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Mary Louise Defender-Wilson

Oct. 14, 1930

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Native American storyteller Mary Louise Defender-Wilson grew up in a family of storytellers. After holding government administrative jobs and struggling with her identity, she returned to live with the Dakotah-Hidatsa people. 1999, photograph by Troyd Geist, courtesy North Dakota Council on the Arts
'Mary Louise Defender-Wilson is shown here offering a prayer in order to tell the story about this butte on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. She is teaching the story to Dakotah language speaker Thomasine Loans Arrow from Cannonball (on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota). Mary Louise and Thomasine received a North Dakota Council on the Arts Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program grant in 1998 to teach/learn traditional stories.' June 15, 1998, comments and photograph by Troyd Geist, courtesy North Dakota Council on the Arts
"Mary Louise Defender-Wilson at her home in Shields, North Dakota. Beside her is a rock that is said to be a woman who turned herself to stone. This stone, and three others, are related to a story about a woman who turned herself to stone." The story is featured on the 'The Elders Speak', co-produced by the North Dakota Council on the Arts and Makoche Recording Company. June 23, 1999, comments and photograph by Troyd Geist
'Mary Louise is shown here with Winona Flying Earth atop Double Woman Hill (Winyannumpa) west of Shields, North Dakota. Mary Louise received a North Dakota Council on the Arts Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program grant in 1986 to teach Winona traditional stories, such as the one related to this hill. Double Woman is a mythical being that is said to appear to people in dreams and who is associated with artistry, design and industriousness.'  December 16, 1986, comments and photograph by Troyd Geist, courtesy North Dakota Council on the Arts
'The story linked to this butte is about a Sioux woman who moved to the Southern Plains with her husband, who was from another tribe. The woman discovers that her husband is abusive, gambles too much, and does not take good care of his family. The woman escapes from him and travels many days in the cold. Close to freezing and starving, she is saved by a family of coyotes. They feed her, keep her warm. They show her how a family is supposed to be: playful, responsible, and loving. It is said that the coyotes and the woman lived in a cave in this butte.' June 15, 1998, comments and photograph by Troyd Geist, courtesy North Dakota Council on the Arts
'This is a 'writing rock' in southeastern North Dakota. The marks, figures and cupules are said to be petroglyphs with special meaning. Mary Louise Defender-Wilson is one of very few people who know the stories associated with this particular rock. In fact, she is recognized as a cultural authority with regard to the place names and environmentally-related stories tied to special buttes, unusual rocks, streams, and other geographic features found throughout the Midwest.' July 30, 1998, comments and photograph by Troyd Geist, courtesy North Dakota Council on the Arts
'Mary Louise Defender-Wilson is telling the story about Lesser Bear's Lodge (a pyramid-shaped hill in southeastern North Dakota) and about its opposite hill, Greater Bear Lodge, which is on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation. This presentation was given as part of the continuing education class 'Multicultural Traditions,' offered through North Dakota State University. The class' purpose is to educate teachers about the value and relevance of tradtional arts to education. The class is a week long and many traditional artists give presentations.' June 14, 1998, comments and photograph by Troyd Geist, courtesy North Dakota Council on the Arts
'Mary Louise Defender-Wilson is giving a storytelling presentation to a group of K-12 teachers.  She is telling the story about Lesser Bear's Lodge (a pyramid-shaped hill in southeastern North Dakota) and about its opposite hill, Greater Bear Lodge, which is on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation.' June 14, 1998, comments and photograph by Troyd Geist, courtesy North Dakota Council on the Arts
"Mary Louise Defender-Wilson often gives storytelling presentations to children in and out of schools. Sometimes they are formally sponsored, sometimes she volunteers. She is shown here working with children at the North Dakota School for the Deaf in Devils Lake, North Dakota." November 18, 1998, comments and photograph by Troyd Geist, courtesy North Dakota Council on the Arts
'For special artist-in-residence programs, Mary Louise Defender-Wilson sometimes travels with Standing Rock Woman. (Standing Rock Woman turned herself to stone because she loved nature and wanted to become a part of it.) This residency took place at the North Dakota School for the Deaf in Devils Lake, North Dakota. One of the interesting aspects about this residency was how to communicate with the children. Mary Louise is willing to try to overcome any obstacles to tell her stories to anybody who will listen respectfully.' November 18, 1998, comments and photograph by Troyd Geist, courtesy North Dakota Council on the Arts
Mary Louise Defender-Wilson is a living cultural repository of many rare, traditional stories. She shown here atop a hill near a rock considered special by the Dakotah, Sisseton, and Whapeton Sioux. August 1993, comments and photograph by Troyd Geist, courtesy North Dakota Council on the Arts
Mary Louise Defender-Wilson walking her dog, Hoksina, near her home in south central North Dakota, 2001, photograph by Dennis Gad, courtesy North Dakota Council on the Arts
Mary Louise Defender-Wilson giving an offering at the origin of Snake Creek north of Bismarck, North Dakota, 2001. This creek is related to a story about a Dakotah healer/medicine man who turned into a snake. At the spot where he turned into a snake, a creek was formed. And it is said that when people bring an offering in the spring of the year, the healer will help the person with whatever he asks. The story is featured in 'My Relatives Speak', a CD co-produced by the North Dakota Council on the Arts and Makoche Recording Company. Comments and photograph by Troyd Geist
Mary Louise at Medicine Rock in southwestern North Dakota. Certain rocks around the state are said to be places of power and are considered to be very special. People visit such rocks in search of answers to questions, prayers, and health. This rock is covered with glyphs of animal tracks like those of bison, deer, and elk and of actual representations of animals like turtles. Such places are also used in the obtainment of visions. Mary Louise knows the stories of many places like this. July 27, 1999, comments and photograph by Troyd Geist, courtesy North Dakota Council on the Arts

