Classifying Native American Little People (2)

Little_people_from_Stories_Iroquois_Tell_Their_Children_by_Mabel_Powers_1917Mason Winfield has observed that Iroquois and Algonquin informants today generally speak of two distinct classes or tribes of “little people,” whom he designates “Healers” and “Tricksters.” The former are more magically potent and more beneficial to mere mortals. The latter are the ones most likely to interact with humans—especially children—but they are also more mischievous, if not outright malevolent.

This all got me wondering if the same typology might work in more southerly Native American cultures. This post, then, is going to be a ridiculously brief summary of my preliminary findings. I should also say up front that I am a complete and utter amateur and I know it! I’m sure there are details I’ve missed because I didn’t even know to look for them, and I welcome any constructive criticism.

At the outset, I should explain that “little people” seems to function in many Native American languages as a shorthand term for any sort of supernatural or uncanny humanoid. It is thus comparable to the way “troll” is used in later Scandinavian folklore. Even something like the “Deer Woman” can be called one of the “little people.” The Creeks even have a type of little people that they call the “tall people”! Size, therefore, seems at best a secondary concern—although, in fact, most of the beings we’re about to discuss are unusually short.

With that said, let’s get underway.

Cherokee

I expected to find a better fit with Winfield’s two-tribe model in Cherokee folklore than I did. They do, after all, speak an Iroquoian language—although they have been separated from their northern cousins for thousands of years.

There is definitely a two-tribe model in place among the Cherokee. They speak of a more powerful and more benevolent race called the nunnehi, “people who live anywhere” and a more morally mixed group called the yunwi tsunsdi, “little people” properly so called.

The nunnehi are not, though, strongly connected with growing plants or providing medicine. In other words, they don’t obviously fit Winfield’s “Healer” classification. I say they are not strongly connected because Donald N. Panther-Yates (The Eighth Arrow [Standing Bear, 2007] 42) asserts that nunnehi is a term not only for the “little people” but for those who commune with them: shamans, healers, medicine men, etc. So there is at least a passing association with healing roots, herbs, and so forth. But this doesn’t often find its way into the popular legends.

Rather, the Cherokees tell stories of nunnehi caring for lost travelers or perhaps showing up unawares at dances or other festive occasions. Sometimes they are depicted as fierce warriors who emerge from the ancient mounds to defend the Cherokees from invading armies.

On the other hand, though the yunwi tsunsdi can be kind and helpful, they are still definitely “Tricksters.” They are made up of three distinct 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.

Summary: Cherokee lore can definitely accommodate a two-tribe model, although it’s more “Protectors” and “Tricksters” than “Healers” and “Tricksters.”

Muskogee (Creek and Seminole)

I’m considering here not only the Muskogee (or Creek) proper but groups that spoke closely related languages such as Seminole, Mikasuki (Miccosukee), etc.

The Muskogee were close neighbors of the Cherokee in Georgia and South Carolina, and there seems to be at least a little bit of overlap in their beliefs about the little people. Like the Cherokee, for example, they populated the ancient mounds with invisible “ghost warriors” who might be heard dancing or singing in the early morning (James Mooney, Myths of the Cherokee [1900] 475). Unfortunately, the Muskogee rarely talk about these beings. They aren’t nearly as prominent as their Cherokee counterparts, the nunnehi.

There is, however, another type of little person who bears an even stronger resemblance to Winfield’s “Healers.” Especially among the Seminole and Mikasuki, one finds reference to a benevolent dwarf or little person who provides plants that are vital for human well-being.

Among the Mikasuki, this dwarf is called Fastachee, “little giver.” Fastachee is a provider of both corn and medicinal herbs. So once again, we’re in the realm of little people who make plants grow.

Fastachee is also sometimes called Este Fastachee, which links him with his Seminole equivalent, Este Fasta (“person-give”). William S. Lyon describes this figure in his Encyclopedia of Native American Healing (Norton, 1996):

Little is known of Seminole shamanism, but the medicines contained in a medicine bundle are given to the Seminole by Este Fasta, “person-give,” who acts as an intermediary between the Creator and the people. When a new medicine is needed, it is Este Fasta who brings it to Earth and places it in the shaman’s medicine bundle. Thus the concept of a shaman’s personal guardian spirit seems to be absent, certainly in the twentieth century. (106)

This figure is far different from the este lopocke (or este lubutke). According to Jack B. Martin and Margaret McKane Mauldin’s A Dictionary of Creek/Muskogee (University of Nebraska Press, 2000), these are “little people (said to cause people to get lost in the woods)” (266). When tormenting hapless travelers is part of your dictionary definition, you are definitely in the “Trickster” category! These little people are virtually identical to the yunwi tsunsdi of the Cherokee. Like their Cherokee cousins, they are divided into a number of separate clans or tribes, some of which were definitely worth avoiding!

Even these, however, are perceived as helpers and teachers. If mortals can’t always understand it, they still play a positive role. Carolyn Dunn relates,

Jean Hill Chadhuri wrote that when the Little People, who are great tricksters, are in the world then everything is right and safe as it should be. “The Little People,” she writes, “tell Creeks that the plant world is alive and well, for these Little People move when disaster is on the way.”

Summary: The two-tribe model is clearly at work here, with both well defined “Healers” and “Tricksters.” Overall, however, the Muskogee seem to have a more optimistic outlook than the Iroquois. Even the “Tricksters” have a positive role to play.

