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Having worked in the field of local history for fourteen years, I’ve had occasion to hear about a number of local history legends, stories that people bandy about in viral fashion that aren’t necessarily based in fact. There’s a particular legend that my dad told me about when I was in elementary school, which I heard repeated this week, the day after a tornado roared through Wadena. The locals all know the legend, which is that our town will be safe from bad weather so long as a certain Ojibwe chief’s grave is not disturbed. This was supposedly a death bed proclamation from the chief.
In all of my time with the Historical Society, I have not yet found any confirmation of this legend, which makes me want to examine it further, in Mythbusters fashion. If you’re unfamiliar with Mythbusters, a program on the Discovery Channel, the hosts, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, and their co-hosts, set about doing scientific experiments in order to prove or disprove urban legends. While a historic legend isn’t necessarily testable using a scientific method, there are certain methods historians can use to test the factual accuracy of a legend.
I had an opportunity this weekend to discuss a plan of investigation with my family regarding the legend of the chief and his protection of our city from storms. The plan involves trying to answer a number of questions, with each answer hopefully getting me closer to proving or disproving the legend. Here are the questions we posed:
1) Is the chief’s grave located where tradition says it is? Is the chief actually buried there?
2) Is there any confirmation in the historic record that the chief made this death bed proclamation?
3) What is the definition of bad weather in relation to the legend? I’ve also heard it said that there will be no tornadoes due to the chief’s proclamation. Is it limited to tornadoes, or does it include other severe weather events?
4) Has the grave ever been disturbed and if so, was this event followed by severe weather? (With this particular question, even if answered in the affirmative, we have to remember that correlation does not equal causation.)
5) If the legend didn’t come from a confirmed death bed proclamation, when and how did it arise?
6) Does the legend appear within the oral tradition of the chief’s tribe and/or descendants, or is it limited to the oral tradition of the town’s citizens?
These are starting point questions, which may lead to further questions as each is examined. (Secondary questions are already developing after a tiny bit of research.) I’ll be continuing my research on this local legend at work, with the hope of publishing what I find in our quarterly newsletter.