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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


April 19, 2003 - Issue 85


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Mary Louise Defender Wilson
Dakota-Hidatsa Traditionalist/Storyteller, Shields, North Dakota

credits: Makoche Records

Mary Louise Defender Wilson"History is always there -- you're standing there dragging all these things behind you." At least two lessons might be drawn from this saying. First, each of us is in part a composite of our past -- the family members who influenced us, our culture, our environment -- and some of our greatest treasures are our memories and the lessons they hold for us. Second, we should keep in mind that the past we create now will be our most important legacy for our children to "drag behind them." Native American storytelling is much more than a pastime. It is a social institution, an "oral university" that teaches people young and old how to be "human" -- that is, how to function in society. Traditional repertoires of tales embody systems of belief and principles of personal behavior that are as relevant today as they were in centuries past. Dakota-Hidatsa American Indian storyteller Mary Louise Defender Wilson knows well the value of her people's stories, and she has devoted her life to learning them and telling them.

A member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, Ms. Defender Wilson was born in 1930 near where she now lives in the rural town of Shields, North Dakota, with a population of nine people. Her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother were all midwives and storytellers, as were several other women around her. In her youthful travels with her midwife mother, her mother would elaborate on the birds, plants, and animals they saw along the way, and she would explain the social relationships of the people they were visiting. Stories that relate to the land have special meaning for her. She relates, "We lived by gardening and as sheep herders. 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." A story about a rock near [Fort] Ransom, North Dakota, for example, tells how it is the remains of a woman who turned herself to stone, promoting respect for the environment. A butte near Glencross, South Dakota is tied to a story about a woman who lived with a family of coyotes, teaching lessons about how humans should treat one another. A story about [Greater] Bear's Lodge butte in North Dakota alludes to the creation story of the Dakota people, linking those in the present to their ancestral past. Such knowledge and experience lend a depth of understanding and meaning to her stories, making them rich encapsulations of traditional knowledge.

Mary Louise Defender WilsonMs. Defender Wilson's concern for her storytelling tradition and her people continues to grow. She seeks out elderly storytellers to expand her legacy to future generations. She has taught Dakota storytelling through the North Dakota Council on the Arts' Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program, gives lecture demonstrations throughout the region, and trains teachers in [American] Indian storytelling and culture. Her activism even extends much further. She hosts a radio program on legends and historical accounts in the Siouan language, promotes the intellectual value of traditional knowledge, and has often taken strong stands in favor of keeping tradition. She has been 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, it is knowing the value of her stories and teaching them to others. She explains, "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."

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