Two Worlds: Native Language Meets Technology
“Throughout the United States, many Native American languages are struggling to survive… These languages preserve priceless cultural heritage, and some hold unexpected value — nuances in these languages convey unparalleled knowledge of the natural world.” – Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee, The New York Times
In August of 2014, The New York Times published a short documentary film about the last fluent speaker of the Wukchumni language, Marie Wilcox. Native to central California, the Wukchumni is a small tribe of some 200 members not recognized by the federal government as part of the larger Yokuts tribal group. (The Yokuts numbered almost 50,000 before European contact.) As the last fluent speaker, Ms. Wilcox took it upon herself to extensively document the Wukchumni language.
First, it began with remembering the Wukchumni words that Marie’s grandparents spoke in her youth. Then, her process evolved into writing individual words on the nearest piece of paper as memories came back to her. Soon, Marie was spending day and night “pecking” away at the keyboard of her computer one letter at a time until she finished her first draft of the Wukchumni dictionary – her work now used for weekly language classes by the tribe.
In what can only be described as a labor of love, Marie, with the help of her great-grandson, has gone on to record an audio version of the dictionary as well as Wukchumni tales in the Wukchumni language. Marie and her daughter are also working with other tribes to address language loss in their respective communities.
The journey that began some seven years ago to save the Wukchumni language reflects all that National Relief Charities has been discussing in our “Walking in Two Worlds” blog series. Marie Wilcox has taken the best elements of Western technology to preserve an indigenous language that has been almost completely lost to European colonization and Western expansion.
Elsewhere, states are working directly with tribes to use technology to preserve indigenous languages. In Montana, the state legislature launched the Montana Indian Language Preservation Pilot Program that granted $2 million last year to the eight tribes in the state. Under the pilot program, the Blackfeet Community College of the Blackfeet Nation developed both a website and mobile app to assist in preserving and teaching their language.
Interestingly, social media has also become a place of informal language preservation. Groups like Lakota Language for Beginners on Facebook encourages anyone interested in the Lakota language to join, learn, and speak. Most powerful are the dialogues that happen between fluent, intermediate, and beginning speakers. In just two years, the group has grown to almost 14,000 members.
Whether it is an oral dictionary, a mobile app, or a Facebook group, Native Americans are redefining what it means to be Native by using the digital resources of Western culture to preserve and share some of the oldest elements of indigenous culture.