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Native American Storyteller Receives Artistic Honor


A Native American storyteller from North Dakota has won a United States Artists Fellowship, an honor that comes with $50,000. Mary Louise Defender Wilson from the Standing Rock Reservation is 85 years old. She is the first North Dakotan to receive the award and the first storyteller. She joins us on the line from her home in Porcupine Village, N.D. Thanks so much for being with us.

MARY LOUISE DEFENDER WILSON: Well, thank you so very much for having me on your program.

SIMON: Were you surprised to hear this?

WILSON: I was very surprised that I was selected at my (laughter) age because, you know, I've been very fortunate. I've received a number of awards in my life, and I thought, well, those days are gone now, but I am grateful for all the recognition I've had in my long life. And here, when I hit 85, well, then I got a national award, so it just kind of brought tears to my eyes, you know.

SIMON: Yeah. You tell stories in the Dakota and Hidatsa languages?

WILSON: No, just the Dakota language. That was - my mother was a Dakota woman, so you know how we are. We are our mother's children, so that is the native language that I speak.

SIMON: How many other people still speak it?

WILSON: Not very many. And I think that is what is very, very tragic. I know that people, you know, come forth and they're going to teach the language, but they've never involved - at least on Standing Rock - they've not involved those of us who are - who grew up in the language. I think when you live in a language, you live with a different view of life, a different philosophy.

But the fluent speakers on my reservation have not been involved in the teaching of the language. This is why when I do get the fellowship, which I won't get until January, that I thought that I would talk to the fluent speakers here that I know and, as much as I can, the other reservations.

SIMON: Can I hear a few lines in Dakota?

WILSON: (Speaking Dakota).

SIMON: Mary Louise Defender Wilson told us that this story was something that happened to her. It's about the buffalo, an animal that's been vitally important to her people and to America. In this story, she says her community needed to shoot a bull for meat. He's with the cows. They need to move him away from the herd. She approaches the bull and tells him a story.

Man came to the surface of the earth. Man had no idea how difficult life would be. People were ready to give up and become extinct, but the buffalo came forward to say we're related to you, so we will help you. And the buffalo provided food and skins for shelter, and man was saved. Then Mary Louise sang a song to the bull.

WILSON: (Singing in Dakota). And he left the cows, and he went toward the north, and he stood there all by himself. So then they went with the gun and shot him.


WILSON: So we butchered him, and of course, we had buffalo to eat. But that's a modern story. There are other modern stories like that. Those are the ones that I would like to have the fluent speakers tell and to record them and have them available for any of our people and others who want to hear our language and what this buffalo means to us.

SIMON: Mary Louise Defender Wilson, she's just won a United States Artists Fellowship. Thanks so much for being with us.

WILSON: Well, thank you very much for letting me tell my story on your program. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.