USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘minnesota’

The Legend of the Lady Slipper

Many years ago, the Ojibwe tribe thrived in the forests of Northern Minnesota, close to the shore of the Great Lake. One harsh winter, a terrible fever struck the tribe. Many fell ill and the tribe leaders grew worried, wondering how they would find a cure. One day, word reached the tribe that there was a great and knowledgeable medicine woman in the tribe across the lake, who had found an herb that would break the fever. Unfortunately, the weather was frigid and the snow was many feet deep. The journey across the deemed impossible. However, one young woman, who’s mother and younger brother had taken ill came to the elders and volunteered to make the trek. They warned her against it, stating it was far too treacherous. But she insisted. 

Wrapped in furs and wearing moccasins on her feet, she set out into the daunting conditions. She walked for hours, freezing cold, until she at last arrived at the other tribe, just as the sun went down. The tribe took her in and warmed her by their fires. When she explained why she had come – to save her tribe, the medicine woman happily handed her herbs. They tribe asked her to stay the night and rest before returning home, but she insisted that she return that night, desperate to start healing those in her tribe. She set out once again, this time in the dead of night, into a raging storm that had started while she rested. As she walked, her moccasins fell off in the snow, but she did not want to take the time to stop and retrieve them. She continued on, the icy snow crystals cutting her feet. As she walked, she left a trail of bloody footprints in her wake. This journey back was much harder than her first and she grew weary, barely able to take another step. Just as the sun peaked over the horizon, she saw the wigwams of her tribe in the distance. She called out to her people, collapsing in the snow. They rushed to save her, carrying her inside, warming her and bandaging her torn feet. The tribe’s healer took the herbs from the girl and began to make a cure for those suffering from the fever.

Within a short time, the young girl died, but, because of her bravery, the rest of the tribe was saved. The next spring, when the snow had melted, her brother retraced her footsteps, searching for her lost moccasins, desperate for something to remember her by. Although he never found the shoes, in each place where the girl had left a bloody footprint sprouted a beautiful flower. Due to its unique shape, it was named the Ladyslipper.

My friend K told me this local legend. As a native Minnesotan, she has been heard Native American folklore since childhood. She recounts that she first heard this particular tale, “The Legend of the Ladyslipper,” when she was in third grade as a part of a school unit focusing on the history on Minnesota. The Ladyslipper is the official state flower, and this was a tale of how it came to be. K said she remembered this story in particular because she was impressed by the young woman’s bravery and dedication to her tribe and family.

For the definitive version of this legend, see The Legend of the Lady Slipper by Lise Lunge-Larsen


Dead Man’s Trail/Thief’s River Falls

Many years ago, a young Chippewa warrior was wanted for murder. He was exiled from his tribe and took up residency in the surrounding forest. One day, a young Chippewa mother was walking in the forest, carrying her baby, when the man appeared. The woman began to run and he followed suit. As the woman ran, she realized that carrying her child was slowing her down. She stopped by bend in the river and placed her baby nearby so that she could escape, vowing to return for her child. Once she had successfully escaped the warrior, she returned for her child, but found that the baby was gone, swept away by the river. 

She cursed the river, calling it “Thief’s River,” for it had stolen her child from her. She states that some even claim to hear the mother’s cries in the sound of the river and that there have been reports of hikers seeing a young Indian woman in the woods, walking along the river, in desperate search of her baby.

This story was related to me by my friend K, who has lived her entire life in Minnesota, where the Thief’s River is located. She and her family often go camping up near the river and have visited it many times. She remembers first learning the story when she stopped by the Visitor’s Center. One of the employees was giving a presentation on the Chippewa tribe and included this story as part of it. K likes the story, although she admits it is quite sad. I saw it as the ongoing hardship of motherhood, and how in nature survival of the fittest was a harsh reality for Native Americans back then. That’s why her ghost was reported near the river, because it would be a constant reminder for those alive not to do the same mistake she did.

Folk Beliefs

Fossils in the Creek

The Informant GT lived in a house with a huge backyard in Minnesota for 6 years until he moved to California at the age of 11.

GT: There’s this creek in our backyard in Minnesota, and there’s fool’s gold and ammonite fossils in it, and a bunch of other fossils I didn’t know the names for back then. It was really cool, we used to collect them.

There’s a forest behind the creek, and behind that is farmland and undeveloped territory. One of the older kids told us that if you went past the creek into that territory, there’s a guy named Dead-Eye Pete or something like that who lives there, and if he catches you he’ll kill you and turn your body into rocks and that’s what the fossils were. Since the fossils all looked really organic and we were a bunch of dumb kids, we actually thought all the fossils were made of dead people who got lost and wandered into his territory.

This story exploits a child’s fear of the unknown. The older kids referenced in the story were not interested in actually protecting the younger children by warning them off from unmapped territory, but wanted to scare them into doing what they want them to. Scary stories often pique a child’s curiosity about its subject matter more than it does to dampen it with fear.


Duck, Duck, Gray Duck

Interview Extraction:

Informant: In school, instead of playing just ‘Duck, Duck, Goose,’ we changed up the ducks. So you’d say different types of ducks, like ‘red duck, blue duck,’ whatever, and then when you said ‘gray duck,’ you’d run and ad the person you’d tag would chase you. So you just run at ‘gray duck’ instead of ‘goose.’”

Me: “Where was your school?”

Informant: “In Minnesota. They’re actually very militant about it, and they’ll insist that it’s ‘Duck, Duck, Gray Duck’ and not anything else, but like, I moved there when I was eight, so I knew from before that almost all other places called it ‘Duck, Duck, Goose.’ But they um, yeah, they insisted on the gray duck part and they thought the ‘goose’ portion was weird.”


Schoolchildren can be very adamant about protecting their games and creations. No matter where they are or what they are playing, their way will be the right way. This is evident in the  Minnesota elementary school kids who were “militant” about playing “Duck, Duck, Gray Duck,” as well as my informant, who despite being a college student, still showed signs of being upset at her old classmates. She strongly felt that it should be “Duck, Duck, Goose,” and that the Minnesota version was a singular place for playing the game differently. I admit that upon hearing the story and being introduced to the adaptation, even I felt slightly angry at these students for playing the “wrong” way. Neither I nor my informant still engage in “Duck, Duck, Goose,” but I imagine we expect to still see children playing in preschools and elementary schools years from now, and furthermore, we both expect to see it played the way we did.

Distancing myself personally from this game however, I must acknowledge that it’s interesting how “Duck, Duck, Gray Duck” even evolved. Upon researching this, I found out that Minnesota was the only state in the US and even Canada that had this version, though without any sufficient information. Even more intriguing, evidently one can now call someone a “gray duck,” and use the phrase in a derogatory way to refer to that person being born or raised in Minnesota. Clearly, childhood vendettas can run very deep, and changing up a traditional staple of schoolyards is frowned upon by all adolescents. While the Minnesotans don’t retaliate by calling residents of other states “gooses,” are determined to persist playing their own adaptation, either to distinguish themselves or to simply continue a game their own parents or teachers taught them.