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Press Release

Release Date: March 25, 2022
by Chickasaw Nation Media Relations Office

LOS ANGELES - Catherine Pickens Willmond would have celebrated a century of living March 9. Mrs. Willmond, a fluent Chickasaw speaker from Los Angeles, died Feb.27 at age 99. Mrs. Willmond moved to California in 1959 as part of the Indian Relocation Act.

Mrs. Willmond was instrumental in helping preserve the Chickasaw language with two books co-authored with a university professor.

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

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

She was born in McMillan, Oklahoma, in 1922 and lived a hard-knock 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 early life. There was no electricity or indoor plumbing.

The kitchen floor was dirt. Family meals were prepared atop a woodburning stove.

“Going to California in the late ‘50s was the best thing that could have happened to her,” Mrs. Bennett said. “She loved it there and she was able to pursue some of her dreams – particularly with language preservation – that she otherwise would have missed.

“I think when she left Oklahoma, she was never coming back. Life was just too hard for her. We all spoke Chickasaw and honestly, mother never learned to speak English well. She learned some English from her seven children. To this day, you would talk with her on the phone, and she’d say a sentence in English and then speak Chickasaw.”

The Indian Relocation Act was passed in 1956 and encouraged Indian citizens to leave reservations to acquire vocational skills and assimilate into the general population.

Mrs. Bennett remembers the government placed the nine-member family in a motel room with a kitchenette when they arrived in California.

“We lived there about a month before we were moved into a small home in Santa Fe Springs, and they had a job for my father, 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 his death, Mrs. Willmond became acquainted with Pam Munro, a University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) linguist. Mrs. Willmond’s minister, the Rev. Oliver B. Neal, introduced them because Mrs. Willmond spoke almost entirely Chickasaw.

“I think her minister recognized the fact Catherine was probably one of a handful of speakers in the area who could be considered essentially monolingual – speaking only Chickasaw,” Dr. Joshua D. Hinson (Lokosh), executive officer of the Chickasaw Nation Language Preservation Division said. “She learned some English while in California, and while she could communicate in English, she much prefer to speak her own language.”

A Chickasaw, Neal was pastor of a Methodist Church located in downtown Los Angeles, and many of his congregants spoke Chickasaw. He championed the language by phoning UCLA, urging Ms. Munro and her staff to visit the church and learn about 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 have spent more time with Catherine than I did with my own mother. She is the most wonderful person that I have ever worked with.

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

From their introduction, collaboration on the first dictionary consumed 17 years before it was ready for publication, the UCLA language expert recalled. Both Mrs. Willmond and Ms. Munro elicited the help of approximately 30 fluent Chickasaw speakers to complete it. Their efforts to produce the second instructive book – mostly consisting of grammar in the Chickasaw language – took an additional 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 her absolutely wonderful language from her. I have told lots and lots of people that Chickasaw is the world’s best language, and I still feel that way. And the only way I know about 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.

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

“If you are talking about a revitalization of the language and you’re walking into a classroom with brilliant teaching materials, a descriptive grammar (book) and a high-quality dictionary, we are primed for success. Many First American communities do not have any of these instructive elements,” he added. “(Mrs. Willmond’s) videos, recordings and texts will be positively affecting Chickasaws for generations.”