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It Makes Sense to UsCultural Identity in Local Legends of Place

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Abstract

In recent years, there has been a surge of interest in the role of narrative in constructing culture, deriving from scholarship in anthropology, geography, folklore, and communication studies. In this article, the author uses popular folk legends, collected in one state, to bring together some of this interdisciplinary scholarship on the central role of narrative in everyday life. In particular, the author focuses on how these shared narratives serve culturally to construct a sense of place and, with that, a sense of cultural identity that includes some people while excluding others.
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Ethnography
Journal of Contemporary
DOI: 10.1177/089124102236541
2002; 31; 519 Journal of Contemporary Ethnography
S. ELIZABETH BIRD
It Makes Sense to Us: Cultural Identity in Local Legends of Place
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10.1177/089124102236541JOURNALOF CONTEMPORARYETHNOGRAPHY /OCTOBER 2002Bird/ CULTURALIDENTITY INLOCAL LEGENDSOF PLACE
IT MAKES SENSE TO US
Cultural Identity in
Local Legends of Place
S. ELIZABETH BIRD
University of South Florida
519
S. ELIZABETH BIRD is a professor in the Depart-
ment of Anthropology, University of South Florida,
where she teaches visual anthropology, folklore, and
media studies. She is the author of numerous publica-
tions in the fields of folklore, media, and cultural
studies.
Local
narratives tell us
less about
‘history’ and more
about how people
construct their
sense of place and
cultural
identity.
Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Vol. 31 No. 5, October 2002 519-547
DOI: 10.1177/089124102236541
© 2002 Sage Publications
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In recent years, there has been a surge of interest in the role of narrative
in constructing culture, deriving from scholarship in anthropology,
geography, folklore, and communication studies. In this article, the
author uses popular folk legends, collected in one state, to bring together
some of this interdisciplinary scholarship on the central role of narrative
in everyday life. In particular, the author focuses on how these shared
narratives serve culturally to construct a sense of place and, with that, a
sense of cultural identity that includes some people while excluding
others.
INTRODUCTION: THE STORIES
We begin with a place. It is not a city, or even a home, but a bridge.
Not all bridges are really “places, but this one has a name, the “High
Bridge, and it has a story. And as Frake (1996) suggested, “Places
come into being out of spaces by being named” (p. 235). This bridge, on
the outskirts of Stillwater, Minnesota, crosses the St. Croix River,
between Minnesota and Wisconsin. Everyone in Stillwater knows the
High Bridge, and most can tell you a story. These are three of them:
Well, it was built at the height of Stillwater’s glory days—when more
logs came through here than any town in America. Stillwater was some-
thing back then. Still is, mind you, it’s a good place.
You know, it was designed by the architect who built the Eiffel Tower—
that’s how important Stillwater was back then. Sort of out of place now,
but it reminds us.
It was supposedly built around the turn of the century. During World War
I it was used in transporting ammunition from the Twin Cities to out East
somewhere. In case of sabotage (from whom I was never told) the rail-
road company that owned the bridge had a night watchman hired on with
the task of keeping the bridge secure. During a dark and rainy night, in
the middle of summer, the night watchman started his hourly inspection
of the bridge. Upon reaching the middle of the span (between Minnesota
and Wisconsin) he happened to get caught on the bridge while an
520 JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY ETHNOGRAPHY / OCTOBER 2002
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The author wishes to thank the Minnesota Historical Society for a grant that
facilitated travel to sites in Minnesota and the Center for Urban and Regional Research, Univer
-
sity of Minnesota, Duluth, for a matching grant. The author also acknowledges the invaluable help
of David Woodward, graduate research assistant on the project, and thanks Rob Benford and three
anonymous reviewers for helpful suggestions.
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ammunition train was crossing. In the ensuing ruckus that the train and
the high winds made, the night watchman fell from the bridge to his
death. The story goes on to say that the night watchman’s ghost walks
across the bridge on the midsummer anniversary of his death. The ghost
apparently carries a green lantern to light his way on his eternal trip
across the bridge. Those unfortunate individuals who see this green light
apparently end up dead the day after seeing it.
For each of these local people, the High Bridge has a story, a narra-
tive that brings this place to life and that gives identity both to the place
itself and to the people who tell the tale. In this article, I explore stories
like these—narratives of place that are shared among people about spe-
cific geographical locations. My central purpose is not description per
se but interpretation. What is the role of cultural narratives in helping
people define and culturally construct place? And how does this con-
struction of place contribute to a sense of cultural identity?
THE IMPORTANCE OF NARRATIVE
Narrative has become the focus of much interdisciplinary atten-
tion—the study of personal narratives has come to the forefront in inter-
personal communication, oral history has enjoyed a renaissance, and
the life history has long been an important component of ethnographic
research. Local legends and traditions have tended to be the province of
the folklorist, whose strengths have been in collecting and classifying
narratives or in analyzing the history and meaning of individual local
legends, largely from a social psychological or performance perspec-
tive. Meanwhile, cultural geographers have turned their attention in
recent years to the ways in which place is culturally constructed through
human interaction, work led by Harvey (e.g., 1989). The resurgence of
interdisciplinary interest in narrative is summarized concisely by
Somers (1997): “These new views posit that it is through narrativity that
we come to know, understand, and make sense of the social world, and
through which we constitute our social identities” (p. 83). Thus, we
might examine narratives of every kind, from personal experience sto-
ries to the stories created by ethnographers or historians, using these
stories to understand how individuals and groups of people construct
reality. This is not to say that all types of narratives help us understand
the same things—“official” historical narratives will give insights
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different from family tales—but all narratives depend on “selective
appropriation” of facts, incidents, descriptions, and so on to create par-
ticular kinds of cultural constructions.
My intention here is to use some of the traditional narratives of one
state, Minnesota, to attempt an interpretation of what often seem out-
landish and fanciful stories and to locate them in both spatial and cul-
tural context. As an anthropologist and folklorist, I am less interested in
personal narratives than I am in shared narratives—tales that are known
by people who share some kind of cultural marker in common, be it
geographical location, age, ethnicity, or a combination of these
(Stevens 1990). As Bruner (1984) wrote, stories bear the imprint of the
individual yet are important windows into the shared world views of
any culture or subculture: “We know that stories must be seen as rooted
in society and as experienced and performed by individuals in cultural
settings” (p. 3). And rather than focus on the analysis of the many vari-
ants and meanings of one narrative, as is common in folklore studies, I
want to use a variety of different tales to draw broader conclusions
about this popular cultural sense of place. It is certainly true that “sense
of place” is a complex phenomenon that does not derive only from these
very informal tales, and I do not wish to risk privileging their impor-
tance over other kinds of narratives. Furthermore, in analyzing narra-
tives of any kind, one runs the risk of claiming a single, “real” meaning
to them.
