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Generous spirit: Mary John works to connect the Native community

In her mind, Mary John can still trace the cracks in the ceiling of the tiny wood home where she spent the first six years of her life.

Though belying a life of poverty, they also formed captivating shapes in the imagination of the girl called "Nonie," or Winona for "firstborn daughter" in Dakota.

To this day, those lines remain vivid, connecting Mary to that precious time with her grandparents, Henry and Agnes Longie, on the Fort Totten Indian Reservation in the late 1950s.

"I remember lying there in bed and hearing my grandma and grandpa talking Indian in the other room," said the 53-year-old Moorhead woman. "You could smell the coffee and hear the stove popping, and it was just so good to wake up to that and the sounds of the meadowlarks. Even though we were poor, we were happy."

Their closest neighbors were several miles away, but relatives stopped by frequently. The kids would play softball and other outdoor games. In the wintertime they'd go sledding.

"We didn't have sleds but we had old car hoods and we'd all pile in that and come down the hill," Mary said. "There are things that you just have to make do with, and we didn't know any better anyway."

She remembers her grandmother dripping with sweat from cooking, and her grandfather chopping wood or working in the field or vegetable garden.

To help them, she and her young uncle, Jimmy Boy, would go outside with buckets fashioned from empty oatmeal containers to collect June berries for pie or pudding.

Wasna, a patty made of crushed berries and meat bound by cornmeal, was another of her grandmother's specialties. "She'd have us kids go on top of the house and set them out to dry in the sun," Mary said.

Frybread and bapa - dried meat similar to jerky - added further In 1959, Mary was once again tracing lines above her, this time telephone lines leading to Fargo, where her mother and her new "white" husband lived.

Her grandparents and uncle soon followed, inhabiting the other half of their duplex.

Stepping inside the house of her stepfather, Howard Graffis, for the first time was shocking. Its electricity, running water, modern stove and television made Mary conclude he was rich, but she soon realized these were basic for city life.

Houses that seemed squished together also made an impression, and because fences don't exist within the Native culture, property lines were a new concept.

"I learned quickly about boundaries, that you should never go in someone's yard and play with their toys," she said. "And I was used to people coming and going, laughing and talking, but nobody talked to each other."

Culture shock

Mary's mother, Maridelia, enrolled her in Catholic school in Fargo. Immediately, she sensed her differentness.

Often, she and Jimmy would be grouped with Native children from the nearby St. John's Orphanage. Other kids often would pick fights and call them names.

Just as troubling were depictions in history books labeling American Indians "little devils" or "cutthroats." When she would share these things with her grandparents, tears streaming down, they'd cry too, uncertain how else to respond.

Mary's grandfather eventually turned to alcohol, she said, like so many others who couldn't cope. Her grandmother died when she was 13 - a profound loss to Mary.

By the time she entered Shanley High School, Mary was the only Native student. She swept floors and cleaned blackboards to help offset tuition. "That made me feel even more 'less than,' " she said.

And at 17, Mary witnessed the drowning death of Jimmy, who'd been like a brother. Four months later, her mother died, leaving her and her stepfather to care for her younger siblings, Beth, 14, Beatrice, 8, and Gerald Howard, 4.

"He took us as his own," she said of the man she calls Dad, who died of cancer in 1992.

Life's twists, turns

After graduation, Mary became engaged and enrolled in a two-year business college in Wahpeton. Though her summer boss had offered to finance her tuition at a four-year university, she didn't feel worthy or smart enough.

Throughout her career, she always landed solid, mostly office-related jobs. Her life course seemed set.

Then, at 32, Mary began experiencing some confusing health issues. Several tests showed she wasn't pregnant, but she kept returning to her doctor, insisting something was wrong. He gave her a pill to stimulate menstruation but it didn't work. Finally, an ultrasound was ordered.

Mary left her receptionist job that afternoon and never returned. She was not only six months pregnant but needed to be carefully monitored. Her son, Kevin, was born prematurely a few months later, weighing nearly 10 pounds.

"There were all these little incubators and all these babies - they were so tiny," she said of visiting the neonatal intensive care unit the first time. "And there was a big, chubby baby with a bunch of black hair sticking up and I said, 'That's mine!'"

She gave him the Indian name of Wichapi Luta, or "Red Star."

Her early years as a mother weren't easy. Due to lack of resources, Kevin slept in a box for a time, and nurses at his checkups noted his "floppy" appearance. He was eventually diagnosed with autism.

