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January 4, 2014

Last monolingual speaker of the Chickasaw language dies in Oklahoma at age 93

Ada — OKLAHOMA CITY — Emily Johnson Dickerson, the last remaining monolingual speaker of the Native American language of Chickasaw, has died. She was 93.

The Chickasaw Nation said Friday that Dickerson died at her Ada home on Monday. Her son, Carlin Thompson, told The Associated Press that his mother’s health had started to deteriorate after she fell and broke her hip a few months ago. Funeral services will be held Saturday. Burial will be at the Steedman Cemetery, near Kullihoma ceremonial grounds on Chickasaw Nation land.

Dickerson spoke only the Chickasaw language her entire life, and she was the last monolingual speaker of the Chickasaw language. She was also one of only an estimated 70 fluent speakers of the Chickasaw language left.

“She was a rare type of Chickasaw Indian, a rare person, actually,” Thompson, 60, said.

Born with the Chickasaw name of Shonsh-she, her official date of birth is Feb. 22, 1920, though Thompson said family members believe she was actually two years older. She was given the Anglo name of Emily Johnson Dickerson and grew up dirt poor in Oklahoma picking cotton and pecans to sell. She married in 1968 and became a homemaker and mother, raising children who spoke only Chickasaw until they attended school and learned English.

A resourceful woman, she would buy sacks of flour and turn the bags into clothing for her children, Thompson said.

Though she couldn’t read or write the Chickasaw language, her knowledge of the spoken word was unparalleled. While many of today’s Chickasaw speakers tend to speak a hybrid of that language and Choctaw, Dickerson was true to the Muskogean language’s roots, Thompson said.

Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby said in a statement that she was an “unequalled source of knowledge about our language and culture.” Thompson said his mother was also very knowledgeable about the tribe’s dancing and burial customs and had a keen interest in herbs as a healing remedy — in her more than 90 years of life she never once took an aspirin, he said.

Joshua Hinson, director of the Chickasaw Nation Language Department, said in a statement that Dickerson’s death was going to have a profound effect on the 55,000-member tribe based in south-central Oklahoma.

“I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the loss and what this means to the Chickasaw Nation,” he said.

 

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