Mary Louise Defender Wilson, also known by her Dakotah name, Wagmuhawin (wha’ gmoo ha wi’), which means Gourd Woman, was born in 1930 on the Standing Rock (Sioux) Indian Reservation of North Dakota. She has spent a lifetime telling stories and performing songs and dances about the life, land, and legends of the Dakotah and Hidatsa people, who are among the various tribes of the Great Sioux Nation.
Mary Louise first learned the ways of her people at home, where her family told her traditional stories about the world around them. Until she started school at age eight and later during summer vacations, she followed her grandfather, Tall Man See the Bear, while he herded sheep. He knew the land well and took her to many places mentioned in the stories. Mary Louise remembers there were no fences, so they could walk all over the land. Her grandfather told her about the rock formations, streams, and buttes they came across.
Mary Louise also accompanied her mother, who was a midwife, on her house calls. The Dakotah believe that The Spirit enters a human being at the first breath and remains with them until death. Since her mother was respected and called on to help The Spirit enter a baby, she was also called on to provide comfort and ease when The Spirit left a person at death. During these trips, Mary Louise saw the countryside and her mother would tell stories about the plants, birds, and animals they saw on their travels.
Through these experiences, Mary Louise realized that everything around her has a history and that language, stories, culture, and learning are connected. She retained so much of her learning and developed such a passion for storytelling that she began repeating stories to her classmates. From fifth grade on, she was known as the class storyteller. She loved to tell her classmates trickster tales and stories about the landscape around them.
Throughout Mary Louise’s professional life as a teacher and later as director of cultural, political, and health care organizations, she has continued to share her gift, telling Dakotah and Hidatsa stories to Native people and non-Native people around the country.
Learn more about Mary Louise Defender Wilson by reading the transcript of her Local Learning Interview.