Mary also divorced his father. But Kevin's presence in her life nudged her to try new things.

When he was 9 months old she began working at a local hospital, and when Kevin was 4, she began studying at Minnesota State University Moorhead. "I had my little boy with me and that was who I wanted to do things for, because I wanted him to have a good life."

After many stops and starts, Mary obtained her bachelor's degree six years later in American history with a Native American studies minor.

Finding her true self

Though Mary has sought to peacefully traverse the two worlds that surround her, helping others do the same has become a mission in recent years.

Tanya Red Road, 37, is among those who has benefited from Mary's generosity and compassion. A member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, at one point she found herself homeless in Fargo-Moorhead.

After becoming self-sufficient again, Mary helped her stay solid. Tanya now thinks of Mary as an "auntie."

The two officially met through an area networking group for Native women called Daughters of the Earth, which Mary helped found. As creator of the group's newsletter, "4D" for Four Directions, Mary recognized Tanya's skills and encouraged her to start writing for the publication.

"She's my idol," Tanya said. "She told me I remind her of her when she was younger, in how I'm always wanting to make sure there's something for our Native people to do and be involved in."

But Mary is first to admit she's a late bloomer when it comes to appreciating her Native heritage. It wasn't until her 30s that she began reaching out to the local Native community.

At one point, she was helping plan a powwow and had been summoned to access fringe for dance shawls and a buffalo for food. "I didn't know about being Indian because I hadn't grown up like that," Mary said.

Her quest set her on a trip back to Fort Totten - or Spirit Lake - where she met the tribal medicine man and his wife, Ambrose and Anna Littleghost.

They quickly enamored her with their warmth and wisdom. "I gave him the tobacco and Anna gave me some grapes and a sandwich and some tea," Mary said. While the two shared about their Indian ways, she sat in rapt attention.

Finally, it was time to approach the tribal chairman, her uncle, about the buffalo.

By the time she returned to Fargo, Mary had all the requested supplies - and a transformed heart. She began taking part in monthly sweat-lodge ceremonies, an experience she likened to talking straight to God.

Mahpia Hoto Mani Wiyan, or "Woman of the Heavens," had discovered her true self.

Unfortunate events

In the late 1990s, several health issues arose that created hardship for Mary. Complications from diabetes had led to vision loss and congestive heart failure. She also underwent a full mastectomy for breast cancer, as well as kidney and pancreas transplants.

"That was the hardest time of my whole life. I couldn't care for Kevin anymore," she said, noting the excruciating decision to place him in a group home.

Upon recovery, the two reunited, and Kevin stayed near until his death from cancer last June at age 26. "He was the greatest gift our Creator gave me," Mary said. "I miss him, but know he's free now and I'll see him again."

Despite her suffering - or perhaps because of it - Mary possesses a rare depth of spirit.

Her friend and colleague, Olivia Melroe, a psychology professor, calls her "one strong Dakota woman," a dynamic person with a generous nature who has the ability to inspire people of all ages.

"In the group that's gathering with her, there's always laughter; the kind that women enjoy, that holding-your-sides laughter," Melroe said. "And on the other side of that, she has an ability to address serious issues and inspire people - to work to correct racism and some of the disparaging aspects of life, and trying to find one's way in an urban Indian setting."

Mary has made a tremendous impact on the community, Melroe added, especially on those who arrive here from reservations seeking resources in healthcare, education or employment.

Her efforts have been recognized by the National Administration on Aging for her work with elders, and the city of Fargo's Native American Commission, which honored Mary for her community service. A documentary she produced, "All My Relatives," was awarded Best Feature Film at the Fargo Film Festival in 2002.

But to those she's mentored, no award can aptly convey their gratitude.

Feeling particularly burdened about a situation one evening, Tanya said she decided to take a risk and called Mary around midnight. Two hours and plenty of advice later, she couldn't remember the issue that had prompted the call.

"I was like, OK, I'm good. I just needed to talk to her and get her perspective," Tanya said. "And that's when you know someone is more than just a mentor."

If you go

What: Woodlands and High Plains 23rd Annual Powwow 2012

When: dance and drum registration 11 to 1 p.m. Saturday; doors open to public from 12:30 to 10 p.m.; grand entries from 1 and 7 p.m.

Where: North Dakota State University Bison Sports Arena, 1600 N. University Dr., Fargo

Info: Cost: $3 adults (19-54), $2 youth (6-18); children 5 and under and seniors 55 and up free; Area college students free with student ID