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Winter 1996, Volume 13.1



Barre Toelken

Nephites, Manitos, Obon and Yenaaldlooshi: The Dynamic Tapestry of Utah Folklore

Barre Toelken (Ph.D., U of Oregon) is Professor of English and History, as well as Director of the Folklore Program and the American Studies Graduate Program, at Utah State University. His most recent book is
Morning Dew and Roses: Nuance, Metaphor and Meaning in Folksongs (University of Illinois P, 1995).


In strictly historical terms, Utah is a relatively recent idea, a place which did not exist under that name, surrounded by nice straight boundary lines, until it was proclaimed to be so about a hundred years ago. But of course, there have been people here since ancient times, and long before anyone thought of state lines, or "The West," or "Zion," cultures flourished here, establishing the human baseline and context into which present-day Utah has grown. Folklore, the study of the ongoing, vernacular, culturally-constructed expressions of these cultures, provides us with a vivid human record of the shared values and emotions, the logical assumptions, the worldviews, and the artistic gifts of those who have peopled (shall we not say "cultured"?) the land.

These expressions have less to do with certifiable fact and date than they do with attitude, emotion, and cultural reality; hence they are often overlooked by those who are more concerned with whether something actually happened in 1862 than with why someone should keep saying it happened. Folklorists work on the assumption that a story, legend, custom, gesture, or artistic expression carried through tradition will die out if it has no function, for its very existence requires that people keep doing or saying it. If a story is still in avid circulation, it must mean something, whether we can establish a date for it or not. Historians study the gravestones, so to speak, in order to get the facts straight, while folklorists study the designs on the gravestones and ponder why some cultures keep track of names, ages, places and insist that they be carved indelibly on gravestones while other cultures in the same area obliterate a grave entirely and do not bother themselves over details such as how many years, months, and days a person lived. In other words, folklore is the aggregate of customary expression, not of data. Fact and custom are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they do run on different tracks; thus, I will try to foreground some of Utah's customary expressions, on the grounds that without knowing the meaning and the force of the area's folklore, we will not benefit extensively from knowing the area's facts. Obviously, the inverse is also true: knowing the expressions of the area will not get us far unless we also know the historical frames in which customs have functioned.

First, try to imagine this area we now call Utah devoid of its state lines. Second, try to see the place not as an empty desert basin waiting for the Mormon pioneers to come and oblige it to blossom like a rose, but rather as a dynamic arena of cultural movement. Third, at least for the moment, never mind evaluating the place in terms of who came first, but look at the constellation of cultures and movements that have animated this arena.

We may never know exactly where the Fremont and so-called "Anasazi" peoples came from, but in some part they were connected to a language empire that reached into central America, as are most of their various pueblo successors. But we have good evidence that the Navajos arrived from the far northwest (what we now call interior Alaska and western Canada) about 500 years ago. Were they, like their contemporary, Columbus, lost? Were they searching for their version of "The Indies?" We may never know. But we do know that this basically patriarchal group of hunters and fishers rather quickly—perhaps to survive in the desertturned to a matriarchal group of agriculturalists, borrowing not only planting methodology from their new pueblo neighbors, but the Emergence Myth and ritual system that goes with it. Their Athabascan cousins, the Apaches, moved more to the east, took up residence in the mountains, and retained a greater share of the hunting culture. But their cultural roots, the Athabascans of the Northwest, did not make these shifts. Today, the oral and ritual traditions of these tribes are the best (and in many case the only) evidence we have of their cultural history.

If the Navajo movement was southward into our region, it was only one of many cultural trails. Northward into this arena of tribal interaction came the Spanish (from the late 1500s), and later the Mexicans. On the earliest maps of the region, made by Spanish explorers at the command of a royal bureaucracy which would not fund undocumented travel, we see a large body of water lying to the north of a smaller lake, and off to the east side the word "Timpanogos"—possibly a reference to the Natives living there. As well, there are detailed diagrams and accounts of settlements (both Spanish and Native) in the whole region thought of then as New Spain. Spanish settlers, and later on Mexican settlers bringing the additional richness of a mestizo culture, established towns, roads, forts, churches and irrigation systems—all according to their cultural assumptions. Long before our area had become the "southwest" of the United States, it was already the "northwest" of New Spain and of Mexico.