With these limitations in mind, I do believe that as Dundes (1989)
claimed, informal folk stories, which depend on popular interest to sur-
vive and change, are an especially interesting route into cultural mean-
ing. As Georges and Owen Jones (1995) and others have said, people do
not fill their heads or entertain their friends with meaningless rubbish
but tend to retain and pass on texts that have some “meaning” to them.
The meaning of those texts shifts constantly according to the context
and the audience (Toelken 1986), and so I do not presume to pronounce
“the” meaning of the tales. Rather, I offer some suggestions as to the
cultural themes that are explored in stories that have an impressive
durability yet are often overlooked as mere trifles. Essentially, I argue
that local legends are one type of what Somers (1997) called “ontologi-
cal narratives”; they “are the stories that social actors use to make sense
of...theirlives....Locating ourselves in narratives endows us with
identities, however multiple, ambiguous, ephemeral or conflicting they
may be” (p. 84).
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WHAT IS A CULTURAL
NARRATIVE OF PLACE?
As Featherstone (1993) put it, “The drawing of a boundary around a
particular space is a relational act which depends upon the figuration of
significant other localities within which one seeks to situate it” (p. 176).
Through our tales about place, we mark out spatial boundaries, which
may extend over a whole town or just over a particular space—a bridge,
a hill, a lake. The tale confirms that this piece of space actually means
something, and it may also tell us who belongs in that space and who
does not. Place, as David Harvey (1993) reminded us, is both a physical
reality and a social construct.
Anthropologists are very familiar with the role of cultural narratives
in defining place in many non-Western societies. For instance, Basso’s
(1984) work with the Apache shows how the physical landscape in
which the Apache live is also a social landscape constructed through
generations of moral stories: “Such locations, charged as they are with
personal and social significance, work in important ways to shape the
images that Apaches have—or should have—of themselves” (p. 45).
Knowledge of the correct place names and the tales that go with specific
locations is crucial to a sense of Apache community and belonging—
when knowledge starts to wane, the Apache see this as a cultural crisis
that is characterized as “losing the land. Native American writers such
as Scott Momaday and Leslie Marmon Silko clearly articulate the role
of place in traditional narratives; indeed, Silko (1994) argued that
“location, or ‘place, nearly always plays a central role in the Pueblo
oral narratives. Indeed, stories are most frequently recalled as people
are passing by a specific geographical feature or the exact place where a
story takes place” (p. 252).
Contemporary Euro-American society is less focused on the natural
landscape than are traditional American Indian cultures. Nevertheless,
we too are possessed by the need to turn spatial features into something
that has meaning through narrative (Neumann 1999). We re-create
place through historic reconstructions; we tell stories to locate us where
we feel we should be. And in communities across America, we have
local cultural narratives that we can bring out and share, and make a
point with, when the opportunity or need arises. That is what these sto-
ries are. Minnesota, like any region, has hundreds of current legends.
Many of them are regional versions of national and international “urban
legends, which tell about children being abducted in malls or mad
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axemen in the backs of cars (Brunvand 1981, 1993). While these are
fascinating in their own right, I want to concentrate here on legends that
are tied to specific Minnesota places. Even these, as we shall see, usu-
ally have much in common thematically with local legends found else-
where but still have a distinctive Minnesota accent.
METHOD: TRACKING DOWN THE TALES
One of the problems with local narratives is that they are elusive and
not at the forefront of people’s minds most of the time. People remem-
ber them when asked, but then the telling can often be somewhat artifi-
cial. It is important to remember when looking at the texts that these
texts rarely reflect the actual conditions under which the stories are
shared. In everyday discourse, the stories emerge when the time is right.
According to folklorist Nicholaisen (1984), “To the best of my knowl-
edge...wedonotyethaveanysystematic data as to what it takes to
make someone tell someone else a legend and to make that someone
else willing to listen to it” (pp. 172-73). The geographer Yi-Fu Tuan
(1991) suggested one hypothetical moment in which a legend might be
told: “The rancher might, for instance, sit on the porch after a hard day’s
work, rehearse and thereby enhance his awareness of the hill’s emo-
tional coloring by retelling its story to a visitor” (p. 688). In telling this
story, the rancher essentially constructs this hill or this ranch as a place,
with its own identity and its own separate existence. Depending on the
nature of the tale, the narrative might also reaffirm the rancher’s right to
be there, or say something about his value system. Yet tales like these
are unlikely to emerge unbidden in the course of an interview.
Thus, most of the stories considered in this article were collected in
circumstances other than the casual conversation in which they are nor-
mally communicated, although quite often the context comes close to
this. Many were initially collected by undergraduate students, as part of
a field project required in an upper level folklore class. In this class,
taught for many years by a colleague and then by me, students are
required to describe and interpret three “items of folklore, which might
be anything from home remedies, through jokes, to legends. The project
is something of a miniexercise in ethnography, as the students are
instructed not merely to provide the text but the context of the item—the
circumstances it was transmitted, the setting, who was present, and so
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on, and they are also asked to offer some interpretive thoughts on the
meaning of the item. The class archive, accumulated over twenty years,
contains all kinds of oral traditions, including large numbers of local
legends (often in many different versions), from towns all over Minne-
sota. Often, students have written about how they first heard the tales
themselves and are thus recalling the “natural” contexts for them. These
many examples were supplemented by a summer of more systematic
fieldwork, during which a research assistant and I traveled to many
small towns in the state, following up on known legends and visiting
sites. We spent a great deal of time in diners, bars, and other locations,
where we were able to ask local people about sites and stories with
which we were already familiar and occasionally learn tales we had not
known before.
1
HOW LEGENDS DEVELOP
Why is it that some places seem to invite the telling of stories?
Unusual houses, cemeteries, and lonely bridges are the kinds of places
around which legends cluster, just as distinctive or slightly mysterious,
perhaps anthropomorphic, land forms often invite narrative explanation
among American Indian peoples. The High Bridge at Stillwater is a typ-
ical example—it is rather remote, it is quite spectacular, and unlike
more modest structures in the area, it invites explanation. In some
respects, it has become a symbol of Stillwater, and thus, perhaps, the
stories are one way through which people in the town see themselves
and their town, a point to which I will return. The stories that develop
around the anomalous or distinctive feature are not random—the site
comes to define through story the values and cultural identities with
which people choose to define who they are.
