Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

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FOLK NARRATIVE AND LORE

The rich landscape of Oklahoma folk narrative derives from the wide array of cultural groups that settled in the Sooner State. American Indian, Eastern European, African American, Hispanic, and other ethnic groups each provide vast material that can be added to the blend of southern and midwestern American folk traditions. Although each culture has its own traditions reflecting its experiences, Stith Thompson's studies of folktale motifs show that most cultures have similar stories. In fact, many American Indian groups have modified old European and African tales to fit their traditions, which has also been reciprocated.

Scholars have researched many American Indian oral traditions in Oklahoma, producing works on Cherokee, Kiowa, and other Native groups. Less work has been done on the other ethnicities. In the 1920s The Chronicles of Oklahoma printed articles on some Oklahoma legends. In the mid-1930s Benjamin Botkin published his Folk-Say series, which produced a few studies on Oklahoma tales. The Oklahoma Federal Writers' Project collected Oklahoma folklore, using a portion of it in Oklahoma: A Guide to the Sooner State (1941). Several writers produced work on oil-field culture, including Mody Boatwright, J. Frank Dobie, Dan Garrison, and Bob Duncan. The Ozark region, which includes some of eastern Oklahoma, has received analysis, with several publications on its folklife. The cowboy culture has also been dissected, with John Lomax and later Guy Logsdon collecting ballads.

As early as 1832, while camped near the Cimarron River in present Oklahoma, Washington Irving reported hearing tales of a famous gray horse that could pace faster than the fleetest horse could run. Not long after this, Josiah Gregg repeated the same type of fantastic story of a great white stallion, a tale that he had heard on the Santa Fe Trail. These narratives of the Plains are reported by other early visitors and stem from Plains Indian encounters and stories from guides and fur traders. Settler stories are numerous in the West, but exaggerated tales of the Land Runs are uniquely Oklahoman. There are abundant anecdotes of thirsty participants trading their claims for water or whiskey, men and women leaping from moving trains to stake their choice of land, or Sooners concocting complicated ruses to conceal their early entry into the territory.

As long as there has been journalism in present Oklahoma there has been an interest in American Indian tales and legends. Newspapers and journals such as Twin Territories: The Indian Magazine regularly published articles on Indian folklore. Creek citizen Charles Gibson had his fables published throughout Indian and Oklahoma territories, relating stories such as that of the wolf and the rabbit, a motif reminiscent of Joel Chandler's Brer Rabbit tales. Tall tales, especially concerning the extremes of Oklahoma weather, have been told and retold in the history of the area. The familiar story of sticking a crowbar out of a hole in the house to test the wind (if it bends, it is safe to leave the house; if it breaks, one should stay inside) is an example. Legends of buried treasure, whether from outlaws or Spanish explorers, are well documented. One asserts that at the beginning of the nineteenth century Mexican outlaws buried a chest full of gold exactly twenty-two feet underground near Durant. During the first decade of the twentieth century several tried to recover the gold, using information from a supposed family member of the only brigand to return to Mexico. Every Oklahoma family seems to have a personal narrative tale related to outlaws. A grandfather, an uncle, or a second cousin met, hid, or was robbed by Jesse James, Ma Barker, Belle Starr, Pretty Boy Floyd, or Bonnie and Clyde. Many have a relative who claims to have met Geronimo at a parade or fair or by chance encounter, a meeting deemed important enough to pass down to subsequent generations.

Storytelling was an important part of nineteenth and early twentieth century life, and often an adept yarn spinner would be the focal point of a community gathering on a Saturday afternoon. The content of the tale, while important, did not set the speaker apart as much as the delivery, use of local humor, and social context. A popular form would be the aforementioned tall tale, which can be a brief exclamation, an extended narrative, or an embellished personal exploit. Some Oklahomans have used their storytelling art to gain a national stage, for example Will Rogers. Others, such as author George Milburn, exploited the stories that they had heard in small communities by transferring similar tales to their literary productions.

Another characteristic, which is also common nationally, is the place-name legend. A legend claims to be an historical report of past events or persons. In Oklahoma, Broken Arrow is reportedly the place where an arrow was broken to celebrate peace between warring tribes. Slapout is said to be named to reflect a local storekeeper's usual reply that he was "slap out" of the item requested. These reflect places named from local stories and traditions. Locales such as Horsethief Canyon, Robbers' Roost, and Robbers Cave (now a state park) again display myths and tales tied to the real activities of outlaws in Oklahoma. Ghost stories have not only given roads, houses, bridges, and wooded areas a specific name but have created local superstitions that last for generations. A typical tale, one that was recorded in McAlester by the Oklahoma Writers' Project in 1936, describes a house of which the front door would always swing open, whether locked or tied; because a murder had occurred in the house, the floor had a stain that could not be removed. Urban legends are not uncommon in Oklahoma. Oklahoma City and Tulsa have the usual claims of flushed alligators roaming the sewers, or of a crying woman who walks along the railroad tracks, grieving for a dead child or a lost love. Another legend, which may hold a germ of truth, claims that an elaborate series of tunnels existed under Oklahoma City, hiding a large ethnic Chinese subculture.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century sightings and stories still are reported concerning what many call bigfoot (Sasquatch), a large, hairy, manlike animal that walks on its hind legs. Most of these accounts occur in southeastern Oklahoma. In 1998 there were twenty reported sightings around the Ada area. Bigfoot and Unidentified Flying Object (UFO) sightings have continued the state's fascination with unexplained phenomena.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Benjamin A. Botkin, ed., A Treasury of Western Folklore (New York: Crown Publishers, 1951). Jonathan Brennan, ed., When Brer Rabbit Meets Coyote: African-Native American Literature (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003). Simon J. Bronner, "Storytelling," in Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, ed. Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989). Mable Caldwell, "Gleanings from the By-ways of Oklahoma Folk Lore," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 4 (March 1926). John Davis, "When the Ghosts Walked," Orbit Magazine, Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City, Oklahoma), 30 October 1977. Alexis Ann Downs, "George Milburn: Ozark Folklore in Oklahoma Fiction" (M.A. thesis, Oklahoma State University, 1978). "Indian Romances Give Names to Towns," Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City), 29 July 1923. Jack F. Kilpatrick and Anna G. Kilpatrick, Friends of Thunder: Folktales of the Oklahoma Cherokees (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995). Vance Randolph, We Always Lie to Strangers: Tall Tales From the Ozarks (New York: Columbia University Press, 1951). Walter R. Smith, "Some Legends of Oklahoma," The Chronicles of Oklahoma 4 (March 1926). Special Oklahoma Issue, Mid-America Folklore 19 (Spring 1991).

Larry O'Dell

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