The trail of European Americans was—as we well know—from east to west. Although they came from a number of ethnic and linguistic backgrounds, they became generically "The White Man," with all that the color and gender imply. Whether they came from relatively placid and fertile towns in the east, or from the teeming cities, the incredible spaces and geographical features of the west—to say nothing of its aridity—inspired in them a poetic hyperbole which still characterizes their conversation, literature, and today their films. Into our area came the trappers and other wanderers, and then (in large part to find peace and a place where polygamy was not illegal) came the Mormons, whose settlements introduced still another cultural signature on the landscape: a distinctive water distribution system, grid-pattern towns, windbreaks of Lombardy poplars, and a unique kind of hay stacker (and, at least in their own view, a distinctive religious perspective). With the Mormon pioneers came a small number of African Americans, and their number—while never large—was swelled by the railroad and by military service at Utah bases during World War II.

In the mid-1800s, not very long after the arrival of the Mormons, another trail was being established: perhaps blazed by the railroad, but certainly pushed by population pressures and the prospects of inland jobs, an eastward migration of Asians began, as large groups of Chinese and Japanese laborers were imported for work on the railroads, in the mines, and in the fields. Although stable immigration was restricted by various exclusion laws, Salt lake City had become a center of Japanese settlement well before 1900. Chinese cooks previously employed by the railroads started restaurants in virtually every western town. In 1942, the forced relocation of Japanese and Japanese Americans away from the west coast brought still another wave of people from west to east; many of those interned at the Topaz center (near Delta) remained in Utah after the war.

Into this complex mix of peoples from all directions have come in later years substantial populations from Laos and other parts of southeast Asia, Pacific islanders (the Utah Tongans are said to be the largest concentration of Tongans outside the Tonga Islands), Poles and others from Eastern Europe, as well as Hispanic and Latino peoples from all over Central and South America. Indeed, during the Living Traditions Festival sponsored annually by the Folk Arts Program of the Utah Arts Council, more than 80 distinct ethnic and cultural groups gather to demonstrate their dances, songs, stories, arts, and foods.

Equally clear should be the fact that in terms of cultural traditions and social dynamics, Utah is much more than the "end of the western trail," more than the home of the Mormons, more than an arid outpost in the European American world. Since all the groups who have settled here brought their folklore with them, Utah has become the exciting convergence point of several important lines, and folklore provides us with a way of seeing and appreciating what they mean and how they affect our lives. For the sake of relative simplicity, let us look primarily at the folklore of the four directions noted previously, specifically, the southward moving Navajos, the northward moving Hispanics, the westward moving European and African Americans, and the eastward moving Japanese.

When a group of people move far from their traditional homes, they leave many objects behind, but they always bring their traditions along. And especially when they move to a place quite different from their homeland (in terrain, or language), their traditions are usually all they have to establish a sense of stability and identity: their language becomes even more important than it was at home, their songs and stories are now full of nostalgia, their customs become almost rituals of remembrance. Folklorists have used the term "marginal distribution" to describe the presence of tradition far out on the margins of a group's migration. For example, British settlers to America brought with them folktales, language, and ballads which thrived here more vividly than they did contemporaneously in Britain; hence, we find some older terms and pronunciations here in the United States that have died out or have become more quickly modified in England, we collect folktales in the Appalachians that are no longer heard in England, and we can find ballads being sung in the Ozarks which have not been heard traditionally in Scotland for a couple of generations. Similarly, Hispanic American scholars who have grown up in New Mexico speaking a form of Spanish brought here in the late 1500s have found that they have little trouble doing research on 16th Century documents when they go to Spainfor their own language in New Mexico is closer to the older forms than is the modern language of Spain. Japanese Americans who picked up their parents' language at home in the 1930s and 1940s may not have known it, but they were learning the language their parents had grown up with in Meiji-era Japan. Today, Japanese Americans use a number of terms which are not heard in modern Japanese, and they still sing lullabies to their children which were last heard in Japan before the Second World War. And this phenomenon, which might be called "traditional life on the cultural margin," can be illustrated by the folklore of virtually every group in Utah. Considering that traditions on the margin of a culture's reach are more intensely felt than at the culture's center (where they may not seem to count as much), we can see that Utah has become culturally richer than we might initially have imagined, precisely because it forms an intersection for more than a hundred cultural margins.

