Paissake: Forest Spirits of the American Midwest

Illinois_River,_ORPaissake are magical little people of Central Algonquian folklore, similar to European gnomes or fairies. Paissa is singular; the proper plural form is paissake. There is a wide range of spellings in the various Central Algonquian languages (Sauk, Fox, Kickapoo, Menominee, Miami-Illinois, etc.), but the pronunciation is roughly similar across languages, approximately pah-ee-sah.

Paissake means “little ones,” and they are said to be diminutive creatures—perhaps as little as two feet tall. In most stories, paissake are portrayed as mischievous but generally benign nature spirits who live in the forest and play tricks on mortals. Though they are tricky, they are not generally dangerous.

In other stories, however, paissake have more formidable magic powers and pose a threat to humans or even to the divine culture hero Wisake, but usually only if they are provoked. In some Miami traditions, paissake played a more important religious role as guides to lead the spirits of the dead along the Milky Way to the afterlife.

In the Fox and Sauk tribes, the native names for the Little People also include the twin heroes Lodge Boy and Thrown Away. These heroes are also little people, but are not really dwarves or pygmies. Rather, they are magical children who never grow up. In the folklore of these peoples, the names “Paia’shiwuk” or “Apayashihaki” can be seen referring either to the magical boys or to the forest-dwelling tricksters. In other Algonquian cultures, these magical twins are not referred to as paissake.

The paissake have been associated with the so-called “Piasa Bird,” a kind of Native American dragon depicted in a mural in Illinois on the bluffs above the Mississippi River. This creature is not, however a paissa at all. The name became attached to it due to misunderstanding or simple ignorance on the part of early European settlers in the region. Piasa (by any spelling) definitely does not mean “the bird that devours men” or anything of that nature.

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