malone; 10 grandchildren; 33 great-grandchildren; and 18 great-great grandchildren. Wilcox’s funeral service was held last Friday at Miller Memorial Chapel in Visalia. Fond memories and expressions of sympathy may be shared at www.millerchapel.com for the Wilcox family. The Wukchumni language does not have a word for goodbye but it does have a word for thank you. So for Wilcox, or Che’ihmyat’ as she is known her language, “a’ho, wema” for keeping Tulare County history alive.

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