The northern Athabascan cultures from which the Navajos stem are still located in Alaska and western Canada. The language group that holds them all together is widely studied, and the cultural customs of all the Athabascan groups are the subjects of a number of anthropological and folklore works. But the process by which the Navajos changed their culture from patriarchal to matriarchal, and from hunter/fisher to agriculturalist is not easy to trace. But the evidence of marginal distribution is heavily found in their folklore because of the way it has intensified certain features of their traditional world. For example, the animals which in the northland would be considered relatives and whose skins would have been finished and worn for clothing are now taboo for the Navajo: the bear, the wolf, the mountain lion, the coyote are encountered only in story and in ritual. So powerful a symbol is the bear that one should not even speak the word. Coyote is the main character in the most common of folktales told by Navajos, but his figure and function are considered so interconnected with health, psychological stability and nature that the stories are properly told only in the winter (between the first killing frost and the first thunderstorm). Dressing up in animal skins—common in the clothing traditions of the north—is a symptom of witchcraft for the Navajos, and indeed, the most common rumors and contemporary legends (that is, stories told as factual) among younger Navajos today concern the so-called "skinwalkers," yenaaldlooshi (literally "evil running like a canine), whose activities are self-centered, competitive, and thus destructive. Other folk expressions among the Navajos include silverwork (learned from the Spaniards and Mexicans), weaving (learned from the pueblos), herbal remedies and refreshments, and songs (many of them influenced by "Anglo" music).

The Navajos have retained and intensified many of their older traditions, modifying them to suit their more recent context, and have been at the same time ready and willing to adopt the ways and expressions of other groups into their repertoires. Navajos today often use two-way radios in their pickups to exchange jokes and discuss the locations of ceremonies—but all in Navajo.

In the Hispanic traditions of Utah we still hear stories of La Llorona, the weeping woman, who is seen along riverbanks dressed in a white gown or a shroud looking for her lost or murdered children. Men are said to be mesmerized or driven crazy by her, or they die of fright when she turns and reveals the face of a horse or a skull. Teenagers pursue her hazy figure along dark paths at night trying to penetrate her mystery; mothers tell their daughters about her, hoping to inhibit premarital sex; girls in reform schools speak of her almost like a matron saint. The stories of course dramatize much about Spanish ghost lore and about the status of women, but they are also thought to come down in part from traditions about Malinche, the Indian woman who bore children for Hernan Cortez. Does the story dramatize a cluster of concerns about cultural interaction between Spanish and Indian, phrased in terms of gender and status? Whatever the deeper cultural meanings of this story may be, the legend itself—like the mestizo culture which gives it a living context—is a mixture of elements which did not exist in this form either in Spain or in the New World before the 1500s. Similarly, the legend of the Virgin of Guadalupe combines Spanish Christian and Native American ideas about religion in a vignette so powerful that she has become virtually the icon of Mexican ethnic and national identity. Folk medicine customs involving susto (shock) and mal ojo (evil eye), though they come from Mediterranean and Iberian backgrounds, are nonetheless experienced, diagnosed, and treated according to a curanderismo grounded in Native plants, minerals, rituals, and psychological principles which continue to function in the ethnic neighborhood context even when people also visit formally trained medical doctors.

Alongside such dynamic mixtures we also see many of the older traditional folk customs which mark Utah as an important "margin" of the wideflung Spanish migrations: forms, usages, and customs which may or may not still be dynamic in Spain are found in lively articulation here on the periphery. In Utah we can still hear cuentos (folktales), entrega de novios (extemporaneously composed wedding songs), alabados (funeral songs), corridos ("border ballads" about local heroes), as well as birthday serenades outside people's homes in the middle of the night. Padrino (godparent) customs remain common, along with all their related traditions of celebration and responsibility. Dance bands and singing groups abound, which provide entertainment and accompaniment for social occasions. Makers of piñatas (papiér maché figures loaded with small gifts) and coronas supply the items and clothing needed for ethnic birthday parties, quinceañera, and special church festivities. New Mexican Hispanics in Utah (who call themselves Manitos), are especially aware of the longstanding network of cattle trails, family enterprises, social events, and marriages which have served to connect their Utah communities with their New Mexican roots for over 200 years.

