Dakota Folklore Book Explores Area Tales of Mystery, Culture

Lamb, John. "Dakota Folklore Book Explores Area Tales of Mystery, Culture." Forum, 13 February 2011, sec. B1 & B3.

Have you ever wondered how to predict the next year’s weather with just an onion? Or what the medicinal powers of rømmegrot are? Or heard about the monster fish of the Garrison Dam?

All are part of North Dakota folklore and documented in the new book “Sundogs and Sunflowers: Folklore and Folk Art of the Northern Great Plains.”

While the stories come from all corners of North Dakota, they were compiled by Timothy Kloberdanz, professor emeritus of anthropology at North Dakota State University, and his former student Troyd Geist, the state’s folklorist with the North Dakota Council on the Arts.

The men will sell and sign copies of their book Thursday at NDSU’s Memorial Union Gallery.

They both call the work a “huge” project, having spent countless hours poring over more than 10,000 pieces of material over the last five years. Compiling the book involved more than 1,000 people, from storytellers to folktale collectors and photographers.

The final product is a 350-page tome dedicated to the culture of the region.

Ranging from Indian ghost stories to old wives’ tales to examining German-Russian crafts and regional Scandinavian foods, the book covers the region’s heritage as it has been orally passed down for generations.

“Folkore comes into your life very early, at the time you are born,” Kloberdanz says. “And folklore is with you when you die, when relatives are bringing food over to the house. That’s folklore; that’s an unofficial tradition.”

Dakota traditions

Kloberdanz says the project started more than 30 years ago, after he came to NDSU from Colorado and began teaching a folklore class.

Knowing students would learn more in the field than from books, he instructed them to go out, meet people and collect the stories they told and the stories told to them.

The gathered tales are bundled into chapters, including weather lore, folk medicine and another on hunting, fishing and trapping traditions.

“What was exciting about the book was to find how truly ingrained and integrated the traditions are in the lives of people of North Dakota,” says Geist, one of Kloberdanz’s former students.

Geist points out a piece in the chapter on folk medicines, about how Norwegians believed the cream pudding rømmegrot supplied new mothers with the calcium they’d lose while breastfeeding. He even includes recipes for the Scandinavian treat from Fort Ransom and Kenmare, N.D.

The authors also spend time exploring the significance in designs of Ukrainian Easter eggs, some of which could signify fertility and a good harvest or be placed in a yard or window sills to protect from prairie storms.

Geist recalls meeting Wisconsin folklorists who were surprised how those beliefs were still observed in this part of the country.

“Here it’s still known and practiced in our state,” he says. “How rooted and how the traditions are still lived was the most exciting for me.

“In some cases, there is folklore found in other parts of the country, and when it gets into our area, we all shape it and form it so it’s our own and instinctive to us.”

Community stories

Bibliophile Kevin Carvell was excited when he first saw “Sundogs and Sunflowers” on the shelf.

A collector of North Dakota books, he calls the book a “wonderful compilation of tidbits of folklore.”

While some tales were new to him, others, like sightings of the Kindred light – a tale of strange lights hovering over the city, also spotted near Lynchburg and Wyndmere – he’d heard before.

“What makes folklore is that it always varies a little bit as it goes from community to community and family to family,” Kloberdanz says.

The book also contains a number of divers’ sightings of giant sturgeon around the Garrison Dam, though the tales come from different areas, such as Bismarck and Rugby.

Growing up with a German-Russian heritage in Colorado, Kloberdanz was surprised when he stumbled across similar traditions in North Dakota, like the onion ritual.

During the 12 days of Christmas, folks would cut 12 like-sized pieces from the same onion, one for each month. The pieces would be set on a window sill, with an equal amount of salt in each. The one with the most water in it would foretell the wettest month.

“I knew of that tradition, but I was surprised how common it was in North Dakota and still is to this day,” Kloberdanz says. “Some people would swear by it.”

While some stories travel across the country, Kloberdanz says this region has one unique set of folktales.

“I’m convinced there is no area of the country that can even come close to the richness of stories we have dealing with winter and blizzards and cold winters and so on,” he says.

He talks about snow angels, the mysterious strangers that appear and offer help at someone’s hour of distress and then disappear. He turns the table to tell of “The Girl in the Storm,” a variation of Red Sovine’s story-song about “Big Joe and Phantom 309,” or the “Large Marge” version in the movie “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” only it takes place near Jamestown.

The book also has a number of cautionary tales about stranded motorists who try to hoof it home through a snowstorm, only to freeze to death not knowing they were just feet from their door.

“We’ve turned it into an art form, too,” Kloberdanz says of the storytelling. “I’ve been to more than one event where one person tries to outdo the other. The strange thing is a lot of these stories are quite true. … Truth is stranger than fiction in many cases.”

Reprinted with permission of The Forum.

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