So at the heart of many local legends is an attempt to explain ambiguity—
something does not quite seem to belong or stands out from its sur-
roundings (see Baker 1970; Clements 1980; Hall, Clements, and Light-
foot 1980; Hall 1980; Mullen 1972). Cemeteries are full of grave mark-
ers, and yet only one or two are likely to have stories attached to them.
Those one or two will be different or distinctive in some way. In New
Ulm, for example, in a cemetery rich with interesting markers, is one
that stands out. It is a statue of a boy dressed in a formal suit, standing
casually, one leg crossed over the other.
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To look at the statue is to inevitably wonder—who was he, how did
he die, and why is this grave marker so personal and touching? In the
absence of clear historical information, the narrative impulse is to
answer these questions and fill in the blanks. A visit to the Brown
County Historical Society will tell you the history of the boy—Thomas
Amon Peterson, eight-year-old son of Senator and Mrs. S. D. Peterson.
He was known as Allie, and that name is on his grave marker. He died
from “enlargement of the heart” in 1883, in spite of his parents’ and
doctors’ efforts to save him. The historical society has a photograph,
which the bereaved parents used as a model for the statue. Local folk-
lore tells us otherwise, however:
Back in New Ulm, there’s a fenced-in statue of a boy within a cemetery.
It is rumored that the boy was a straight A student and was very proud of
that fact, but killed himself one day after receiving a bad grade. It is
claimed that the fenced-in area surrounding the statue is haunted by his
restless spirit. Anyone who enters this domain risks being cursed by
some sort of failure. No one I know has actually tested this claim for
obvious reasons. But everyone seems to believe it unquestioningly since
they heard that someone else who knows someone that did test it is now
miserable and they aren’t willing to try it themselves. (Project 806,
1994)
This narrative points to the way symbolic reality replaces objective
reality; local narratives tell us less about “history” and more about how
people construct their sense of place and cultural identity. In the Allie
tale, we see how the sad but not uncommon reality of a child’s early
death in the nineteenth century becomes translated into a tragedy that
helps students in the twentieth century explore the fears associated with
pressure to succeed. Folk legends, then, are not just about the site itself
but about the particular concerns of the people who tell the legends—in
this case, students who worry about grades. Significantly, the student
who recounted this tale explained that it came up within the context of a
dorm room discussion about exams and the consequences of failure.
Also significant, she added that telling the story made her think about
home and her relatively pressure-free teenage days—the story in itself
evoked a strong and immediate “sense of place. Back in New Ulm
itself, the boy’s statue has become something of a pilgrimage site for
local youths, who bring Allie offerings of flowers and challenge him to
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step down from his pedestal, in a classic “legend trip, a phenomenon to
which I will return.
And even when there is almost no actual historical event to trigger
the tale, people still explore these human concerns, even as they answer
the question, “Why is it there?” In the small town of Janesville, for
instance, there is an old house on the main street whose window has
invited speculation for years. In the window, you can see the figure of a
mannequin or large doll, gazing down on the town park. According to
the local newspaper (Child in window amuses some, scares others
1975), no one knows for sure why the mannequin is there, only that it
has been there for years. What do the people say? According to one
story,
there was this man who married this lady who was a little “touched.
After these people were married for about a year they had a little girl.
Well, after a few years the mother started to act more insane than ever.
Then when the little girl was about five years old the mother shot and
killed her then killed herself. Booom. After that the husband was torn by
guilt, and he went out and bought a doll that was about the size of the lit-
tle girl. Then he dressed the doll in the clothes that the little girl was
wearing at the time that she was killed. It still had the blood on it and
everything. Anyway, he took the doll and tied a noose around its neck,
and then hung it up in the attic window. You can really see it from the
street. Even today, after all this time. You can look straight in that win-
dow and see it. (Project 719, 1981)
There are many other variations. One tells how the people who lived
in the house many years ago had a young daughter. One day, they left
her in the charge of a neighbor, who allowed her to play unattended in
the nearby park. Playing on the swing, she became entangled in the rope
and strangled to death. Her parents placed the doll in the window of
their house, as a constant reminder to the neighbors of how their neglect
had cost her life. Other residents told us that the mannequin is to remind
the townsfolk of a child, sometimes described as retarded, who was
abused and killed in the attic bedroom. Still another story tells of how a
woman, grief stricken at the death of her husband, became crazy and
kept the mannequin in the window, thinking it was him.
We can see how in this tale the total absence of any historical evi-
dence results in a freedom to create “reality. But people have not cre-
ated just any story. In the various versions of the tale, we can see people
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have picked up on emotionally charged motifs that are explored in the
narrative. Again, there is the theme of a young child who died an
untimely death, in a tragic way. The stories warn us about either leaving
a precious child unattended or standing by while a child is abused. The
doll stands as a mute witness to horrors that might befall our children.
At the same time, the doll has become a symbol of the whole town; the
values narrated in the various versions of the tale are believed to be the
values that people in a small town like Janesville should have. One resi-
dent explained, “It makes sense to us—the story is all about how people
in this town look after each other, or they should, anyways. As John-
stone (1990) put it, “Shared stories are the sources of shared notions of
truth and appropriateness which bind people together” (p. 127). The
identification of the figure with the town and what it stands for is made
even more explicit through a related narrative that was often added to
the explanatory one. A time capsule about the town was buried in the
park during bicentennial celebrations in 1976; many believe that when
the capsule is eventually opened, the real truth about the mannequin
will be revealed.
The moral dimension of the Janesville narrative is clear. Legends are
“not heavily didactic, but encourage brief meditation” (Nicholaisen
1984, 176), in which the teller and listener consider for a moment the
broader implications of strange or unusual places or events. Citing
Hayden White, Nicholaisen (1984) pointed to the human impulse to
narrate and place structure on seemingly random happenings: “So sto-
ries make reality. They show events to have structure and meaning and
not simply sequence” (p. 176).
For the unusual is not merely explained away randomly but is
explained in legends that have cultural salience—that deal with particu-
lar concerns and fears. Like Allie, many legends explore the death of
children. Our expectations tell us that young children should not die,
and the folk imagination tries to cope with such reality by telling tales
about it. In some cases, the tales stem from actual deaths of young peo-
ple, and history becomes transformed into stories full of human drama
and emotion. A tale that has mutated into many versions for years con-
cerns a young girl who died in a small town in the late 1800s.
2
Many, many years ago, there was a family named .Ithinkitwasin
the 1800s. There was a girl named
who was about six years old.