As we might imagine, European American folklore in Utah expresses the shared values and frustrations of the "westering" trappers and pioneers, along with the accumulated perspectives of their descendants, who often unfortunately saw themselves as opponents or adversaries of the Indians and the Hispanics. Their stories are of Indian attacks, massacres, battles, survival against overpowering odds, miraculous deliverances from danger. One of their favorite genres is the tall tale, or exaggerated account of local geography and weather. People complained about the constant wind, which often blew the sand from around prairie dog holes (the animals would fall and break their necks), or blew the beams from car headlights and streetlamps right off the road (but of course that was back when the lights weren't as strong as they are now). Ask someone in Monticello, "Does the wind always blow this way around here?" and you may hear the answer, "Nope. Sometimes it blows that way!" And you may then be treated to an account of the time the wind stopped altogether and everyone in town (plus a few buildings) fell down. Is it true that farmers in St. George feed cracked ice to their chickens to keep them from laying hardboiled eggs? Is it true that during the forty days and forty nights of rain mentioned in the story of Noah's flood, San Juan county got only a quarter inch? Is it true that they raise such good racehorses in Box Elder County because horses there have to graze at thirty miles an hour just to stay alive? Is it true that the lizards in Iron County run because they would fry if they stopped? We may never know the absolute "factual" answers to these questions, but if we were to spend some time trying to make a living in any of these places, we would certainly find these questions less absurd. Indeed, we would recognize that they reflect not a pack of lies but a bundle of realities, phrased in hyperbolic language—obviously then not to be shrugged off as nonsense.

Local and family legends are also an important ingredient in Utah European American folklore. Families whose ancestors crossed the plains tell of sisters sleeping on the ground, one of whom froze to death in the night; their mother—in an intensely moving tableau scene—had to cut their hair apart with a knife to separate the surviving sister from her dead sibling. Mormon families tell of the event that caused their great grandfather to convert to Mormonism, or the adventures experienced by grandma while crossing the plains. These stories are called legends for a particular reason: they are believed to be true by those who tell them, but they are not told by eyewitnesses. The story has come orally (and sometimes from family memoirs) from one person to another, and has been polished and intensified along the way until it represents a whole cluster of cultural, religious, family, and personal truths.

One of the most famous of these has been called "Goldilocks on the Western Trail" by folklorists because of its ubiquitous appearance among the descendants of western pioneers. A family member will tell you something like "Well, in our family, we tell about how great-grandma was almost sold to the Indians." When you ask—as you must—"How did that come about?" you will be told that the wagon train was on its way west when one evening Chief Joseph, or Geronimo, or Crazy Horse came into camp to barter for food. His eyes lit on a cute little blonde girl, and he immediately asked how much her purchase price was. Her father (our narrator's great-great-grandfather), sensing the possibility for humor, asks for fifty horses. The chief goes away, but comes back the next evening with fifty horses, at which the father of course raises the price. This goes on for several days while tension in camp mounts. When the father finally admits it was a joke, the chief looks so crestfallen that the girl's mother cuts off one of the girl's golden curls and presents it to him. He responds with a gift (a silver thimble, an arrowhead, an eagle feather fan) which is still in the family possession (and perhaps nearby on the mantle, where it can be shown off as proof that the story is true).

Besides the fact that this story, like so many intercultural dramas, plays on the racial fear that mature men from darker cultures covet the innocent females in lighter ones, the legend also dramatizes several real issues and themes in the Euro-American west. For one thing, it allows a family to demonstrate its very early arrival in the west (when famous Indians were still to be seen up close). It illustrates a culture in which the main players are males who make all the decisions. Most powerfully, it portrays Indians intruding into the white domain and threatening their family stability at a time when in fact thousands of white people were invading Indian lands and threatening Native cultural stability. Such stories project onto the victim the guilt for actions deeply unsavory to the perpetrators themselves, providing us with a very complicated set of cultural documents in which the manifest details may not be historical, but in which the feelings and motivations come close to the roots of history. It is important to note that there are at least twelve Utah families who tell this story, plus about fifteen families in Oregon, several in Idaho, and several more in California. For these stories all to be factual, the famous chiefs like Geronimo and Joseph must have been very busy along the western trail indeed. So perhaps some of these stories were borrowed from others and incorporated into a family's traditions after they arrived in the west. If so, then, how many of these stories can be said to be accurate? Actually, the diaries and journals of these same families (those that we have access to) make no mention of the event, so it is possible that it never happened at all. But let's be generous and allow that maybe it happened to one family. Then why do all the others tell it? Because it dramatizes a constellation of assumptions, fears, stereotypes, and customs which in large part defined the family in its formative years, in cultural terms understandable to westerners in general.

