Fantastic piece about the experience of Native Americans around the Thanksgiving holiday and relating it to various other aspects of Indigenous activism in North America.
Throughout the United States, many Native American languages are struggling to survive. According to Unesco, more than 130 of these languages are currently at risk, with 74 languages considered “critically endangered.” These languages preserve priceless cultural heritage, and some hold unexpected value — nuances in these languages convey unparalleled knowledge of the natural world. Many of these at-risk languages are found in my home state of California. Now for some, only a few fluent speakers remain.
This Op-Doc tells the story of Marie Wilcox, the last fluent speaker of the Wukchumni language, and the dictionary she has created. I met her through the Advocates for Indigenous California Language Survival, an organization that encourages the revival of languages like Wukchumni. Through training and mentorship, it has supported Ms. Wilcox’s work for several years. Ms. Wilcox’s tribe, the Wukchumni, is not recognized by the federal government. It is part of the broader Yokuts tribal group native to Central California. Before European contact, as many as 50,000 Yokuts lived in the region, but those numbers have steadily diminished. Today, it is estimated that less than 200 Wukchumni remain.
Like most Native Americans, the Wukchumni did not write their language until recently. Although several linguists documented the grammar of the Wukchumni language in the 20th century, Ms. Wilcox’s dictionary is the longest work of its kind. Ms. Wilcox has also recorded an oral version of the dictionary, including traditional Wukchumni stories like the “How We Got Our Hands” parable featured in the film. The pronunciation of the language, including intricate accents, will be preserved, which will assist future learners of the language.
For Ms. Wilcox, the Wukchumni language has become her life. She spent more than seven years working on the dictionary and she continues to refine and update the text. Through her hard work and dedication, she has created a document that will support the revitalization of the Wukchumni language for decades to come. And Ms. Wilcox isn’t slowing down. Along with her daughter Jennifer Malone she travels to conferences throughout California and meets other tribes who also struggle with language loss.
Although Wukchumni is now being taught to tribe members at a local career center, the language still struggles to gain traction and move beyond a rudimentary level. Few seem able to dedicate the time needed to learn Wukchumni and become fluent speakers. Without additional resources and interest, I fear the language, in any meaningful form, may soon exist only in Ms. Wilcox’s dictionary.
The Cherokee is the most southern branch of the Iroquoian language family. Linguists believe that the Cherokee migrated from the Great Lakes area to the Southeast over three thousand years ago.
In 1540 the Cherokee lay claim to a territory comprising of 40,000 square miles in the southeastern part of what later became the United States. This area included parts of the states of Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.
In the winter of 1838, the Cherokee Nation was forcibly removed from what was left of their original lands in the East. 20,000 people were forced along the “The Trail of Tears” to the Indian Territory of northeastern Oklahoma. Over 4,000 Cherokees died. The journey was know by the Cherokee as nu-na-hi du-na tlo-hi-lu-i, the “trail where they cried.”
Several hundred Cherokee evaded removal by hiding in the mountains of North Carolina. In 1849 they were given the right to remain on lands purchased in their behalf. It later became the Qualla Reservation.
At the time of the first contact with Europeans, the Cherokee occupied three distinct geographical regions. Three distinct dialects were spoken: Eastern, Middle and Western.
The Eastern or lower dialect is now extinct. Its chief peculiarity is a rolling “r”, which takes the place of the “l” of the other dialects. The Cherokee speakers of the Eastern dialect occupied what is now South Carolina and made the first contact with the British. Due to the wars and conflicts of the 1800’s, the few remaining speakers were absorbed into the other Cherokee groups further inland.
The Middle dialect (Kituwah) is spoken by the Cherokee now living on the Qualla reservation in North Carolina. In some of its phonetic forms it agrees with the Eastern dialect, but resembles the Western in having the “l” sound.
The Western dialect (The Overhill) is spoken by the Cherokee Nation in the West. Because of their isolation, the Kituwah dialect was less impacted by the influence of other Indian cultures and the many conflicts the Western Cherokee encountered. The Overhill dialect is the softest and most musical of this musical language.
The name, “Cherokee,” occurs in fifty different spellings. In this form it dates back at least to 1708. From the Eastern dialect came the form tsa-ra-gi, the form with which the English settlers first became familiar (a rolling “r” took the place of the “l” of the other dialects). Thus came the word “Cherokee.” The Spaniards, advancing from the south, became familiar with the other form (Middle and Western: tsa-la-gi) and spelled the word as Chalaque. Today Cherokees both East and West refer to themselves in that form: tsi-tsa-la-gi (I am Cherokee).
The proper name by which the Cherokee call themselves is: yun-wi-ya. It comes from yun-wi (person) and ya (real or principal). When referring to the tribe, the prefix ani is added: ani-yun-wi-ya.
Cherokees are the only Native American People who possess a writing system equivalent to the European alphabet. The Cherokee syllabary is the only alphabet in history attributed to be the work of one man, George Gist, known to the world as Sequoyah. Although he did not speak or read the English language, he understood the power of the written word. After twelve years of dedicated work, Sequoyah finished the Cherokee syllabary in 1821. He spent the rest of his life teaching his people how to read and spell.
The Cherokee alphabet is a syllabary of 84 characters in which each letter in a word stands for a whole syllable.