Rumor has it that she got sick and went into a coma and later died. Then
her father buried her on the farm place under a shading tree. He built a
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wall around her grave and put a cast iron gate on it (which now squeaks in
the wind). A couple of days after she was buried the father had dreams
that she was alive and crying out to him. After repeatedly hearing these
cries he ran out and dug her grave up, opened the casket, and found the
inside all scratched up like she had been trying to get out and her fingers
were even all bloody from her efforts. Her dad was put in a mental insti-
tution and no one knows what happened to her mother. (Project 353,
1985)
Another version shows how details change while the core of the story
remains:
Some time during the nineteenth century, at age six or seven, was
playing in a hay loft and accidentally fell out. She was pronounced dead
and buried in a long, white dress. Shortly after burial, people began to
wonder if she was actually dead or not. Curiosity got the better of them
and a group of people dug up the little wooden coffin. Sure enough, there
were scratch marks across the top and her fingers looked mangled! She
had been buried alive and in desperation, tried to claw her way out! There
was nothing the people could do now, but put her back in the ground.
(Project 888, 1995)
Yet a third version explains that the girl
was playing one day in a lone tree in the middle of a corn field....She
slipped and fell to the ground. The fall knocked her unconscious and in a
coma. Her father found her later, and being drunk at the time, thought she
was dead. He built a coffin and buried her right under the lone tree. (Pro-
ject 901, 1995)
This teller reports that the farmer who now owns the land has seen the
ghost of the child at her grave and also includes the belief that cars will
stall on the remote road where the grave is located.
In this story, we can see clearly how the legend works at different lev-
els. First, it explains the existence of the anomalous grave, which is set
apart, in a small, walled-in area, miles from the nearest towns. The dates
on the headstone mark it as the grave of a child. According to historical
records, there is evidence that although the girl died of natural causes,
her body was moved from a cemetery to the new plot, for unknown rea-
sons, and this may have prompted the “buried alive” motif. This motif
is, of course, pervasive in folklore and popular literature, and once it
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became attached to the site, the popular imagination kept it as a central
part of the legend. At another level, the legend explores and warns about
careless parenting. Frequently, the child is playing in dangerous situa-
tions, where she should be supervised; in one version, the father is
drunk when he buries her.
I had an opportunity to look at an example of a possibly emerging
narrative of place that suggested a potential role for that narrative in
establishing a local sense of identity. While discussing the High Bridge
in Stillwater, a woman went on to tell me about a house in the nearby
hamlet of Marine St. Croix. Like Stillwater, Marine St. Croix is an old,
established, but tiny river community, which has largely been bypassed
by development. A focus of my conversation with this woman was the
need to preserve the past and maintain the integrity of the community.
She directed me to an old house that she, and other residents, believed
was haunted, possibly by the spirit of its original owner. Her “story”
was not fully developed but was emerging, in a series of somewhat dis-
jointed comments. First, she pointed to the fact that the original owner
of the house, a wealthy businessman, had been unhappy, with personal
tragedy in his life, but had lived there for many years. Any old house
like that, you have to wonder if he hasn’t left his mark. Her story then
moved to the present, describing how some new owners had moved into
the village, bought the house, and began modernizing it. “I heard that a
lot of strange things began happening. The showers would go on and
off. And the truck that was there to dig water pipes moved on its own,
and messed up the lawn. Stuff like that. Her explanation was that the
ghost, of whom there was no tradition previously, was annoyed that
someone was trying to change the way the house had been for more than
100 years. The woman mentioned that others in the village had talked
about these events. Later, I spoke with the new owners of the house.
They knew its history, and some details about its original owner, which
added to the house’s charm, and they had heard vague rumors in the vil-
lage about “hauntings. They confirmed that a few “odd” things had
happened during construction but attributed these to a series of unre-
lated mishaps, all with a logical explanation. In other words, they did
not link together the facts about the owner, their purchase of the house,
and the minor accidents into any coherent narrative that meant some-
thing to them. To them, the various events in the house’s past and pres-
ent were simply interesting but random happenings that did not add up
to a “story.
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So it remains to be seen if the story will gain broad currency in the
community and will “gel” as a “community” narrative. Its genesis,
though, suggests something about competing discourses in the vil-
lage—a traditional discourse that wishes to assert a value system of
conservatism and no change versus a newer discourse that, while valu-
ing history, wishes to improve on it, and change. We see how narratives
such as this can distill a point of view, even an argument.
LEGENDS AND QUESTIONS OF IDENTITY
So, local tales may function to mark the teller as belonging to a par-
ticular community and believing in that community. At times, a local
legend may take on an overwhelming role in the community, as, for
example, have the legends of the Runestone in Alexandria. The
Runestone is a piece of rock, reportedly dug up, embedded in the roots
of a tree, by a Norwegian farmer in the late nineteenth century. The
stone is inscribed with Norse “runes, telling the story of how a party of
Vikings who had reached Minnesota in the fourteenth century was set
on and slaughtered by Indians. The Runestone Museum holds the stone,
a collection of supposedly Viking implements and weapons, and a
diorama, which shows blond, noble Vikings scanning the horizon, with
rather caricatured Indians doing a war dance in the background. While
there was fairly extensive scholarly debate about the authenticity of the
stone around the turn of the century, it is unanimously accepted as a
nineteenth-century hoax by the archeological profession (Feder 1998).
However, for the people of Alexandria, their Viking heritage has
become both a matter of pride and a source of tourist revenue; the
Runestone and the various legends about its history are the tangible
symbols of that pride. The city sports a banner welcoming visitors to
“Viking country, and a giant Viking statue stands in front of the
museum. Replicas of the Runestone, large and small, pop up all over
town. While this is one local narrative that has moved from the grass-
roots to the commercial realm, the legend is clearly still a vital symbol,
the mention of which prompts local people to talk about their Scandina-
vian roots and the pride in their heritage.
This point leads to another role for the local legend. Markers of cul-
tural identity, which serve to remind us who “we” are, may also serve to
remind us who “we” are not and thus who “they” are (Dundes 1989). A
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subtext of the Viking legend of Alexandria is that “we, the civilized
Scandinavians, have a right to be here, having populated the land many
centuries ago. The original inhabitants of the land are conspicuously
absent, except in the form of the occasional caricature. As the local
sheriff told me, in mentioning the recent vandalizing of an Indian burial
mound, “people around here don’t care much for Indians.