Mary Louise Defender-Wilson was born near the rural town of Shields, North Dakota, where she now lives on the Standing Rock (Sioux) Indian Reservation. She is primarily Dakotah Sioux, though a grandmother was Hidatsa. Her tribal name is Wagmuhawin -- Gourd Woman.

Defender-Wilson was born into a family of storytellers. The first story she remembers hearing was the tale of how the Dakotah culture hero Stone Boy was tricked out of his fancy clothes by Unktomi (Spider Man), a trickster figure. By the time she was in fifth grade, she was telling stories to her classmates. "Sometimes I got off the beaten path, but everyone laughed, especially at the Spider Man stories," she recalled.

"We lived in the country, away from town," she said. "At that time, we had no cars, but people still always came to visit. They traveled by wagon carrying their dishes and bedding with them, and they would be invited to spend the night. Stories were told then, according to the season."

The stories taught that people came to Earth in animal form and had a lot to learn in order to live in harmony with others. Many stories also related to the land. "We lived by gardening and as sheep herders," she said. "We would follow along with the Old Ones and the dogs who tended the sheep. We could walk all over the land. There were no fences, and Grandfather would tell us about the rock formations, hills, streams and buttes we came across." Double Woman Hill west of Shields, for instance, takes its name from a mythical being who appears in dreams and is linked to artistry, design, and industriousness.

Defender-Wilson's personal story is as compelling as the traditional tales she tells. A tall, physically attractive woman, she was once named Miss Indian America. She held administrative jobs with Indian-related government agencies and struggled with the issue of her identity. In 1976, she returned to the reservation, having realized that forcing herself to assimilate into white culture would be a form of suicide. For several years in the 1980s, she taught tribal culture and language at Fort Yates Community College.

She has taught Dakotah storytelling through the North Dakota Council on the Arts Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program, given lecture demonstrations throughout the region and educated teachers in Dakotah-Hidatsa storytelling and culture. She has produced a radio program to teach the Siouan language and to promote the intellectual value of traditional knowledge.

Defender-Wilson has been widely recognized for her accomplishments, serving as a board member for Arts Midwest, the North Dakota Council on the Arts, and the North Dakota Centennial Commission. For her, though, the reward is not the public recognition but knowing the value of her stories and teaching them to others. "The entire life I've come through so far with our stories has helped me relate to, communicate with, and respect other people because I relate to, communicate with, and respect my own culture." The power of stories, she said, illustrates that "history is always there- - you're standing there dragging all these things behind you."

Bibliography
Rosencrans, Kendra. "Native Indian People's Culture Therapeutic Aid." Jamestown (N. Dak.) Sun (July 17, 1991) 67: 14.
Voskuil, Vicki. "Gourd Woman." Bismarck (N. Dak.) Tribune (May 3, 1987), Section E.

Watch

Mary Louise Defender-Wilson, 1999 National Heritage Fellowship Concert, Washington, D.C., Courtesy National Endowment for the Arts

Listen

Mary Louise Defender Wilson and Francis Cree, 'Coyote's Den Hill,' The Elders Speak, 1999, Makoché Music

Mary Louise Defender Wilson and Francis Cree, 'The Powerful Lake,' The Elders Speak, 1999, Makoché Music

Mary Louise Defender Wilson and Francis Cree, 'The Spiderman and the Giant,' The Elders Speak, 1999, Makoché Music
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Mary Louise Defender Wilson and Francis Cree, 'The Woman Who Turned Herself to Stone,' The Elders Speak, 1999, Makoché Music