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Great Plains Lore


People often use "folk belief" to refer to superstitions, old wives' tales, and unorthodox religious and medical practices. This view of folk belief reinforces a perception of already marginalized people as more exotic and backward than previously imagined. Folk beliefs are better seen as providing insights into how people live their lives and what they think of as important. Understood in this way, folk beliefs and practices provide valuable clues into how people construct their worlds and bring meaning to their experiences.

The folk beliefs of the Great Plains reflect the many groups contained within its vast boundaries. Indigenous peoples, European pioneer settlers, and more recent arrivals such as the Hmong (Laotians) all contribute to the rich cultural heritage of folklife in the Plains. Along with traditional beliefs and practices, each group creates new forms of folk belief through exposure to unfamiliar terrain, conditions, and other groups. Folk beliefs thus reflect a dynamic process of tradition making, with plenty of room for individual variations and stylistic differences along with crosscultural sharing within the region.

Folk belief takes on a regional flavor through the response of people to their immediate natural world. For instance, weather signs and omens form a vital part of folk belief within the Plains. Examples include "Rain follows the plow," "Heavy fur on animals means a severe winter," and "A tornado never hits the junction of two rivers." Sometimes weather signs are put in the form of rhymes: "Sunset red and morning gray sends the traveler on his way / Sunset gray and morning red keeps the traveler to his bed."

The world encountered by early settlers in the Great Plains was filled with wondrous and formidable creatures, many of which figure prominently in folk belief. One of the more unpleasant aspects of Plains life was the abundance of snakes. Snakes slithered by the hundreds in massive dens, crawled easily through the sod walls of Plains homes, and startled unwary humans and horses alike. A few examples of snake lore include stories about fabled "hoop snakes" and "joint snakes" and beliefs such as "Black snakes will suck cows."

Because of its deadly bite, rattlesnakes hold a special place in Plains snake lore. Kill a garter snake, and you'll get rain. But kill a rattler and get a BIG rain. Watch out for its mate, however, because "everyone knows a rattler's mate will come lookin' for it." A rattler's fangs naturally have special powers: "Be careful about killing a rattler with a lariat. Its fangs might get caught in the rope and bite you when you coil it." If this happens, be sure to apply plenty of "fresh, warm cow dung" to cure it. Ironically, rattlers also serve a medicinal function among Plains folk. To cure a headache, just place a rattlesnake's rattle in your hatband.

Of course, if that doesn't cure your headache, you might try a red bandana, wearing earrings, or finding a person born in October to rub your temples. Folk remedies and charms for good health are abundant throughout the Plains. "Unlucky enough to get a sty? Rub a wedding ring on your eye." Or say this helpful charm: "Sty, sty, come off my eye, and go to the next passerby." Of course, if that passerby gives you a black eye, a silver knife is sure to draw the soreness out! Transference also works well with warts. Should you get warts from playing with a toad, simply sell them to another person or rub them with a penny and give the penny away.

Many folk beliefs and practices deal with luck. Find a "four-leaf clover" or a "red ear of corn" for good. Spill salt and throw some over your left shoulder to avoid bad. Bad luck at cards? "Get up and walk around your chair three times or sit on a handkerchief." Animals bring luck–crickets and rabbit's feet for good and crows bad. Some animals bring both kinds of luck: "If a black cat crosses your path, it's bad," but "If a black cat comes to stay at your house, it's good." Just don't kill it, whatever you do–that's bad. Death, the ultimate bad luck, comes by many signs: birds flying into the house, dogs howling at night, rain in an open grave, and pictures falling from the wall.

Folk beliefs and practices reveal the challenges faced daily by Plains folk. They underscore such things as the importance of good weather for survival, provide ways of dealing with the unexpected, and help cope with the often-precarious conditions of life in the Great Plains.

Nikki Bado-Fralick Iowa State University

Hoy, Jim. "Rattlesnakes." In Plains Folk: A Commonplace of the Great Plains, edited by Jim Hoy and Tom Isern. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987: 3–4.

Sackett, S. J., and William E. Koch, eds. Kansas Folklore. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961.

Welsch, Roger L. A Treasury of Nebraska Pioneer Folklore. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966, 1984.