We have all heard some of the vast range of jokes that stereotype eth-
nic groups, and indeed jokes are probably the major form of ethnic ste-
reotyping in folklore. But local legends play their part too, although
perhaps not as blatantly. Many legends are about places that are fright-
ening, and frequently the sources of the fright are ghosts and supernatu-
ral entities. Sometimes they are other kinds of “aliens. For instance, a
popular local legend site near Granite Falls is the “Sanitarium, a large,
dilapidated place that once treated tuberculosis patients. The building
closed in the late 1960s or 1970s and was apparently abandoned almost
intact. The hospital is still full of old, broken furniture; books; newspa-
pers; and clothing, all now destroyed and scattered. The building is
marked out as a legend site with graffiti, including purportedly Satanic
markings and signs. Tales abound of strange sightings, noises, and hap-
penings, and the building is indeed a spooky place. A regular feature of
the tales is that the building is or was used by “Satanists, and signifi-
cantly, these evildoers are almost always described as Mexicans, who
practice vaguely defined rituals akin to Santeria or Voodoo. Other local
legends describe crazy Indians who live in the woods and slaughter
youths at summer camps, or gypsies who abduct children in shopping
centers. For once again, local legends do not develop randomly but
according to particular concerns and fears. Thus, a distrust of suppos-
edly wild and disorderly Mexican migrant workers surfaces in narra-
tives surrounding an apparently unconnected place—the local wild and
disorderly legend site. For “local knowledge not only can empower by
creating places out of official cracks, it can also disempower by exploit-
ing those who have fallen through the cracks—people who, in the view
of others, have no place at all” (Frake 1996, 248).
The disempowering meaning of local stories is best illustrated in the
supposed “Indian legends, told in Minnesota and all over the United
States to explain local features or place names. Take White Bear Lake,
for example:
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There was a village on the shores of the lake. In the middle of the lake is
Manitou Island (Manitou means spirit in Indian [sic]). There was this
Indian brave and an Indian maiden who were attracted to one another.
The Chief, who was the maiden’s father, would not allow the two to
marry because the brave had not yet proved himself to the tribe. The
maiden took a canoe to the island. She wept. There was a big white bear
on the island, and when the maiden saw the bear she let out a scream. The
Indian brave heard her scream and took another canoe out to the island.
He killed the polar bear with a spear. From that moment on he was
regarded as a hero in the village. The couple was now allowed to marry.
And that is how White Bear Lake, Minnesota, got its name. (Project 898,
1995)
Clearly, this tale is fanciful; polar bears have never been a major part
of the wildlife of Minnesota! The tale is only one of many that involve
Indian “maidens” and “braves, although the happy ending is unusual.
More commonly, the maiden leaps to her death for love of the brave, as
in a legend associated with Maiden Rock in Wisconsin. But the most
striking thing about these “Indian” legends is that almost invariably,
they have no provenance in the lore of American Indians themselves.
They are, in other words, white cultural constructions. Minnesota is
awash with Indian maidens named Blue Flower and braves named
White Cloud, and tales of their doomed love. Many others claim Indian
origins for place names, while poking fun at stereotypical Indian speech
patterns: thus, the town of Mahtomedi is named from a convoluted
“Indian” legend about a canoe mishap that culminates in the cowardly
Indian boy squealing, “My toe! Me die!” (Project 701, 1993). Chequa-
megon Bay gets its name either from an Indian maiden (Project 300,
1981) or an annual spring ritual, both variants ending in Indians wading
into the lake and, as a first sign of spring, shouting, “Come on in—She
warm again!” (Project 524, 1981).
On a somewhat less burlesque note, a woman explained to me how
Devil’s Track Lake, on the Gunflint Trail in northern Minnesota, was
named.
It was named after my great-grandfather, Sam Zimmerman. He was mar-
ried, and he had a family, and he lost his leg in a trapping accident. He
still had to make a living and so in the winter time he had a snowshoe for
his one foot, and two small snowshoes for his two crutches. And Indians
came upon his tracks, which were one large and two small one to the
side, and so, Devil’s Track. That’s a true story....Anyone up the shore
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[of Lake Superior] and through Grand Marais will tell you that. The
Chippewa couldn’t figure it out you see, so they were scared of the place.
(Telephone interview, July 18, 1995)
In this story, and others like it, we see a symbolic displacement of the
Indian and thus of the Indian’s right to name these places. Many other
legends acknowledge the previous inhabitants of the landscape and
express a profound ambivalence toward them—they still have power.
Thief River Falls, in the northwest of the state, is supposedly cursed by
an Indian woman who lost her son in the river—it will steal one person
for every year that has passed since then (Project 624, 1992).
A woman recalls the tale she was told about why houses have
fireplaces:
Deep under every house lie the spirits of the many Indians that used to
inhabit Minnesota. In the winter, when it is very cold the Indian spirits
wake up. If they don’t see smoke signals from the chimney they get very
angry because they think their relatives are dead, but if they see smoke
signals, they think it is their relatives sending the signals and they sleep
and are at peace again. (Project 191, 1980)
The sleeping Indian appears again in a tale about Indian Heights Park in
Rochester:
On the lip of the valley, there are several places where the earth has
formed its own makeshift stairway down into the valley. The one closest
to my house, when you go to the right once you’re on the lip is the first we
came to. I was in front and I remember Heidi saying, “Hold your breath
while you walk between those two stones because they’re the head Indi-
ans’ tombstones—you don’t want to anger the Indians or their ghosts
will haunt you and hurt you. I held my breath and walked down the val-
ley....Ifound out that the park was named Indian Heights because Indi-
ans used to live on the hill and buried their dead there before white men
came to the area....EvennowIslowdownandthinkabout the Indians as
I walk past these spots, and I probably always will. (Project 616, 1991)
Why are these “Indian” tales so popular in Minnesota and elsewhere
in the United States? Joel Martin (1996) offered one explanation. Mar-
tin noted that in the South, and in Alabama in particular, people “gave
Indian names to most of that state’s streams and almost all of the state’s
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rivers, some ten thousand miles of waterways” (p. 138). The same phe-
nomenon happened in many states but always after the Native popula-
tion had actually been removed. In other words, the Indian names were
chosen by white people, much as “Indian” legends are white creations.
