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
"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,"
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.