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‘We are still here’ - Native Americans in the Valley on the challenges of keeping their culture alive

Delaine Bill
Alice Daniel
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Delaine Bill

Jennifer Malone mostly goes by her English name but she has another name in Wukchumni.

“My Indian name is Haiyelihx,” she says, adding that the word summer in Wukchumni is haiyel. “So my great grandma named me Haiyelihx because that means summer. I was born July 31st.”

She can’t remember where the name Jennifer even came from. Her mom mainly called her Haiyelihx.

“Especially when she wanted to get my attention. ‘Haiyelihx!’ she would say. “When I was in trouble I guess,” Malone says, imitating a frustrated parent and then laughing.

Her mom, Marie Wilcox, was at one time the last fluent speaker of Wukchumni. But she taught relatives the language and for years pecked away at a computer one letter at a time to write a Wukchumni dictionary.

“Her grandma passed away when my mom was 7 years old and that's why, to me, it amazes me how she remembered all of these words, you know, and to be able to put them into a dictionary because she was just 7,” Malone says.

Wilcox died last month at the age of 87. Now Malone teaches the language, and shares it. On this day, she’s saying a prayer in Wukchumni in front of a small crowd at Fresno Pacific University. It’s part of a public event outdoors celebrating Native American Heritage Month. In the prayer, she gives thanks for the good people here and asks that the language survive.

Not many people speak Wukchumni, Malone says. And it’s like that with other traditions, like basket weaving, something she’s done for years.

“This one here is one that I made for my mom,” she says, picking up a basket she brought to the event. “She used it for popcorn and her chips.”

jennifer and marie wilcox (2).JPG
Laura Maldonada
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At an event in Visalia, Jennifer Malone demonstrates the kinds of reeds used in basket weaving.

Many of the elders who taught the craft have died, she says. And natural materials like white root sedge, redbud and deergrass are getting harder to find, especially ones that haven’t been sprayed with pesticides. The redbud shoots are often split with the teeth.

“I do put it in my mouth when I size it,” she says, demonstrating how she splits the shoots with her teeth. “I put it in like that and size it down and split it so we can’t use anything that’s been poisoned.”  

Delaine Bill, who is playing a drum and singing at the event, is also concerned about the loss of traditions. He says the problem partly goes back to boarding schools like the Sherman Institute which opened in 1902 in Riverside. For decades starting in the 19th century, the U.S. government removed indigenous children from their homes and sent them to boarding schools to assimilate them into mainstream American culture.

“To rehabilitate them from being native,” he says. “[They were] punished for speaking their language or singing their songs.”

Bill’s Wukchumni grandma was removed from her home and sent to the Sherman Institute when she was just 9 years old. It was a harsh existence and although she returned to the Fresno County foothills as a teenager, she was told to never speak her language, sing songs or participate in ceremonies.

“A lot of us just still hate it today,” he says. “The transition of being who we have to be because it’s not us and we feel it and we know it so we’re like living a fake life. For what I don’t know.”

Bill says the tradition of drumming saved him from a life of alcohol addiction. He started drinking as a teenager and didn’t stop until he was 40. He learned to play music while he was in rehab.

“It was a gentleman that just handed me the stick and I didn’t know what to do or how to do it, at a recovery home,” he says. “He said, ‘here just sit down and start drumming and singing.’ But it drew me because a lot of us walk around and say ‘ah that’s just a drum’ but I walked up to the drum and the gentlemen that were singing and stood there and listened because it just sounded really really good, really comforting.”

At age 57, he’s been sober for 17 years. He now teaches drumming to people in recovery at the Fresno American Indian Health Project.

With the sound of Bill drumming in the background, Jennifer Malone points to a walnut dice game her granddaughter is teaching to interested students.

“There's a score sheet and the one who gets all the sticks wins a basket or whatever you’re going to be offering,” she explains.

A student asks Malone about how she plans to keep the Wukchumni culture alive. Malone looks over at her grandkid, starts laughing and says, “I’m with her every day and if she don’t learn something today then I pound her on the head!”

But then she gets serious and tells the student they practice their culture everyday. It’s not just something they do in November for Native American Heritage Month, she says. They live it. She gestures to a sign in front of her and reads the words, first in Wukchumni and then in English. “We are still here,” she says.