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North Dakota Storyteller Receives Major Artistic Honor
by Tracy Frank - INFORUM

Mary Louise Defender Wilson is a Dakotah and Hidatsa traditionalist and storyteller, who has received a $50,000 United States Artists fellowship. Photo courtesy Troyd Geist, North Dakota Council on the Arts.

FLASHER, N.D. – Mary Louise Defender Wilson has received many honors and awards in her 85 years.

But the Dakotah and Hidatsa traditionalist and storyteller said she was surprised to learn she had received a $50,000 United States Artists fellowship, one of the most prestigious arts fellowships in the country.

"Honors and recognition have been a part of my life, and those are the blessings for my efforts," she said. "It was my thinking that there would not be any more, and I was grateful for the past honors. It was a wonderful surprise to receive the phone call from Meg Leary of the USA office that I was named a fellow. I never thought that I would be honored in my 85th year, and I cried tears of joy."

Defender Wilson is the first North Dakotan to receive the fellowship and the first person in the nation to receive it in storytelling, said Troyd Geist, folklorist with the North Dakota Council on the Arts.

"Mary Louise is a North Dakota treasure and with her most recent recognition is solidified as a national treasure," he said.

As a young child growing up on the Standing Rock reservation, she would walk with her grandfather See the Bear to herd sheep, and he would tell her stories about places, plants and animals in the Wicheyena dialect of the Dakotah Sioux language.

"The stories I tell, I first heard them in the language of the people," she said. "It has been my thinking that I have to do something to honor him and the others who told me the stories."

Defender Wilson, of Flasher, N.D., plans to use the fellowship money to preserve native dialects by visiting Dakotah and Lakotah Sioux communities where Wicheyena, Isanti and Teton are spoken to record buffalo stories in those languages.

"The practices in the past of curbing speaking the language resulted in very few speakers today who lived in the language as babies and children," she said. "But there are still some, and as an honor to my own ancestors and the people, the original language should be heard and the few fluent speakers should be heard."

Defender Wilson does not yet know if she'll record the stories on video or audio, but she plans to make the recordings available to people who want to hear the language in its full fluency.

"There is a philosophy of life reflected in our spoken language in its traditional form, and this is being disrespected," she said.

She may translate the recordings, but she wants the dialect to be the primary focus, and she said the old language can be difficult to translate into English.

Defender Wilson has told her stories throughout the United States and abroad, including at the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. The project is her way of thanking the people who first told her the stories, she said.

"I've been lucky," she said. "I've received a number of awards for the stories that I tell, and I always think I got those from my own people who went through a lot of difficulties and hardship, and I haven't really done anything to say thank you to them publicly," she said.

Some of the awards she has received over the years include the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship, a Bush Artist Fellowship, an honorary Doctor of Leadership degree from the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota Governor's Award for the Arts and Best Spoken Word awards from the Native American Music Awards for each of her three storytelling CDs.

In September, the Daughters of the American Revolution gave her its Women in American History Award.

"The stories she tells speak to the human experience," Geist said. "Those ancient narratives continue today because they are just as relevant now as they were in centuries past — love and hatred, joy and sadness, unity and separation, peace and violence, truth and the desire to be better human beings."

Defender Wilson did not apply for the fellowship, but was nominated by another artist. More than 400 artists were nominated in a variety of categories, and United States Artists awarded 37 fellowships.

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