Dakotah/Hidatsa elder, storyteller, and traditionalist to be Elder-In-Residence

November 8, 2019 By Rebekah McBride
Photo: Mary Louise Defender Wilson

Mary Louise Defender Wilson Submitted photo

The University of Wisconsin–Madison will welcome nationally renowned Dakotah/Hidatsa elder, storyteller, and traditionalist Mary Louise Defender Wilson to campus the week of November 18-22.

The Elder-in-Residence program welcomes tribal leaders to campus to provide education and cultural exchanges. It’s part of a larger initiative to improve the experience of American Indian and Alaskan Native students attending UW–Madison.

Defender Wilson will participate in a number of private and public activities through the American Indian Studies program and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, which are lead partners for the program along with the Native Nations_UW Working Group, University Housing, the Division of Student Life, the Multicultural Student Center, and the School of Human Ecology.

Defender Wilson, a member of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation of North Dakota, has received several awards for Native American music and spoken word as well as the Arts National Heritage Award. During her time on campus, she will share her storytelling skills at a number of events including a lecture that is part of the series “Everyone’s Earth: Conversations on Race and Environment.” The talk will take place at 7 p.m. on Nov. 21 at DeJope Hall; it is free and open to the public.

“Ms. Defender Wilson has a long history of sharing traditional knowledge with the UW and Madison community as a storyteller at the Annual Evening of Storytelling, so it especially exciting to have her fill this new role as the Elder-in-Residence,” said Morgan Smallwood, office assistant for American Indian Studies. “She is a nationally renowned artist and community leader and draws on a long lineage of skilled storytellers in her family. She brings to campus a deep knowledge and understanding of traditional wisdom that students, faculty, and the broader community will surely benefit from hearing.”

Defender Wilson is the third elder to visit campus, joining Menominee Nation member, UW–Madison alumna, and nationally recognized social worker Ada Deer and Oneida Tribal Judge Leland Wigg Ninham.

As this program has grown, the university has sought additional ways to strengthen its partnerships with Tribal Nations. Efforts include the recent dedication of the Our Shared Future Heritage Marker, which acknowledges campus land as the ancestral home of the Ho-Chunk, and the new research cluster hire that focuses on Native American environment, community, and health. The university also hosted a Native Nations_UW Leadership Summit in 2019 to discuss partnerships and new program ideas including the addition of cultural responsiveness training for faculty, staff, and administrators. Overall, the goal is to continue to bring crucial cultural resources to campus to support Native students.

“Elders are recognized as keepers of wisdom, knowledge, culture and stories and are highly respected in their communities,” said Larry Nesper, director of American Indian Studies. “In an effort to improve the experience of Native students on campus, elders will spend time with Native students at a feast. They attend a class or two. They meet with Wunk Sheek and the Mad Town Singers and other Native student groups. They also meet with students one-on-one in the context of office hours that they keep a couple of hours a day. We encourage Native students to spend some time with Mary Louise Defender Wilson and thank her for her willingness to serve in this capacity.”