There are six vowels: a-e-i-o-u including a vowel which does not exist in English (v). The (v) vowel is decidedly tonal and is pronounced like the “u” in “huh”, nasalized.
The remaining seventy eight characters consist of combining consonants and vowels with one exception, the consonant “s”. It stands alone as the only single consonant represented as a character. Adding “s” to other syllables as a prefix or suffix eliminated the need to create seventeen more characters to the syllabary. There are no equivalent sounds for the English consonants BFPRVX. (Overhill uses the “j” sound when pronouncing the “ts” syllables; Kituwah uses the softer “z” sound.)
Across the United States, the native peoples are involved in preserving their aboriginal languages. Unfortunately some of these languages have all ready been lost. In Qualla and the Cherokee Nation, dedicated Cherokee linguists are working diligently to ensure the Cherokee language survives.
Increasing numbers of Cherokee descendants are renewing their ties with their traditions, history and language. With this renewal comes the understanding that their Cherokee heritage must be preserved and passed on to the next generation.
And whereas it is just and reasonable, and essential to our Interest, and the Security of our Colonies, that the several Nations or Tribes of Indians with whom We are connected, and who live under our Protection, should not be molested or disturbed in the Possession of such Parts of Our Dominions and Territories as, not having been ceded to or purchased by Us, are reserved to them, or any of them, as their Hunting Grounds —We do therefore, with the Advice of our Privy Council, declare it to be our Royal Will and Pleasure, that no Governor or Commander in Chief in any of our Colonies of Quebec, East Florida, or West Florida, do presume, upon any Pretence whatever, to grant Warrants of Survey, or pass any Patents for Lands beyond the Bounds of their respective Governments, as described in their Commissions: as also that no Governor or Commander in Chief in any of our other Colonies or Plantations in America do presume for the present, and until our further Pleasure be known, to grant Warrants of Survey, or pass Patents for any Lands beyond the Heads or Sources of any of the Rivers which fall into the Atlantic Ocean from the West and North West, or upon any Lands whatever, which, not having been ceded to or purchased by Us as aforesaid, are reserved to the said Indians, or any of them.
And We do further declare it to be Our Royal Will and Pleasure, for the present as aforesaid, to reserve under our Sovereignty, Protection, and Dominion, for the use of the said Indians, all the Lands and Territories not included within the Limits of Our said Three new Governments, or within the Limits of the Territory granted to the Hudson’s Bay Company, as also all the Lands and Territories lying to the Westward of the Sources of the Rivers which fall into the Sea from the West and North West as aforesaid.
And We do hereby strictly forbid, on Pain of our Displeasure, all our loving Subjects from making any Purchases or Settlements whatever, or taking Possession of any of the Lands above reserved, without our especial leave and Licence for that Purpose first obtained.
And We do further strictly enjoin and require all Persons whatever who have either wilfully or inadvertently seated themselves upon any Lands within the Countries above described or upon any other Lands which, not having been ceded to or purchased by Us, are still reserved to the said Indians as aforesaid, forthwith to remove themselves from such Settlements.
And whereas great Frauds and Abuses have been committed in purchasing Lands of the Indians, to the great Prejudice of our Interests, and to the great Dissatisfaction of the said Indians: In order, therefore, to prevent such Irregularities for the future, and to the end that the Indians may be convinced of our Justice and determined Resolution to remove all reasonable Cause of Discontent, We do, with the Advice of our Privy Council strictly enjoin and require, that no private Person do presume to make any purchase from the said Indians of any Lands reserved to the said Indians, within those parts of our Colonies where We have thought proper to allow Settlement: but that, if at any Time any of the Said Indians should be inclined to dispose of the said Lands, the same shall be Purchased only for Us, in our Name, at some public Meeting or Assembly of the said Indians, to be held for that Purpose by the Governor or Commander in Chief of our Colony respectively within which they shall lie: and in case they shall lie within the limits of any Proprietary Government, they shall be purchased only for the Use and in the name of such Proprietaries, conformable to such Directions and Instructions as We or they shall think proper to give for that Purpose: And we do, by the Advice of our Privy Council, declare and enjoin, that the Trade with the said Indians shall be free and open to all our Subjects whatever, provided that every Person who may incline to Trade with the said Indians do take out a Licence for carrying on such Trade from the Governor or Commander in Chief of any of our Colonies respectively where such Person shall reside, and also give Security to observe such Regulations as We shall at any Time think fit, by ourselves or by our Commissaries to be appointed for this Purpose, to direct and appoint for the Benefit of the said Trade:
And we do hereby authorize, enjoin, and require the Governors and Commanders in Chief of all our Colonies respectively, as well those under Our immediate Government as those under the Government and Direction of Proprietaries, to grant such Licences without Fee or Reward, taking especial Care to insert therein a Condition, that such Licence shall be void, and the Security forfeited in case the Person to whom the same is granted shall refuse or neglect to observe such Regulations as We shall think proper to prescribe as aforesaid.
And we do further expressly conjoin and require all Officers whatever, as well Military as those Employed in the Management and Direction of Indian Affairs, within the Territories reserved as aforesaid for the use of the said Indians, to seize and apprehend all Persons whatever, who standing charged with Treason, Misprisions of Treason, Murders, or other Felonies or Misdemeanors, shall fly from Justice and take Refuge in the said Territory, and to send them under a proper guard to the Colony where the Crime was committed, of which they stand accused, in order to take their Trial for the same.