Q&A with Sheryl James, author of ‘Michigan Legends’

by Emily on May 1, 2013

Sheryl James is the author of the newly released Michigan Legends: Folktales and Lore from the Great Lakes State. Here, she discusses why Michigan is a particularly rich region for legends to spring up, how she conducted her research for the book, and more.

The University of Michigan Press: How did you approach your research for this book, and did your research take you to any interesting places?

Sheryl James: My research had to be original, or close to it – in other words, with few exceptions, I was accessing very old books and source material. Older Detroit books I found at Burton Historical Library at the main Detroit Public Library in Detroit, and in other regional libraries. Google Books was a real help in downloading many very old 1800s books; digitization is a wonderful new service offered by university libraries and other entities that are generously sharing these old books.

I traveled to Oscoda for the Paul Bunyan research and had a great day hanging out at the town’s charming historical museum. I enjoyed a wonderful trip to Mt. Pleasant to the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways, an amazing place. I also revisited Elwood Cemetery – which never ceases to amaze me – and beautiful St. Anne’s Catholic Church. I also for the first time visited Historic Fort Wayne. I have wanted to go there many times and just never found the time or opportunity. I fell in love with this place – not just the historic buildings and location on the Detroit River, but all of the stories, both American and Native American, attached to it. It is a real gem. I encourage anyone to go there. I also commend the very dedicated nucleus of people who keep this historic site alive.

UMP: As you were compiling the stories for your book, did you notice many common themes that kept appearing?

SJ: One trend or theme was the real, almost visceral connection people in the past had to the physical place we call Michigan – the land, the lakes, the rivers. The people and tales I encountered in my research all were tied so closely to their environment. This is something we feel less intensely today, since most of us do not rely directly on natural resources.  These people were ever-aware of the value of the land and water around them. It permeated their lives, but also their songs, tales, etc.

Secondly, my research into early Michigan reminded me that three forces shaped this region and state early on: the Indian tribes – the almost timeless presence of these incredible peoples; the French settlers; and the Catholic Church. Recent historical emphasis, especially on the city of Detroit, usually focuses heavily on 20th century events – the civil rights movement, etc. — which is fine. But it is inspiring to go back and “listen” to these people, to what concerned them, to get to know their heroes and struggles. There would be no Michigan had these hardy and dedicated and brave people not committed themselves to building their lives here.

But one thing I noticed and admired as I examined these materials is the quality and importance of oral tradition — both among Indians and the early European settlers. Since so much of these early populations could not read, there was a great deal of attention to the accurate handing down of history via oral tradition. Historians took note of this at the time, complimenting how rigidly youth had to learn certain stories verbatim, and were corrected at the slightest deviations. Most of us today discount oral tradition, assuming it is erroneous, etc. We all cite the game of repeating a long message from one person to another in a line, after which the original message is partially confused. But that is not how these cultures passed down their histories, legends and stories. They did so precisely, and it was a lot of fun to read sources that were, in some cases, putting these stories in print after they had existed for decades or longer in oral form only. (It is important to note that the Paul Bunyan tall-tale telling, which encouraged one-upmanship, does not qualify in this formal, oral tradition category.)

UMP: Do you think that Michigan’s somewhat extreme weather and landscape make it a particularly rich region for legends to spring up?

SJ: I certainly believe that our Great Lakes and dual peninsula geography have been huge factors in the creation of legends from this area—dating to antiquity. I also would point to the early exploration of this area by Europeans in the 1600s, which put the early French adventurers in close contact with Indians and the place we now call Canada and the Upper Midwest of the United States. The once-united region of what is now Michigan and Ontario and other Canadian provinces I believe resulted in a wealth of legends and stories springing from these people who settled in this Northern region, and those who were already here for hundreds or thousands of years. These include the trappers, hunters, scouts, early leaders in both American and Indian settlements –the depth, richness and volume of the folklore in Michigan and the area near it is really almost overwhelming.

UMP: You state in the book that “… either trying to judge those who tell the tales in this book, or attempting to render true or false the stories they relate undercuts the attempt to share these tales, to ‘hear’ our ancestors’ voices.” When looking for the voice or voices of a certain folktale, how did you go about finding a common thread in the legend’s tradition? For example, in The Nain Rouge, Demon of Detroit it seems to be more objective, while The Magical Healing Powers of the Bloodstoppers is related from somebody else’s firsthand experience. What factors influenced the book’s varied tones in the retelling of the stories?

 SJ: One of the nicest compliments I ever received from a fellow journalist was that I wrote in many voices – meaning that I reflected the tone or voice of the subject matter I was writing about. I used that instinct when writing this book. It’s more logical and enticing, I think, to write about Paul Bunyan with a hint of the tall-tale voice than just the objective writer’s voice. Tales originate in the vernacular, and when possible, using that sound can flavor a story, but also more closely approximate how it was told decades or centuries ago. This choice also depended on my original sources as well. Some had more flavor, others were more formal. The latter dictated a more traditional story-telling style.

UMP: When you were growing up, did you have a favorite legend or folktale?

SJ: The Legend of Sleeping Bear and similar stories are ones that I came to know as I grew up in Michigan. I grew up in a pretty old fashioned 1950s era, so we didn’t get exposed to many Michigan-based legends or tales.

A few years ago, I was asked to write an article about The Lone Ranger for Michigan History Magazine. As a frequent contributor to the magazine, I was pleased to get the assignment—and especially so when I realized this venerable legend that we baby boomers worshipped had actually originated on a Detroit radio station in the 1930s. I had a great time exploring this “legend” that we grew up listening to on the radio and watching on TV.

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