It may be true that the names derive from genuine Native words; “Min-
nesota” itself derives from Native roots. Yet “Minnesota” as a state is a
white construction. Martin continued,
On a symbolic level, Indian names enabled southerners to claim an
archaic connection between themselves and the land. Call a town
Irwinton and it might as well be in England or Connecticut. Call it
Eufaula and it almost had to be in Alabama or Oklahoma, i.e., a place
where Muskogee Indians had lived. An Indian name made it seem as if
the new town had been there forever, as if it was okay for whites to be liv-
ingthere....Indian names were prized possessions, signs that whites
used to assert that they had inherited the land and its history. (p. 138)
Indian legends seem to serve the same purpose as Indian place
names. They developed after American Indians ceased to be a signifi-
cant presence in these communities, but they served to mark the com-
munity out as distinctive, as having long ties that “go back into Indian
history. Thus, communities have stories about “Indian graveyards”
that border or lie under their towns, such as the “sunken graveyard” that
is supposed to exist on the riverside in Faribault. Long-dead Indians are
co-opted as guardians of tradition, even when that tradition is not their
own. In Little Falls, they tell a story about the grave of Chief Hole in the
Day:
The legend is that no tornadoes, no floods, and no earthquakes will ever
hit the area unless someone disrupts the grave. In 1975, the city of Little
Falls was building a highway around the town....Thehighwaywas
being built right by the grave, and that summer the area of central Minne-
sota experienced the first flood that had ever occurred. There had never
been a natural disaster in this area until the construction started. (Project
915, 1995)
In another version, the year is 1972, and there is
the worst flood to have ever stricken that area. Because of the damage to
the area of his grave they had to re-route the road and left the chief
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undisturbed. Until this day the grave still remains undisturbed and no
tragic events have happened to Little Falls and that legendary area. (Pro-
ject 606, 1992)
In this story, we can clearly see the symbolism of the town’s connec-
tions with an ancient tradition that is threatened when the town tries to
change its identity. DeCaro (1986) suggested that an “Indian” connec-
tion tends to create an aura of authenticity around a story, making it
seem more “historical. Like Martin, he also suggested that Indian leg-
ends serve to appease a lingering sense of guilt at having displaced the
original inhabitants, pointing out that the places that developed these
legends were those “in which the white inhabitants could indeed afford
a noble savage because the Indian no longer posed a threat” (p. 77).
Indian legends often paint an ambivalent picture of American Indi-
ans, seeing them on one hand as wild, aggressive people who fight con-
stantly among themselves and potentially threaten whites. Thus, many
of the “suicide” tales are said to result from the cruelty of warring bands
of Indians who refused to reconcile with each other. At the same time,
they tend to laud the “noble savage, the romanticized “brave” or
“maiden, who lives close to the earth and fades peacefully away in the
face of white advances (see Berkhofer 1979). We can see the dual
images when we look at two legends focused on the 1861 Dakota upris-
ing in the region around New Ulm. A plaque in the basement of a local
restaurant tells the story of how that building was the place where a
group of women and children holed up during the fighting and that one
woman was chosen to light the fuse to a barrel of gunpowder if things
got really bad, thus killing them all and preventing the Dakota from tak-
ing them prisoner. Since then, dozens of families in the area have devel-
oped traditions that their ancestor was the heroine who stood ready to
defy the “savages. Clearly, this legend serves to mark out “us, the
whites, from “them, the wild Indians. At the same time, many local
families also claim a different legendary tradition:
Some ancestors of my mother’s family line lived on a hill near New Ulm.
There lived an Indian family down the hill. My great-, great-, great-aunt
heard that one of the Indian children was ill, so she sent a kettle of soup
down to them for it was a bad winter. Later on that winter, when the Indi-
ans were uprising, they came and warned my aunt and her family and
they escaped safely. (Project 338, 1981)
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The details of this story vary from family to family, sometimes
involving a mother who gave bread to a starving Indian who came to the
door, or some similar variation. In any event, the story serves to identify
the family as one who has been in the area for a long time and, further-
more, who has ties with those who were there even longer. A Stillwater
story actually identifies the wise Indian as the prophet who basically
foresaw his own annihilation and approved:
The story took place long before Stillwater became a town. There was a
battle between two Indian tribes in the valley and the two chiefs from
each side met at the top of the hill. The two chiefs then fought to their
deaths. When the chief who won was about to die he supposedly pro-
claimed that one day this hill will be a place where people come to pray,
where people come to learn, and where people come to rule. Nowadays
there is a court house, three churches, and three schools built in this area
of town on south hill.
As the teller pointed out, “I suppose it’s told because it adds to the nos-
talgia and points out the unique history of our town” (Project 649, 1988).
Thus, Indian legends, created by whites, express a profoundly
ambivalent view of the land’s indigenous inhabitants, who nowadays
compose the only significant minority presence in small-town and rural
areas of Minnesota. Place by place, landmark by landmark, the native
population symbolically gives up its own tales and its own right to be
there. And they do so willingly, or at least they bow to the inevitability
of the process by which the incoming population remakes the land for
themselves, while symbolically invoking the ancient rights of the peo-
ple they have displaced. As Feld and Basso (1996) wrote, anthropolo-
gists are increasingly seeing places as “sites of power struggles or about
displacement as histories of annexation, absorption, and resistance.
Thus, ethnography’s stories of place and places are increasingly about
contestation” (p. 5).
THE LEGEND TRIP
Thus, many local narratives work to define a place as a particular
kind of community, with a distinct history and value system. In addi-
tion, there are hundreds of places that have come to be marked out in
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narratives that define not a whole community, or an ethnicity, but a dif-
ferent kind of peer group. Let’s return to the High Bridge in Stillwater. It
is an impressive structure that spans the St. Croix river 185 feet above
the river: local histories tell us that “the bridge was a major engineering
feat of its time. It was built during 1910 and 1911, is half a mile long,
and supported by six piers (Weatherhead 1977). The bridge is dizzy-
ingly high, with guard rails only along one side. It is located down a
dark and infrequently traveled road, which is posted “no trespassing.
To many adults in the town, it is a symbol of a past prosperity, a
unique history, and a certain kind of town. For many young people, it is
something else entirely—a magical, fearful place that is theirs alone.
They are the ones who tell the tales of the blue light that dances along
the railroad tracks. In the version cited above, a night watchman is hit by
a train and haunts the site. In another version, the daughter of the night
watchman is the central figure:
The story goes that around the turn of the century, Soo Line finished a
bridge about six miles north of Stillwater. A family lived next to the
bridge. The father told the young daughter to stay away from the bridge
because she might get hurt. One day near dusk the little girl’s dog ran
across the bridge so she grabbed a lantern and went to look for it. She saw
a train coming and she tried to get back. When the father came home the
girl hadn’t come back yet so the father went looking for her and found the
lantern on the bridge. He didn’t know if she was dead or lost in the forest
because he couldn’t find her body. He looked for her every night with
that lantern until he passed away. It is said that if you go there on certain
nights you can see the lantern going across the bridge. (Project 833,
1995)
In this version, the grief caused by the child’s untimely death is the
backdrop for the haunting. Another version:
About one hundred years ago a boy and some of his friends went to the
high bridge and got really drunk. They dared each other to go across the
bridge. They went across the bridge and while they were crossing back
over one of the boys lost his balance and fell off the bridge into the water.
