The country’s largest mural features a Native American pageant winner, formerly held in Sheridan
The title holder of a long-time Native American pageant held in Sheridan is being honored as one of several faces on the country’s largest mural in Toledo, OH. Mary Louise Defender-Wilson of the Dakotah/Hidatsa tribe in the Dakotas, was crowned Miss Indian America at the first pageant in 1953 and is the pageant’s oldest living title holder.
The Miss Indian America Pageant started in 1953 by Donald Deernose and Howard Sinclair, also known as Neck-Yoke Jones, a noted writer and Sheridan resident. It was held at the Sheridan WYO Rodeo grounds until 1978, when it was hosted at other locations, including at a local baseball park, due to a general lack of finances and interest from locals, but not from the Native American community. After the final Sheridan-based pageant was held in 1984, it was relocated to Bismarck, N.D. for an additional five years until it was discontinued.
“In modern day pageant lore, and whatever they do have platforms that they are espousing, but this pageant Miss Indian America started from that advocacy work of bridging the gap between the different races of people,” said deana harragarra waters, a member of the Kiowa tribe and Miss Indian America 1975.
The mural that Defender-Wilson is included in, who is now 92, is being painted by several artists on approximately 170,000 square feet of 28 grain silos along the Maumee River near downtown Toledo. It also includes large sunflowers and the faces of Native American women and children from several tribes in the Midwest that represent the connection to the original agriculturalists of that region. Defender-Wilson was selected by Gabe Gault, one of the artists of the site, which in turn was selected by the Glass City River Wall's steering committee after a historic marker was discovered there commemorating it as the site of a former Native American fortification.
“That kind of started speaking to us as far as if we were going to celebrate our past, present and future, which is kind of the overarching image that we had to commemorate the first farmers, the first economic developers, the first people that lived in that region, we had to somehow incorporate a Native American component,” said Christina Kasper, project manager for the Glass City River Wall. “The reason that Mary Louise Defender-Wilson was chosen to be the elder imagery, image for the elder is literally because Gabe [Gault, a Los Angeles-based artist who designed the mural] was looking through, just looking for some imagery and he came across a photograph of her and was just stopped dead in his tracks. And he was like, ‘This is exactly what I was looking for.’”
The photo that Gault came across was taken by Rev. Don Doll, a Jesuit priest, who was known for photographing Native Americans and others over his decades long pastoral career. Kasper said he allowed for the photo to be used with the permission of Defender-Wilson, who agreed. The other images were obtained through a contact with the Miami tribe of Oklahoma.
While harragarra waters doesn’t believe the pageant will be revived, she said there’s renewed interest in it. Miss Indian America Collective has continued the pageant’s mission and is active in the community. Part of this interest was a tree planting ceremony that took place this summer at the Kendrick Mansion Arboretum as a living tribute to Miss Indian America and All-American Indian Days, which were also held during the same years at the pageant. Six trees were planted and more are planned in the future.
“We could think of no better art than a tree and no better artists than God, and so that's why we went with the trees,” she said. “It was such a beautiful message that he gave [Leonard Bends, grandson of Donald Deernose] just to the small group that was there, there were not a huge number. We didn't intend it to be big, but I just knew I wanted to be there when we planted that first tree and he spoke about the area and how appropriate it was to remember the work of All- American Indian Days, and what a good thing that it was and how this site that we were given overlooks and it shows all of the peoples who have come through this part of the country, not just the Indian people but the travelers and the settlers and everyone who came.”
The mural is being completed in two phases. The first phase, which included its painting, is officially complete. The second phase consists of installing lighting and creating a viewing space for it, which is where the project currently is at. The budget of the project is around $1.2 million, which was an increase from an initial $750,000, all of which was donated. This includes projected future maintenance costs. The mural was formally dedicated on Oct. 14 which included many Native American attendees. Lighting is now being installed and a park is planned as well that overlooks the mural.
“This was a really good reminder that we kind of forgot that we all belong to each other, and that somehow we're all intrinsically connected,” Kasper said. “We kind of lost a little bit of that, at least from my perspective, and so this is a really good space for certainly our entire team and everybody else to [create this] really beautiful reminder.”