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Sundogs and Sunflowers: The Knowledge of the People

Review by Krista Thom

Kloberdanz, Timothy J. and Troyd A. Geist. Sundogs and Sunflowers: Folkore and Folk Art of the Northern Plains. North Dakota Council on the Arts, Bismarck, North Dakota, 2010, 339 pages, hardcover.


When I was a child, my family used to play a game called Moonlight, Starlight. In it, one person would be chosen to be the ghost, and the rest would walk around the house in the dark chanting a sing-song rhyme. The ghost would try to chase someone down, and that person would become the next ghost.

I never knew any other families that played the same game, so when I got older, I assumed my Mom had cooked it up to keep us from running around inside the house.

Then I bought a copy of Sundogs and Sunflowers, a collection of folklore from North Dakota and the surrounding area. One of its many entries described a game called Starlight, Moonlight, which was definitely a variation of the game I knew. I was more than a little surprised, partly because I realized my Mom hadn’t made it up, but mostly because these kids enjoyed running around, alone, in the dark (I was a bit of a fraidy-cat as a child).

Sundogs and Sunflowers contains many other interesting tidbits. It’s a record of folk stories, advice, traditional medicine, children’s games, and anything else that seemed interesting or appropriate. There are also sections sprinkled throughout that focus on different folk artists and traditional crafts. Some of the bits of folklore listed in the book are relatively well-known, like the unlucky aces and eights that constitute a “dead man’s hand” in poker. Others might not be familiar, like the folk remedy for removing warts by rubbing them on a church pew during the gospel reading. Geist says that’s part of the point. “We wanted some things to be familiar, and some to be completely unknown. There are new things that people are going to discover when they read this book.”

The book is a collaboration between two of North Dakota’s biggest names in folklore: Timothy Kloberdanz and Troyd Geist. Kloberdanz worked as an anthropology professor at NDSU for over 30 years before retiring last spring. Geist currently works for the North Dakota Council on the Arts, where he manages several programs. The two have known each other for years; in fact, Geist was once a student in Kloberdanz’s class. But when they got to talking a few years ago, they realized how well their work complemented each other. Kloberdanz studies folklore from an academic perspective, while Geist is mainly focused on traditional arts and artists. They realized that it all added up to one holistic folk culture.

The bulk of the material was gathered by Kloberdanz and his students during his years as a professor. Every year, he assigned students to go out and collect folklore from their own families and friends. By the time he retired last spring, Kloberdanz had built up a library of over 10,700 pieces. Although Sundogs and Sunflowers runs a respectable 339 pages, it only represents a fraction of Kloberdanz’s collection.

Except for the folk artists, who signed released forms to appear in this book, none of the sources’ names are given. That anonymity is granted for ethical reasons, but strangely enough, it has the effect of making these sources seem familiar. As Geist says, “You don’t have to name them – this could be your brother, it could be your uncle, it could be anyone.”

According to Geist, one of the most amazing things about folklore in North Dakota is how interconnected it is. One example he listed is rømmegrot. This traditional Norwegian dessert is often served around Christmas, but traditionally, it was also given to new mothers to help speed their recovery. Modern medicine confirms that the calcium in rømmegrot is beneficial for pregnant women and new mothers. (The dish is basically a mixture of milk, cream, and butter, with a little flour thrown in.)So, not only is rømmegrot a traditional ethnic dessert, but it has ties to holiday traditions and folk medicine. In many other parts of the country, Geist says, these associations have been lost.
Kloberdanz says that one of the fun things about working with folklore is that you can learn a lot by analyzing it. Some bits of wisdom can be taken metaphorically – such as the folk belief that children who get a lot of bumps and bruises grow more quickly. Others reveal real issues in society, such as the tension between in-state and out-of-state hunters in some of the hunting stories.

Part of the reason for writing this book was to give North Dakotans a voice, rather than letting themselves be defined by popular culture. Still, an outsider’s perspective could sometimes be revealing. Kloberdanz tells the story of how Richard M. Dorson, one of the world’s most important folklorists, came to North Dakota in 1979 to speak at a conference. A number of local attendees tried to interest him in stories from the Northern Great Plains, like the one about the vanishing hitchhiker, or about the giant fish in Lake Sakakawea, but Dorson was unimpressed. After all, these were only variations of stories he had heard in other parts of the county.

On the day that Dorson was scheduled to fly out of Jamestown, a blizzard came up, and all flights were cancelled. Kloberdanz and a group of other folklorists kept Dorson company as he waited at the airport. To pass the time, they took turns telling blizzard stories. These captured Dorson’s attention like nothing else had. After listening to about a dozen, he exclaimed, “Listening to these stories is like eating potato chips. I just can’t get enough! These narratives are among the most amazing stories I have heard anywhere.”

High praise indeed, coming from an expert as respected as Dorson. Kloberdanz says that this incident helped him recognize blizzard stories as one of the region’s defining genres. He devotes a whole chapter to them in his book.

One interesting example of a blizzard story is “Stuck in the Ditch”, which also goes to show that any story may contain a kernel of truth. Supposedly, in the 1980s an African American woman was driving through the North Dakota countryside alone during a blizzard. When her car went off the road near Kindred, a farmer helped her out and brought her back to his house. The next day, he fixed her car and sent her on her way. About a month later, the farmer received a big TV in the mail. He also learned that the woman he had helped was the wife of Muhammed Ali.

While this story sounds incredible (and it’s worth noting that there is no evidence to support it), it is true that in 1969 Muhammed Ali was stranded in Fargo due to a blizzard. He was forced to wait out the storm in the Great Northern train depot. Boyd Christenson, the reporter who interviewed him there, remembered Ali looking out at the snow and saying, “It sure is white here; George Wallace would love it.”

Some of the stories are very old, but many have modern origins, or are new variations on old themes. There are, for example, two variations of the rømmegrot recipe – one for the stovetop, and one for the microwave. Rather than bemoaning a vanishing past, Kloberdanz says this kind of variation and change is an exciting thing for a folklorist to see. “For us folklorists, this is fascinating stuff,” says Kloberdanz. “We’re not bothered by how these traditions change and adapt, that’s their nature. That’s another reason to get this book out now; in 30, 50, 100 years, some of this will have changed dramatically.”

But although folklore is constantly changing, it is also, in a sense, timeless. Over the years, Kloberdanz has seen the same stories and the same traditions over and over again. Children play the same games and sing the same songs that their parents and grandparents did when they were young. And people everywhere pass on the wisdom they heard from their parents and grandparents. As Kloberdanz says, “What we find in folklore is an amazing capacity to be remembered. It’s a kind of immortality.”

Printed with permission of the High Plains Plains Reader

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