The New Year brought sad news for the Chickasaw Nation of Native Americans. On December 30, 2013 they lost Emily Dickerson, the last monolingual speaker of the Chickasaw language. She was at least 93 years old.
The Chickasaw once lived in the Southeastern United States, in what is now Mississippi, though the United States government forced them to relocate to Oklahoma in the 19th century. Their language, Chickashshanonmpa, is hurtling toward extinction. According to Sky News, there were around 1,000 people speaking in 1994. Now, 20 years later, that number has dwindled to less than 70, most of them elderly.
Emily Dickerson was the last of those elders to have grown up speaking only Chickasaw. She never learned English. Her son, Carlin Thompson, told CBS that when compared to most of the other remaining speakers, she spoke a purer form of the language less influenced by Choctaw.
In a press release, Joshua Hinson, director of the Chickasaw Nation Language Department, said he was “still trying to wrap my mind around the loss and what this means to the Chickasaw Nation.”
Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby called Dickerson “a treasured elder who held the Chickasaw language and ways of life close to her heart. This is a sad day for all Chickasaw people because we have lost a cherished member of our Chickasaw family and an unequalled source of knowledge about our language and culture. My condolences go out to her closest friends and family as we mourn the loss of a woman who holds a special place in the hearts of her family and her tribe.”
According to the Chickasaw Nation website, the Chickashaw consider their language to be a gift from ” Chihoowa or Abaꞌ Binniꞌliꞌ (God)” and their ancestors. Emily Dickerson was the last person ever to speak only Chickasaw, but the Chickasaw Nation’s Language Revitalization program holds hope for the language’s future survival. The program, begun in 2007, offers a master/apprentice program for those wishing to obtain fluency in the language, community language classes, TV shows and an app for Apple and Android.
Rest in peace, Emily Dickerson.