THE END OF THE TRAIL
Born Marie Desma Wilcox on a ranch in Visalia, California, she was the youngest of 7 children. Her father, Alex, was a farm hand on the ranch, and her mother was Beatrice Arancis.
She was a Native American, part of the extended Tule-Kaweah–Yokuts tribe of California. Her specific tribe spoke Wukchumni, which is what they became known as. They were not granted federal status like many of the other Yokuts tribes, so received no grants with which to enable their cultural preservation.
Marie was brought up by her grandparents in a one-room house at Venice Hills, close to the Sequoia National Park in central California.
Her grandmother was a speaker of Wukchumni, and began teaching Marie the language.
Marie’s tribal name was ‘Che’ihmyat’.
Marie married Joe Garcia and had four daughters and a son. She spent a large part of her working life at a fruit packing house in Exeter, California, and lived in the San Joaquin valley, on the Tule River Reservation.
At this point there was less than 200 of the Wukchumni tribe still alive.
And then her grandmother died.
Marie suddenly realised there was no-one other than herself who could speak the language. As a tribute to her grandmother, she began to compile a dictionary of the language. When she started it was pre-computers, so it was done with copious amounts of notes, often scrawled on scrap bits of paper or the back of envelopes. She also took a sound recording of each word.
She worked extremely hard. She collected words in the day and worked large parts of each night writing everything up. Meanwhile, she had become a language teacher.
It was a slow process, but once computers appeared she was helped by Nicholas Lung of the Apache tribe.
In 2014, the New York Times heard what she was doing. They commissioned film-maker Emmanuel Vaughan – Cee to make a documentary about her and her project. It was called ‘Marie’s Dictionary’.
In the programme Marie said, “I’m uncertain about my language. Who wants to keep it alive? Maybe just a few. It’s sad…It seems weird that I am the last one and I’ll be gone one of these days. Maybe, I don’t know, it might go on and on? I am the end of the trail.”
Afterwards, Emmanuel said, “She was a joy to spend time with. Marie is humble, kind and gracious.”
Marie was more laconic. “It is not as thrilling as ‘Last of the Mohicans’.
Nevertheless, the family had a big party when the documentary was shown. It was the first realisation that some of them had about what she was doing. They had little appreciation of her work.
But it worked. She was already teaching her daughter Jennifer (Malone) the language, and others in the family started learning it – and it gradually spread to other people outside the family. Marie had revived the Wukchumni language.
And she became a tribal elder.
And in her spare time, her hobby was Native American basket weaving.
All four of her daughters married four brothers – from the Malone family. Two of these daughters predeceased her. She had dozens of grandchildren, great grandchildren and even great great grandchildren.
She had spent over 20 years making the dictionary and took out copyright in 2019, but it remained unpublished. It was not complete and she could not find a publisher.
Marie collapsed and died whilst leaving the birthday party of her 4-year old great great grandson, Oliver Treglown. She had already started teaching him Wukchumni.
Nicholas Lung, her Apache assistant said, “ She lit a fire under me, and boy, did she train us well. Now I dream in Wukchumni language. I was brought into the family.”
And her daughter Jennifer said, “Learning this language has brought the family closer together. Mom inspired people to want to learn.”
She pledged to continue the work and to find a publisher. “Her dream was for us to keep it going. So, no matter what, we will do this and will teach as many people as are willing to learn.”
“The dictionary was her whole life. The language was dying and she brought it back to life.”
There are currently around 7,000 languages spoken in the world, including many Native American ones. 180 of these are classed ‘at risk’ with 74 (including Wukchumni) classified as ‘critically endangered.”
RIP – Rescuing Indigenous Patois