Luce Fellow Spotlight: Jennifer Malone

First Nations Development Institute (First Nations) is excited to partner with the Henry Luce Foundation (Luce) for a second year of the Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship. In 2020, First Nations and Luce awarded 10 $50,000 fellowships to advance and support the work of Indigenous knowledge holders and knowledge makers dedicated to creating positive community change. In 2021, we expanded the fellowship award to $75,000 and 13 new fellows committed to preserving and sharing Indigenous knowledge with future generations.

2021 Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellow: JENNIFER MALONE

Jennifer Malone teaches Wukchumni basketry to revitalize the nearly extinct Wukchumni language.

Jennifer Malone (Wukchumni) is on a mission to save the endangered Wukchumni language in a most unusual way. She uses the traditional art of basket-weaving to share her Native tongue with her family and the Wukchumni community.

The Wukchumni are part of the broader Yokut Tribe of California, which consists of 50 smaller Tribes. The Wukchumni once had a population of 50,000 people. Today, there are less than 250 Tribal members.

Malone, a self-described “language weaver,” learned her ancestral language from her mother, Marie Wilcox, considered the last fluent Wukchumni speaker. Wilcox did not share the language with her children until much later in life. In fact, Malone did not learn how to speak the Wukchumni language until she was a grandmother.

In the early 1990s, Wilcox began writing down every Wukchumni word she could remember on envelopes and scraps of paper. Eventually, she started typing up and recording these word lists to compile the first Wukchumni dictionary with the help of Malone. Mother and daughter worked together on this project for more than 20 years until Wilcox passed away in September 2021.

Their language revitalization efforts are documented in the heartwarming New York Times short documentary, “Who Speaks Wukchumni?”

“My mom always said she was the last fluent Wukchumni language speaker. Now I am the last one,” says Malone, who is following in her mother’s footsteps by teaching her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and other community members to speak their ancestral language with the help of the Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship.

“I am the living story of my community,” says Malone. “It’s a story that must be told and retold to every generation so our young people will know the journey we’ve walked through.”

Taking language-weaving on the road

Malone, an active board member for the California Indian Basketweavers’ Association, believes she has hit upon a smart formula for teaching Tribal members how to speak the Wukchumni language and appreciate their rich history and culture.

Malone organizes monthly basket-weaving demonstrations for family, friends, and community members.

Using Luce Fellowship funds, she travels around California in a car bought specifically for this language journey to participate in numerous events and basket-weaving workshops and demonstrations. While she engages participants in the art of weaving baskets, she speaks to them conversationally in the Wukchumni tongue.

She calls it “language-weaving,” and says, “I guess you could say I’m an events coordinator. I create opportunities to hear our Wukchumni language spoken in conversation.” Some demonstrations also include ceremonies and a talking circle.

More than 300 people attended the first language-weaving event. They came from all over California – as far as 100 miles away – to attend what Malone describes as a “make-and-go” event.” As part of the event, participants were able to harvest, make, and keep all basket-weaving materials provided by Malone.

A family affair

Just as Malone’s mother passed on the Wukchumni language to her, she has taught  eight relatives to speak it to ensure that the once-dying language continues for generations to come.

At one basket-weaving event, her granddaughter showed participants how to play the “black walnut game.” Speaking in her native Wukchumni tongue, she taught them the rules of the game and how to make dice from scratch.

Malone recently began offering Wukchumni language events for younger students.

“I am trying to pass everything on to my granddaughter,” says Malone. “And now she is passing everything on to her young son. That’s how we will keep the language going.” What’s more, Malone’s family is putting the final touches on the first Wukchumni dictionary.

One of the last ceremonies that Wilcox taught her daughter were the prayers and songs that must be said after a loved one passes away. In September 2021, Malone’s family and friends gathered together to honor and celebrate her mother’s life. It was an opportunity to reflect upon the tremendous gift that Wilcox had bestowed upon her Tribal community by reviving their language.

“My mother brought all of us together,” Malone reflects on the extraordinary life of Wilcox. “We are doing all this to honor her.”

Valuing community with other Luce Fellowship recipients

The Luce Indigenous Knowledge Fellowship will also allow Malone to create a series of videos about Wukchumni language, culture, and history to share with future generations.

Malone hopes the fellowship will give her the time and space needed to think about her next steps, which include designing a new project to increase the number of Wukchumni teachers.

Without a doubt, Malone is finding inspiration among the other Luce fellows, many of whom are also working on innovative language revitalization projects.

“It’s amazing how close we are,” says Malone. “It makes me emotional. We all have the same mission in our hearts. I really appreciate the time we spend together because it makes you realize that you are not the only one.”

Malone says she is grateful to First Nations and Luce for having the vision and commitment to create this fellowship program for individuals like herself. “This fellowship makes me think about all the positive things in this world. It is nice to know that there are others like me. Sometimes you just need somebody else to stand beside you.”