Classifying Native American Little People (1)

How_Morning_Star_Lost_her_Fish_-_from_Stories_the_Iroquois_Tell_Their_Children_by_Mabel_Powers_1917When I first started writing Children of Pride, I knew I wanted the story to reflect great cultural diversity. That’s why you’ll find the world of Taylor Smart populated not only with the traditional faeries of European folklore but also with mythological creatures from North America and Africa. The mundane United States is a diverse melting pot, so why not its faery realm?

But how to bring together the often contradictory takes on spirit-folk, little people, or what have you? Admittedly, this would still be a problem if I had limited myself to a single culture’s folklore—the various stories aren’t easily harmonized. Adding in different cultures just ramped up a problem I already knew I’d face.

To deal with the problem, I made two decisions. First, I decided that no culture would be shown to be 100% correct in their faery beliefs. I would try to account for as much of the cultural data as I could, but in the end, I was the writer. It was my fantasy universe, and everybody would have to play by my rules.

Second, I decided that the countless faeries and faery-like beings of world mythology should actually fall into a small number of “templates” or “archetypes”: tricksters, satyrs, nature spirits, domestic spirits, elementals, etc. This provided a level of uniformity against which the beings found in particular cultures or mythologies could serve as variations on a theme.

In light of this second decision, I was delighted to find a recent blog post by Mason Winfield in which he has developed a different (to me) way of classifying the “little people” of Iroquois folklore. In this post, I want to summarize Winfield’s model. In a follow-up, I’ll see how the model might apply to the faery folk of other Native American cultures.

A Three-Tribe Model

Winfield’s post, by the way, is an excellent primer on the faery folk of northern Europe as well as their transatlantic cousins. His specialty, however, is in the legends of the Iroquois of upstate New York. He writes,

Most Algonquian-language groups call their Little People “Puckwudgies.” The Iroquois / Haudenosaunee people nickname them “Jungies.” Their correspondences to the Celtic wee folk are remarkable. Their wonted sites in New York State are intricate natural spaces: a stairstep waterfall, a natural gas well, a curious valley.

He goes on to explain how, in the older versions of these legends, the Iroquois conceived of three tribes of “Jungies” that “embody the three functions of the fairies worldwide.” These are the “Hunters,” who share a close connection with the Underworld; the “Plant Growers,” who are linked to the natural world and its cycles; and the “Stone Throwers,” who are most likely to be seen by human beings and hence, by human children. I have described these three tribes in an earlier post about the Jogaoh, from which the term “Jungies” no doubt comes.

A Two-Tribe Model

So, here we have what we might call a “three-tribe model” of the little people. Winfield notes, however, that by the mid-twentieth century, most people who held to these beliefs seemed to report only two tribes. He explains,

The American literary and social critic Edmund Wilson (Apologies to the Iroquois, 1960) found only two of the fairy nations surfacing in living report. Wilson (1895-1972) called them, “Healers” and “Tricksters.”

Winfield confirms that his own Native American contacts say the same. So does his colleague, Michael Bastine, whose area of specialty is the Algonquin culture (in Québec and Ontario). I can’t find reference to “Healers” and “Tricksters” in the Google Books version of Apologies to the Iroquois, but that can be chalked up to the relevant pages being blocked out.

Winfield proposes that the “Healers” are an updated version of the “Plant Growers.” Given the strong connection between plant lore and herbal medicine and Native American healing traditions, this makes perfect sense.

As for the “Tricksters,” their origins are a bit more murky—and they themselves are more foreboding. In 1975, Tuscarora Chief Elton Greene sat for an interview with Virginia Scipione, a librarian at the Lewiston (NY) Public Library. The typewritten transcript of this interview is preserved on the library’s web page. In it, Chief Greene discusses, among other things, legends he has heard about the “little people” from Elias Johnson. According to Chief Greene,

[H]e has told me a lot when I was small of the legends and traditions of what it used to be like in the early days. There is one that is very interesting to everybody about the dwarfs or very small persons. What we call in our language ______.* That means a degraded human race. He told me they were about 28 to 30 inches tall and he had seen them lots of times when he was a boy, when he was small. They liked to play around the trees. They liked to fool around with the children and the parents don’t like that because they claim that they will give peculiar spirits to the children if they let them fool around them because they are very smart. They have seen their tracks a lot of times on the highways. His mother at night (he used to live in a little log house just a little ways from there and they had a fireplace) said they would climb up there and go thru the chimney. They would come down there during the summer. They would make noise and wake them up and then they would run back up there. They would build a little fire to keep them out.

To summarize, Winfield perceives two basic categories of “little people.” On the one hand are the “Healers,” immensely powerful beings who are generally kind and helpful to humans (though they can still be dangerous if insulted). On the other hand are the “Tricksters,” a “degraded human race” whose members are mischievous and perhaps even malevolent. They are not, however, generally in the same “weight class” as those in the first category.

Furthermore, Winfield suggests this classification works cross-culturally. It holds up not only in the context of Iroquois culture but also Algonquin.

In my next post, I want to test this classification against some of the Native American cultures of the Southeast.

* The name is left blank in the typewritten transcript. Apparently, it should be “oogweshiya.” At least, that is how it is rendered on the Lewiston Public Library page where the interview is introduced.