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Mary Louise Defender Wilson


Mary Louise Defender didn’t win the title of Miss Indian America by wearing the perfect bathing suit or a flashy evening gown. Instead, she competed against 75 other Native American women garbed in a buckskin dress, with matching buckskin leggings and moccasins, clothing traditional to her tribe. Not a single sequin was present at this beauty pageant.

In August of 1954, forty tribes gathered in Sheridan, Wyoming to celebrate “All American Indian Days,” which was two days of “sports contests, dance exhibitions and pageantry”. Among these tribes were a large number of representatives from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, and among these representatives from the Standing Rock Reservation was Mary Louise Defender, who was declared Miss Indian America of 1954 at the conclusion of this two day celebration. Mary Louise came home to North Dakota with a national title, and news that North Dakota would have double the representatives at that year’s Miss America pageant; Miss Indian America had been invited to the competition to represent All American Indian tribes and of course, her home state.

Atlantic City, New Jersey was graced with the most beautiful women in the country from September 6th through 12th in 1954, and among the beauties present in this east coast city was Mary Louise Defender, who was assigned a car and driver, and presented at the Miss America Pageant. This young woman, who was born and raised in a small North Dakota town, suddenly found her photo appearing on the covers of newspaper from coast to coast.

On this date in 1954, the Valley City Times Record printed a photo of Miss Indian America, a beautiful young woman who hailed from Fort Yates, North Dakota. The 23-year-old Mary Louise Defender was pictured in the Valley City newspaper wearing traditional tribal dress, and sitting comfortably below the headline “Indian Beauty Here,” which served as a declaration of Defender’s visit to the city.

Years passed, and new Miss Indian Americas were named, but still Mary Louise Defender has stayed close to North Dakota and her culture. She is now Mary Louise Defender Wilson, is a Dakotah/Hidatsa storyteller and elder and continues to call the Standing Rock Indian Reservation home.

Mary Louise grew up surrounded by a family of storytellers and traditionalists, and was raised speaking Dakotah and Hidatsa. After hearing the stories all her life, especially from her grandfather, Mary Louise Defender Wilson now tells the stories professionally. She has recorded several CDs that feature stories involving “mythical heroes, animals...and plants,” but she is especially known for her stories “that relate to animals as teachers of the Human condition.”

Although Mary Louise’s stories have been told for many generations, she believes that the stories are just as relevant today as they were when they were first told, and that each generation learns something new from these stories.

When Mary Louise Defender Wilson speaks publically, she relays her stories in English, but mixes in the occasional Dakotah words to remind her audience where the stories came from. They came from a home that spoke Dakotah, and once housed Miss Indian America who is now helping to preserve her culture through storytelling.

By Ann Erling


“Valley City Times Record”

Nov. 13, 1954

“Sioux County Pioneer Arrow”

August 20, 1954

September 3, 1954

September 9, 1954

“North Dakota Council on the Arts”

“Wisdom of the Elders Biographies”