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David A. Schwinghammer

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Bloodstoppers and Bearwalkers (book review)
By David A. Schwinghammer
Last edited: Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Posted: Wednesday, July 15, 2009

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David A. Schwinghammer

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           >> View all 154
Michigan's Upper Peninsula was a very strange place.

In 1946 folklorist Richard Dorson crossed the Straits of Mackinac entering "an uncharted world of folk societies." He spent five months in the field interviewing Lake Superior fisherman, lumberjacks, miners, Ojibway Indians, and immigrants who worked in the copper and iron mines of the Upper Peninsula.

Dorson got the title from old-timers who said they had the power to stop blood from flowing from a wound or nosebleed, sometimes doing this over the phone. The Bearwalkers were evildoers similar to the Navajo Skinwalkers.

Some of the most fascinating passages deal with the Finlanders who emigrated from Lapland. They believed in noitas, or religious magicians, who cured the sick, charmed or cursed evildoers, and protected their people against invaders. In the old country, noitas were often burned for witchcraft. Dorson interviewed a man who claimed a noita hung by his neck for a week or two, and when he was cut down, twisted his neck about a bit and said, "This is good training for the neck muscles."

The Cornishmen, who worked in the copper mines, were almost as interesting as the Finns. These "Country Jacks" as they were called had many strange beliefs that have become local customs. A rooster crowing at midnight is the sign of death of a relative; a green Christmas makes a fat graveyard; if you wash your blankets in May, you drive your friends away; never return borrowed salt.

Dorson compares the old time lumberjacks of the Upper Peninsula to medieval knights in respect to standards of valor, honor, justice, and chivary. "The teamsters cherished their horses and the axeman their broadaxes as ever the armored knight his war steed and broadsword." Both spent a lot of time fighting for sheer fun. And, of course, they liked to drink. After six or seven months in the woods, they would blow four or five hundred dollars on rot gut whiskey.

The iron miners were another fascinating group. To kill a rat in the mine was worse than murder. Rats knew ahead when the ground was breaking; they could hear it. Also, the relationship between the miners and the owners provided grist for a curious folklorist. Cousin Jacks were followed by Finlanders, Swedes, Italians, Bohunks, Poles, and Irish. They were suspicious and envious of each other and couldn't understand each other, a situation the owners rather liked.

Dorsons chapter headings will give you a further idea of the ground he covered: Indians Stuffed and Live; Bearwalkers; Tricksters and Thunders; Canadians; Cousin Jacks; Finns; Bloodstoppers; Townsfolk; Lumberjacks; Miners; Lakesman; and Sagamen.

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