It is said he died instantly and washed away down the river. So the boys
all go home and get the father of the boy who fell in. The father goes back
up to the high bridge with a blue lantern and looks for the boy but he can’t
find him so the father decides to commit suicide because he is upset
about his son and jumps off the bridge. After this happened the area was
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blocked off and now “no trespassing” signs cover the area. Many people
still continue to go up there just to park, drink, and try and cross the
bridge. These people say they have seen the shadow of the father walking
across the bridge with his blue lantern calling out for the boy. Others just
look for the blue light or listen for the father. (Project 831, 1995)
This story seeks to account not only for the blue light, and the myste-
rious bridge, but also for the fact that authorities try to restrict access to
the site, which is posted “no parking, apparently with the main purpose
of keeping visitors away since there are no houses close by and very lit-
tle traffic. Police frequently patrol the area, and young visitors are often
ticketed or their cars towed away.
While local community legends come up randomly in conversation
or at appropriate moments, the teenage tales of sites like the High
Bridge are essentially ritualized. They are told on the way to or at the
site, and the tales themselves are just part of a larger activity that folk-
lorists have dubbed the “legend trip” (Bird 1994; Meley 1990). To
understand these narratives of place, we need to understand the trip
itself. Many local legend sites have a complex of activities associated
with them, in addition to the stories of their origins. Thus, Allie, the
New Ulm boy, is said to come down from his pedestal on moonlit nights
to scare people. To kiss him is to risk death. The isolated grave of the girl
who was “buried alive” is sought out by youngsters, who deface the
gravesite and tempt her to emerge, or seek evidence that she still walks.
In the heart of St. Paul, students terrify themselves by attempting to
count the gravestones in a secluded cemetery.
The legend trip thus has a twofold structure—the telling of the story,
followed or accompanied by the visit to the site, and the tests of bravery
this usually involves. The legend trip may be a simple, short visit, dur-
ing which stories are told and fears raised. It may also be a more elabo-
rate, ritualistic activity, involving illicit alcohol or drug use, occasional
sexual experimentation, and vandalism.
Without the place itself, the stories have little power. As Edmund
Leach (1984) argued,
Without...anchoring into concrete details of the landscape, the fictional
nature of stories becomes obvious. They may still have value but of quite
a different kind. More generally, it is only when stories have a material
reference that we ourselves can see and touch that we are prepared to sus-
pend our faculty for disbelief. (p. 358)
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Suspending disbelief is at the core of the legend trip experience, in
that the aim is to mark out a magical place that is outside normal exis-
tence. Legend trip sites are physically marked out—often by graffiti.
They have entrances and exits. At the gravesite of the girl who was sup-
posedly buried alive, trippers go to experience the strange things that
still happen around the grave. If you put a beer can on her grave, she will
drink it by the next day; if you shut off your car engine, it refuses to
restart; if you see a doll on top of her grave, the girl has been out playing
(Project 888, 1994). The site is clearly magical—“the snow always
melts on her grave and leaves don’t fall in the fenced-in area around
her” (Project 353, 1985). A significant feature of the tales of the New
Ulm boy is that the statue is described as standing in a fenced-in area,
inside of which the legend trippers sit and party. In fact, there is not and
never was a fence around the statue—the boundaries the tellers remem-
ber are, perhaps, purely symbolic.
The legend trip experience is something of a ritual. Quite frequently,
participants explicitly call it a “rite of passage”—you must do it before
you graduate from high school, you must do it to prove you are a man in
the eyes of your girlfriend, or you must do it because “you can look
death right in the face, and live to tell about it, as one teller described
the High Bridge experience. Indeed, descriptions of the experience
evoke Victor Turner’s (1969) definition of “liminality, in which at this
one place, normal rules of reality are suspended, and participants allow
themselves to believe in supernatural powers, and alternative realities,
aided of course by alcohol, Ouija boards, and so on. Perhaps most
important, legend trips are an activity that remains outside adult con-
trol; the terms are set by teenagers, who determinedly set out to terrify
themselves and to test the boundaries of adult rationality. Legend trip-
pers are commonly between fifteen and twenty, or from when the teen
begins to drive to the time of legal drinking age. The car offers the free-
dom to roam their communities with their own rules and in the face of
the authorities. Haunted sites are often difficult to find in the dark, with
participants relying on vague directions given from memory, which
increases the excitement of the car ride.
As Lindahl (1986) wrote, At the center of the classic legend is the
overlapping of two worlds, an intersection of the everyday and the
supernatural” (p. 2). The teen who pushes the limit by tripping the fur-
thest, testing the limits and getting the closest to the supernatural, gains
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status within the group. One can see evidence of this in the sites them-
selves. On one supposedly haunted statue, “Moving Mary” in Montevi-
deo, the fingers are broken off and little offerings are left at the base.
3
On
one hand, we can see the signs of testing the ghost by vandalizing it and,
on the other, appeasing it by leaving offerings, as they do for the New
Ulm boy.
Visiting a haunted site is an emotionally charged event, the air elec-
tric with anticipation and fright. Even the doubters in the group will
experience an adrenaline rush. As one respondent put it, “I really didn’t
believe in ghosts or anything, but when we got there I sure was scared”
(Project 916, 1995). At the High Bridge, the excitement of the ritual
generates the bravado that leads teens to venture out along the railroad
tracks, looking through the slats at the St. Croix river, almost two hun-
dred feet below. Fortunately, perhaps, it also generates a fear of the
supernatural that prevents all but the most foolhardy from going too far.
The specific Stillwater legends themselves interact with the energy
of the moment, dramatizing many of the concerns that the teenagers are
dealing with in their own lives. In one tale, the child did not listen to her
father, and this caused her death. Legend trippers are just at the age
where they are testing authority and parental boundaries; the trip itself
is part of that testing. Thus, the legend offers a challenge, which the
youngsters act out. In another version, the connection is even clearer—
the boy who died was drinking, just like the present-day legend trippers,
and his father’s suicide was the result.
It seems almost every Minnesota community has its special, haunted
site that allows youngsters to explore their fears and their independ-
ence. Genoa has the “devil’s kitchen, an old, burned-out house where
supposedly a baby died in the fire that destroyed it; Trenton has a grave-
yard where lie the victims of a crazy axeman who wiped out the town
“one cold November evening in the 1890s” (Project 903, 1995). In Saint
Cloud’s Calvary Cemetery is the Black Angel, a granite marker to a
cruel man who murdered some children: “If you touch the angel you
will awaken the spirit of the man and you have one minute to get out of
the cemetery or something very bad will happen to you” (Project 899,
1995).
