Informant: So in terms of where I grew up there are like sand dunes and they’re called The Sleeping Bear Dunes. And so there was there’s like a story. I’m gonna butcher the story, but we would learn it growing up. So, like a long time ago a mother bear and her two cubs had to swim across Lake Michigan to escape a forest fire. And so the bears swam for many hours, because the lake is massive, but soon the cubs got tired? And the mother bear reached the shore first and climbed to the top of a hill to like watch and wait for the babies. And it’s like so so sad, but the cubs drowned within sight of the shore. And so the Great Spirit created two islands to mark the spot where the cubs disappeared and then created a solitary dune to represent the mother bear and how she had to watch her babies in the lake. And we would go like in third- It’s usually around third grade. We would go on field trips to the dunes and before you go, they would read that story to you.
My informant learned this as part of her education in Michigan. She was actually homeschooled after elementary school, but she said this was one of her most vivid memories from the Michigan school system.
My informant is one of my roommates, a 20-year-old dance major at USC. She’s from Michigan and this performance took place in our kitchen as she was cooking.
This legend is told before children visit the actual site of the dunes, but it’s taught as a story rather than the truth of what happened and why the dunes and the island are there along Lake Michigan. I didn’t realize it until halfway through the performance, but this is a Native American legend and when I asked her if she knew which tribes had this legend, she said that she was never taught the tribes’ names, just that it was a Native American myth. It struck me how this story is told as a Native American legend, but with most of the context stripped from it, so it becomes part of Michigan’s history while still being othered.
For more information on the legend of the Sleeping Bear Dune, see, https://project.geo.msu.edu/geogmich/bearlegend.html
or for more on the appropriation of this story see,
Interviewer: “Can you tell the story of the Devil’s Kettle?”
Informant: “So the Brule River in Cook County, Minnesota has an interesting attribute. Above the upper falls, there is a large hole into which about a third of the river empties, and it has always been known as the Devil’s Kettle… and the folklore has it that umm… nobody knows where the water that goes into the Kettle actually comes out. There are rumors that it goes to China, that it goes to Hell, hence the name Devil’s Kettle, or that it empties somewhere else downriver, or out into the lake itself, the great lake known as Gitche Gumme, otherwise known as Lake Superior. Over the many years there have been people who said they would try and dam the Kettle so they could go down and check it out, rappel down with mountain climbing gear… umm, there have been reports of people throwing die and things like that to see where the die would come out, if they would come out at all. I don’t actually know if any of them are true or if any of those things have ever happened. I’ve been hiking the Brule River trail since I was a small child, so fifty some years, and the Kettle was always that legend and always that mystery and out end objective of the hikes was always to get to the Kettle, to see what water was going in, to see what sticks and other debris were going in, those kinds of things. Um, I’m not aware of any legends of people falling into the Devil’s Kettle but it wouldn’t surprise me. I know it’s been the… uh, been a part of a couple of novels along the way, that use the Kettle as part of their plot.”
The informant’s family owns a cabin nearby the Brule River in Minnesota that is used for vacation, so the informant has been immersed in this legend since childhood. When asked what theories he believes about where the water goes, the informant instead noted that he prefers it remains a mystery as that is what makes the location itself special.
This conversation was recorded in the living room of the informant’s home, but the legend in question addresses a location in northern Minnesota.
This is a great example of a geographical legend. I have visited the Kettle many times, and have often dreamed of being able to swim into the hole to discover myself where the water might lead. This legend has become a defining factor of the local towns, and it would be very interesting to interview local residents in Minnesota and compare their contributions to the theories mentioned above.