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American Folk Heroes
Heroines Are Everywhere
By Karen Pierce Gonzalez ‘Queen of Folklore,' publisher of Folk Heart Press and author of ‘Family Folktales: Write Your Own Family Stories’
Folk heroes and heroines are everywhere. They are real, fictional or mythological people of the past and of the present. They are people we recognize by name, by personality and by deeds and are often the subject of films, literature, songs, tales and other elements of folklore.
American folk heroes and heroines run the gamut, from politicians and healers to scoundrels and loners, they are known by their strengths. Some are historical public figures. An example of a folk heroine whose live was well documented was Dolley Madison, pictured, the 4th First Lady of the United States (President James Madison) who also occasionally acted as First Lady during the administration of the widowed President Thomas Jefferson. She was best known for furnishing the White House and for making it into a gathering place for both Democrats and Republicans.
Other folk heroes and heroines were private individuals whose lives were not documented for posterity. However, the work of these people did as much as those more public people to change the course of life for many. A good example of that would be Jonas Salk, the medical researcher and virologist who was the first one to license a polio vaccine in 1962.
And still there are fictional folk heroes and heroines whose deeds and personalities were or are larger than life. These characters reached mythic proportions. Think of Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker or Rosy the Riveter who represents the strength and power of American women during World War II. It’s important to note here that these particular characters, while not real people, embody a composite of character traits that we American admire. These traits represent cultural values such as courage, honor, sacrifice and hard work.
Here are a few more examples of real American folk heroes/heroines:
Billy the Kid
He represents both the good and the bad of the Old West. Outside the law he was also brave and stood for individual freedom. He actually lived at a time when men made their own laws and solved their own problems, often with a gun. He took care of himself and was considered by many to be smart; he could read and write and learned to speak Spanish. Billy the Kid was, above all else, admired because he wasn’t afraid of people who were more powerful than him.
He was a Native American leader who did not welcome European intrusions into his way of life. He was an inspirational leader and fearless warrior as well as loving father and a gifted singer. His spirituality gave him faith and insights that have guided many people since. Sitting Bull was credited with never signing a treaty to sell any portion of his people’s inheritance. He was perhaps best known as the man who victoriously led the fight against Colonel Custer’s forces in Custer’s Last Stand.
This aviation pioneer challenged prejudices and financial difficulties to become one of this country’s greatest women pilots. A tomboy, she went against conventional feminine and learned to hunt with a .22 rifle. As an adult Amelia Earhart symbolized what women were capable of accomplishing. She was the first woman to receive the U.S. Distinguished Flying Cross awarded for becoming the first aviatrix to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1928. A founder of The Ninety Nines, an organization for women pilots, she disappeared during her an historic 1939 flight.
Folk heroes and heroines are not born as superstars. In fact they often begin life as everyday people who are transformed into extraordinary people by significant life events, often in response to social injustice, and sometimes in response to natural disasters. In all cases they are individuals who have found a way to apply their particular character strengths, beliefs and values to overcome adversity.
All folk heroes represent what is possible for the common person; they offer a road map, so to speak, of how to keep moving in the face of oppression or corruption and are often the people we admire most and often aspire to be like.
Karen Pierce Gonzalez ‘Queen of Folklore’ is publisher of Folk Heart Press. Karen is an award winning fiction and non fiction writer. Author of the ‘Family Folktales: Write Your Own Family Stories’ workbook and ‘Family Folktales: What Are Yours?’, she has been interested in folktales and folklore for more than two decades.
Karen Pierce Gonzalez interviewed on Big Blend Radio about American Folk Heroes To listen to the interview, please , click here.