North Dakota storyteller receives major artistic honor

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.

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Alaska Native News: Native Americans Work to Save Language

An excerpt: FORT YATES, NORTH DAKOTA—One evening a week, young and old gather in Michael Moore’s classroom in Fort Yates, North Dakota, to learn Lakota — the language of their Sioux tribal ancestors.

For many of the students here at Sitting Bull College, it’s a tongue their great grandparents spoke fluently at home.

But that changed in the early 1900’s, when thousands of Native American children were sent to boarding schools where they were told to assimilate, learn English and forget all aspects of their native culture.

Gabe Black Moon, who co-teaches Lakota with Moore, remembered his time at one such school.

“The government punished [us for speaking] our language, and I’ve seen that happen. It happened to me,” he said. “Day one, I went to school, I couldn’t speak English. I got punished pretty bad.”

Presidential recognition

Renewed efforts to preserve Lakota for future generations received national recognition earlier this year when President Barack Obama visited Standing Rock Native American Reservation, where he praised Sioux tribal leaders’ for revitalizing the endangered tongue.

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