Press release | Chickasaw Nation

LOS ANGELES — Catherine Pickens Willmond would have celebrated a century of life on March 9. Ms Willmond, who is fluent in Chickasaw from Los Angeles, died on February 27 at the age of 99. Ms. Willmond moved to California in 1959 as part of the Indian Relocation Act.

Ms. Willmond has been instrumental in preserving the Chickasaw language with two books co-authored with a college professor.

They include “Chikashshanompaat Holisso Toba’chi, Chickasaw: An Analytical Dictionary” published in 1994, and “Let’s Speak Chickasaw: Chikashshanompa ‘Kilanompoli'”, published in 2009.

Ms. Willmond was inducted into the Chickasaw Hall of Fame in 2006 and was honored with the Chickasaw Nation’s Silver Feather Award in 2010, honoring those who work tirelessly to promote and preserve Chickasaw culture.

She was born in McMillan, Oklahoma, in 1922 and lived a difficult life filled with abject poverty and only a third-grade education, according to her daughter, Martha Bennett, of Ardmore, Okla.

Mrs. Bennett recalls the difficulty of Mrs. Willmond’s youth. There was no electricity or indoor plumbing.

The kitchen floor was filthy. Family meals were prepared on a wood-burning stove.

“Going to California in his late 50s was the best thing that could have happened to him,” Ms Bennett said. “She loved this place and she was able to pursue some of her dreams – especially with language preservation – that she would have otherwise missed.

“I think when she left Oklahoma she never came back. Life was just too hard for her. We all spoke Chickasaw and honestly, mother never learned to speak English well. She learned a little English with her seven kids. By now, you were talking to her on the phone, and she was saying a sentence in English, and then speaking Chickasaw.

The Indian Resettlement Act was passed in 1956 and encouraged Indian citizens to leave reservations to learn job skills and assimilate into the general population.

Ms Bennett recalls the government putting the family of nine in a motel room with a kitchenette when they arrived in California.

“We lived there for about a month before we moved to a little house in Santa Fe Springs, and they had a job for my dad, Robert,” she said. Mr. Willmond was Choctaw. He and his wife conversed in their respective languages, which are similar. He died in 1972.

Shortly after her death, Ms. Willmond met Pam Munro, a linguist at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Ms. Willmond’s minister, the Reverend Oliver B. Neal, introduced them because Ms. Willmond spoke almost entirely Chickasaw.

“I think her minister recognized the fact that Catherine was probably one of the few speakers in the area who could be considered essentially monolingual – speaking only Chickasaw,” said Dr Joshua D. Hinson (Lokosh), Executive Director of Language Preservation for the Chickasaw Nation. Division said. “She learned some English in California, and although she can communicate in English, she much prefers speaking her own language.”

In Chickasaw, Neal pastored a Methodist church in downtown Los Angeles, and many of his followers spoke Chickasaw. He defended the language by phoning UCLA, urging Ms. Munro and her staff to visit the church and learn more about the Chickasaws and the language.

“Since 1977, I have worked with Catherine almost every week. She is like a second mother to me,” Ms. Munro said. “In fact, I spent more time with Catherine than with my own mother. She is the most wonderful person I have ever worked with.

“We wrote two books together. We have traveled extensively to Oklahoma, New Mexico, Texas, California and given many presentations.

Since their introduction, the collaboration on the first dictionary took 17 years before it was ready for publication, the UCLA linguistics expert recalled. Ms. Willmond and Ms. Munro enlisted the help of about 30 fluent Chickasaw speakers to complete it. Their efforts to produce the second informative book – mostly composed of Chickasaw language grammar – took another 15 years and more than 20 fluent speakers were consulted, Ms. Munro said.

“It was an honor and a privilege to be able to spend so much time with her and to learn an absolutely wonderful language from her. I have told many, many people that Chickasaw is the best language in the world, and it That’s still how I feel. And the only way I know the language is through my association with Catherine.

Dr. Hinson said the two Willmond-Munro books are used daily in his department to teach and understand the Chickasaw language.

“Thanks to Catherine Willmond’s generosity and openness to sharing the Chickasaw language with Pam Munro, they were able to create these books that place potential speakers far ahead of the curve,” he said.

“If you’re talking about language revitalization and walking into a classroom with brilliant teaching materials, a descriptive grammar (book) and a high-quality dictionary, we’re set for success. Many early American communities lack any of these instructive elements,” he added. “(Ms. Willmond)’s videos, recordings and texts will have a positive effect on Chickasaws for generations.”

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