Born to Yuchi parents and raised on her father’s allotment in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, Maxine Wildcat Barnett learned to speak English at public school but was allowed to speak only Yuchi at home, at the insistence of her grandma Eliza.
She never forgot those precious words. Today, Maxine is the last elder speaker of Yuchi, which is a linguistic isolate that has no known relative among other Indigenous languages. It is notoriously difficult to learn, and there are few remaining native speakers. But, like her grandma, Maxine insists on passing it to the next generation.
“When you lose a language,” she has said, “you lose your songs, your culture, the things you used to do together as a family. My language keeps me going.”
At age 93, Maxine is golaha, or “grandma,” to some 50 children at the Yuchi Language Project, a non-profit organization where she has a crucial role bridging the gap between her generation of first-language speakers and the next. And it is happening – Maxine reports with joy that for the first time since she was a child, she is seeing young children speaking Yuchi as their first language.
Maxine moves about her daily work of reclaiming Yuchi culture with contagious enthusiasm. Still driving, Maxine makes her daily rounds in the small community she calls home.
Maxine leads the traditional naming practices so that children and others can carry a connection to their Yuchi identity. She teaches ancient stories about ceremonial songs, and has advised a youth production that brought the drama to life.
She creates curriculum materials and serves as a board member for the Yuchi Language Project. She even supplies the Yuchi voice for the childrens’ cartoon series.
Maxine serves as an advisor to the Yuchi three sisters garden project, demonstrating old methods for preparing traditional foods. She shares her knowledge of medicine practices, and most importantly, her understanding of the original Yuchi worldview.
She has been featured in National Geographic’s Vanishing Voices issue and in Cultural Survival, as well as other local and national Indigenous media.
The most important thing to Maxine is that she upholds her grandmother’s legacy to pass the Yuchi language and culture to the coming generations.
Please join me in celebrating Legacy Leader Maxine Wildcat Barnett.