Yunwi Tsunsdi: Cherokee Little Folk

In addition to the nunnehi, who are powerful supernatural warriors, there is another group of faery beings in Cherokee folklore. These are the yunwi tsunsdi or “little people” (the singular form is yvwi usdi). Like the nunnehi, the yunwi tsunsdi prefer to be invisible, although they do sometimes appear to humans as miniature people—child-sized or smaller. They are well-proportioned and handsome, with hair that reaches almost to the ground. It is said that twins are especially adept at seeing these tiny creatures.

Yunwi tsunsdi are depicted as helpful, kind, and magically adept. Like many faery creatures, they love music and spend much of their time singing, drumming, and dancing. For all this, they have a very gentle nature and do not like to be disturbed. Even so, they are said to harshly punish those who are disrespectful or aggressive toward them.

In Cherokee lore, the yunwi tsunsdi are divided into three “clans”:

  • The Rock clan is the most malicious, quick to get even when offended. Some say they are like this because their space has been invaded. Like many types of European fae, they are known to steal human children.
  • The Laurel clan is generally benevolent, humorous, and joyful. They are also mischievous, however, and love to play tricks on the unsuspecting.
  • The Dogwood clan is the most favorably disposed to humans, though they are also stern, serious, and prefer to be left alone.

Each of these clans, it is said, teaches a moral lesson. The Rock clan teaches not to mistreat others lest misfortune come back against us in return. It is important to respect the limits and boundaries of others.

The lesson of the Laurel clan is not to take the world too seriously. People must always have joy and share that joy with others.

Finally, the Dogwood clan’s lesson is to treat others kindly out of the goodness of one’s heart and not in hope of reward.

Yunwi tsunsdi are perhaps the most common type of faery being in the American Southeast. Legends about the Choctaw hatak awasa and the Muskogee este lopocke, both also meaning “little people,” are quite similar to what the Cherokee say of the yunwi tsunsdi. The Catawba know of creatures that are essentially identical, which they call yehasuri (“not human ones”).

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