A very well known legend cluster told among and by Mormons depicts the helpful appearances of the Three Nephites (according to Mormon scripture, three of Christ's disciples still alive in the western hemisphere). The earliest of Nephite stories tell of how an isolated farmer or rural child is saved from appendicitis or a throat infection by the sudden appearance of a kindly old man who asks for food, effects a cure, then disappears without a trace. In later years, missionaries in distant lands are provided with food wrapped in their mother's own dishtowel; still later, an elderly hitchhiker provides a family with important genealogical information (or yesterday's newspaper from London, in which an obituary provides the data) to help complete the family genealogy; still later, an elderly man warns of race riots and then disappears; more recently, a family is admonished to get in its food supply. In other words, the legends about the Nephites follow the realities of Mormon concerns through the years, and this can hardly be called nonsense. Yet the stories themselves, passed around in oral tradition, never become part of Mormon scripture as such; the existence of the Nephites is doctrine, but their exploits as described in family legends are not. This important window into shared Mormon attitudes and values (for example, the belief that virtuous people can receive superordinary help) is provided by the living vernacular record, by folklore; the stories, far from being childish fantasies, are stirring dramatizations of abstract beliefs, phrased in the concerns of the immediate world in which the narrators live. If one wants to learn about Mormon religion, one can inquire into the various sources which provide an official account of Latter-day Saint theology and belief; if one wants to learn about Mormon culture, one must listen to the ongoing vernacular conversation.

By 1900, Salt Lake City had become the center of a large geographical area of Japanese and Japanese American settlement. Buddhist churches had been established in Ogden and Salt Lake City and Honeyville; Japanese workers from all over the region were brought to Salt Lake for burial (often the midpoint in an eventual transfer of cremated remains back to Japan). Japanese folk traditions and foods have thrived here: proverbs, folk cures, ghost stories, and cultural observances have remained strong up to the present day. In fact, the annual Obon festival, originally a Buddhist celebration for deceased ancestors, draws crowds of friendly onlookers in Salt Lake and Ogden every summer, and has encouraged the maintenance and even revival of dance forms and taiko drumming among the third and fourth generation (sansei and yonsei).

In World War II internment camps, many Japanese Americans—ghettoized for the first time—had the chance to learn and practice older and more classical forms of cultural expression because of their lengthy proximity to older friends and relatives; the shakuhachi (a bamboo flute), and the okoto (a thirteen stringed horizontal harp played on the floor), both considered classical instruments, became important for their vernacular capacity to represent cultural identity among a people under cultural stress. Flower arrangement and formal stitchery, also once considered artistic accomplishments for elite ladies, are practiced in clubs and at home as a display of culturally shared aesthetics. The making of temari, balls of colored threads wound in such a way as to produce complex geometric patterns on the surface of the sphere, was once a way of using up extra thread or of saving the matching threads of a kimono (kimono are taken totally apart when cleaned), but have become crafts reminiscent of cultural heritage—as has paper-folding (origami), by now an almost universally recognized expression of Japanese design and intensity of labor-in-art. It is important to recognize that these art forms in America have attained a symbolic dimension of meaning that goes beyond their original modes of use in Japan; vernacular they may be, but they are excerpted for special reference from a much larger range of cultural expression embodied in the everyday life of Japan. The everyday life of Japanese Americans is essentially American in nature, with the Japanese folk expressions playing the special role of cultural marker, ethnic identifier, socially constructed symbol.

The folklore of all these peoples is not exactly what it was in the past, for folklore—like people and cultures—is elastic and dynamic. It addresses itself to the maintenance of cultural stability in a world of constant change. It registers culturally shared values, culturally perceived fears and anxieties, and culturally constructed ideals and goals. In this process, folklore is more reminiscent of literature than of history, for it focuses not on data and information, but on shared emotion and cultural perspective. Indeed, without a serious consideration of the rich vernacular record, one can hardly get beyond the cold facts of demographics and famous names and into the spirit of the culture. The real flavor of Utah, its ongoing sense of itself, is most fully and genuinely registered in the interactive dynamics of its people' folklore.


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