In Duluth, teenagers recklessly court danger by jumping into the
Lester River from a high railway bridge. Before trying it, they may tell
tales of a high school student named Trod:
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He went to East (high school) back in the seventies or sixties and was
known for his gutsy jumps. One day, perhaps brokenhearted when his
girlfriend dumped him, he tried a double back flip. He never came up for
air after he hit, and people got spooked out. When the cops finally got to
the scene, they could find no trace or remains of a body. The story goes
that if you go there at night, sometimes you can catch the ghost of Trod
haunting the water below. (Project 897, 1995)
Another teller adds,
The only sign of his passing is the name written TROD in spray paint in
sight of where he used to jump. Some people say when they hit the water
that they can just make out a boy sitting with his hands clutched to his
chest down deep on the pool’s floor. A can of spray paint rests in his lap.
(Project 893, 1995)
It is, perhaps, a story of both challenge and warning.
Thus, haunted places and horror tales function for teenagers as a way
for them to assert their identities, differentiating themselves from adults
and from other groups of adolescents. The cultural identity they are
asserting is not their membership of an adult-oriented community—
in fact, in many places, the magical haunted site is explicitly recognized
as a way of rejecting what are perceived as deadening small-town
restrictions.
CONCLUSION
Folklorists have debated for years whether people really “believe”
these stories of ancient origins, ghosts, and murders (Degh and
Vazsonyi 1971). Most likely they do not, at least in the literal way they
may believe the stories of the history books. Yet people continue to cre-
ate and re-create these folk spins on the past. Although a historical event
or tangible piece of evidence may provide a spark, rather than reflecting
history, “legend may be characterized as a reflection of folk belief:
commonly held values and beliefs in the community, according to
Tangherlini (1990, 379). That is, the significance of folk narratives tran-
scends the issue of literal truth—folk history is symbolic history. It is a
tapestry of the fantastic, the “might-have-beens, and the “what-ifs,
542 JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY ETHNOGRAPHY / OCTOBER 2002
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and the stories come truly alive only at the local sites where they are
told.
As Leach (1984) wrote,
It is not just that “places” serve to remind us of the stories associated with
them; in certain respects, the places only exist (in the sense that they can
be identified by name) because they have stories associated with them.
But once they have acquired this story-based existence, the landscape
itself acquires the power of “telling the story. (p. 358)
These stories are ephemeral, and their “meanings” float from person to
person and occasion to occasion, sometimes told “for true, other times
almost as jokes. Yet we bother to remember them, and we pass them on.
Of course, some of our motivation is that the stories are simply fun—
they are entertaining, spine-chilling, or even funny. Nevertheless,
another dimension of our motivation seems to be that these stories con-
stitute one small thread in the complex way we construct our cultural
identities, especially as those identities are tied to places.
A young man describes his frequent drives past the “honking” tree,
or “wishing” tree, on Highway 61 along the north shore of Lake
Superior:
It’s the only remaining tree that was left behind by highway workers on
the freeway between Duluth and Two Harbors. Many of the local people
know of this tree and honk whenever they drive by it. It is said to bring
luck and good fortune to those who lay the horn on as they pass by....
The tree was left behind by highway workers in memory of a coworker
who was killed at that site while constructing the freeway. Anyone who
honks is recognizing his importance, which in turn will bring them good
luck by the deceased....Everytime I pass the tree I cannot help but honk
my horn, and anyone who may be with me will then get the whole story
of the tree if they don’t know it. ...Theonly people that seem to honk at
the site are ones from the Two Harbors area or Duluth. Anyone who is
traveling through on vacation misses the whole significance of the tree,
if they even notice that the tree is there at all. (Project 902, 1995)
As Featherstone (1993) put it, “It is...often assumed that we live in
localities where the flows of information and images have obliterated
the sense of collective memory and tradition in the locality to the extent
that there is ‘no sense of place’ (p. 177). Nevertheless, although many
Bird / CULTURAL IDENTITY IN LOCAL LEGENDS OF PLACE 543
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of our narratives are provided for us by the media, we still have the
impulse to tell tales and to mark out special places. Bakhtin (1981)
called such places “chronotypes”: locations where “time and space
intersect and fuse” and that “stand as monuments to the community
itself, as symbols of it, as forces operating to shape its members’images
of themselves” (p. 7). Stories, in the fleeting moments of their telling,
link individuals: “Once you start hearing the stories, you are becoming
a member of the community” (Lippard 1997, 50). De Certeau (1993)
recognized especially the importance of local narratives in everyday
life: “It is through ...theircapacity to create cellars and garrets every-
where, that local legends . . . permit exits, ways of going out and coming
back in, and thus habitable spaces” (p. 160).
When we look up along the north shore of Lake Superior, we see a
physical place, of rocks, water, and the endless north woods. The
Anishinabe created places here, summer hunting camps and safe har-
bors, and shaped those places through stories about who they were. The
voyageurs and later settlers drove out the Indians and re-created those
places, giving them new stories—of Castle Danger, Temperance River,
and Grand Portage. The end of mining and logging and the rise of tour-
ism created more cultural narratives—of “the mysterious lake” and the
“most scenic drive in America. Dotted through these physical and cul-
tural landscapes are the small places, still marked out by words and sto-
ries—such as the wishing tree, or Devil’s Track Lake, or the spot where
Bigfoot is seen (though never by tourists). As Tuan (1991) put it,
Taking language seriously shows...thatthe“quality” of place is more
than just aesthetic or affectional, that it also has a moral dimension,
which is to be expected if language is a component in the construction
and maintenance of reality, for language—ordinary language—is never
morally neutral. (p. 694)
Through stories, people continue to make aesthetic and moral sense of
places, at the same time endowing these places with a sense of their own
cultural identities.
NOTES
1. Fieldwork projects were assigned in folklore courses from the late 1970s until
1996; archives of these projects are in the author’s possession. When these texts are
544 JOURNAL OF CONTEMPORARY ETHNOGRAPHY / OCTOBER 2002
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used, an archive project number is given. Other narratives were collected by the author
during fieldwork in the summer of 1995. If no project number or other specific identify-
ing information is given, the narratives were collected during these trips, usually from
anonymous respondents during conversations.
2. This particular gravesite has been the object of a great deal of vandalism in recent
years. Legend trippers have defaced and removed the headstone, defaced the sight, and
even attempted to dig up the grave; for this reason, I am not mentioning the location of
the site or the family name.
3. “Moving Mary” is actually a statue of Jesus in a cemetery in Montevideo. The
story goes that if a person drives up close to the statue and shines car headlights on it, the
statue’s arms will wave up and down. In addition, a pervasive feature of “haunted” sites
is described—that cars will stall and fail to restart, causing terror among the occupants.
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