Choctaw

The Choctaw word for “little people” is hatak awasa (sometimes hutuk awasa). A particular sort of hatak awasa is called kowi anukasha or kwanokasha: “forest dweller.” The forest dweller seizes young boys who wander off into the woods and brings them to his cave, where three old, white-haired spirits subject him to a test of character: which of three gifts will he choose: a knife, a batch of poisonous herbs, or a batch of good, medicinal herbs? The legend continues,

[I]f he accepts the good herbs, he is destined to become a great doctor and an important and influential man of his tribe and win the confidence of all his people. When he accepts the good herbs the three old spirits will tell him the secrets of making medicines from herbs, roots and barks of certain trees, and of treating and curing various fevers, pains and other sickness.

Not all hatak awasa are so benevolent, however. Speaking of this other group, Carolyn Dunn says:

The function of the Little People is similar to the function of the fairies of Europe; sometimes to the Bogeyman of America. There are stories we were told when we were younger—that the Little People would come from the earth and swallow us up if we weren’t good.

Once again, we see the idea that the little people are to be feared—or at least treated with delicacy. We also see them paying particular attention to children: serving as a threat to make them behave.

Summary: Once again, we see the two-tribe model in play with both “Healers” and “Tricksters.”

Chickasaw

The Chickasaw word for “little people” is iyagȧnasha. As with other tribes, the term seems to be a catch-all term for all manner of supernatural humanoids. Robin R. Gunning describes the little people in terms of both trickery and healing:

In addition to the spirits of the animals, there were other creatures who lived in the forest but were not as easy to see. Perhaps the most important of these were the “Little People.” The Little People would sometimes help those in trouble or play tricks on those who offended them. They  interacted most often with children. Sometimes a child would be chosen to live among the little people for a while. During this time the child would be given special powers of healing. When the child grew up, he or she would become a healer or herbal doctor. Healers could not teach or impart their skills to others because their magic came from the Little People.

A more detailed account of the “Trickster”-aspect of the Chickasaw little people is provided by Amos Hays, grandson of one of James Swanton’s original informants on Chickasaw culture. The younger Hays recalls,

I can’t recall too many specific examples, but the impression I have is that there were rules–I guess you’d call them—of one kind or another for almost every situation. And breaking or ignoring the rules often had serious consequences. My sisters and I understood that we were never to leave our playground the way we found it. We had to change it in some fundamental way before we left. If we didn’t, the little people could gain access to it and us and do some sort of mischief. They could play tricks on us, but the tricks weren’t fun.

We were told that some of the little people could harm us, and of course, we were afraid of them. So we were very careful about the rules. I never saw the little people, but there was no question among us that they existed. At some point in my childhood, I was told that only people born with the special powers of an Indian doctor could see little people. Though I couldn’t see the little people, anybody could see signs that they had been about.

Summary: It is not clear to me that the Chickasaw conceived of two distinct tribes of little people. Rather, these reports seem to say they conceived of one tribe fulfilling the functions of both “Healers” and “Tricksters.”

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Uncanny Georgia: Chief-of-Deer

As Bill Grantham tells us,

Chief-of-Deer was described as a small deer about two feet high that was either speckled or white with lofty horns. Lena, however, described it as only about two or three inches tall and relates the belief that anyone lucky enough to see a male would have the gift of learning sacred formulas easily. (Creation Myths and Legends of the Creek Indians [University Press of Florida, 2002] 36)

This mysterious creature has a counterpart in Cherokee folklore named Awi Usdi or “The Little Deer.” In ancient times, Awi Usdi advocated for deer-kind with humans by appearing to them in their dreams, urging them only to hunt as much game as they needed to survive and to perform certain hunting ceremonies to acknowledge their indebtedness to the deer for its meat and even ask its forgiveness.

When hunters were careless and did not perform the required rituals, Awi Usdi used his magic to afflict them with rheumatism.

Uncanny Georgia: Atsil-dihyegi

Here is one more Cherokee myth, as reported by James Mooney:

Hermann Hendrich, Will-o'-the-wisp and Snake

Hermann Hendrich, Will-o’-the-wisp and Snake

There is one spirit that goes about at night with a light. The Cherokee call it Atsil’-dihye’gï, “The Fire-carrier,” and they are all afraid of it, because they think it dangerous, although they do not know much about it. They do not even know exactly what it looks like, because they are afraid to stop when they see it. It may be a witch instead of a spirit. Wafford’s mother saw the “Fire-carrier” once when she was a young woman, as she was coming home at night from a trading post in South Carolina. It seemed to be following her from behind, and. she was frightened and whipped up her horse until she got away from it and never saw it again. (Myths of the Cherokee [1900] 235)

This sounds like a will-o’-the-wisp or ignis fatuus, a phenomenon known—and mythologized—in many cultures of the world. This version seems to provoke a bit more terror than most, however. There may be more here than meets the eye.

Uncanny Georgia: The Horned Serpent

horned_serpentHorned serpents are powerful magical beings in many Native American mythologies. They feature in the legends of both the Creeks and the Cherokees. Both groups apparently got the idea from what is called the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex, network of cultural influences that spread across much of what is today the United States. As such, the creature is known by a number of names in various languages of the American Southeast, including:

cetto-yvprakko: Muskogee
chintoosakcho: Alabama (“crawfish snake”)
olobit
: Natchez
sint holo: Chickasaw, Choctaw
sinti lapitta: Choctaw
uktena: Cherokee

The horned serpent is a creature of chaos, the underworld counterpart to the “thunderers” or “thunder beings” who represent order and live in the sky. Beyond that, there are some distinctions between the Cherokee and the Creek horned serpent.

In Cherokee mythology, the word for horned serpent is uktena. These malevolent and deadly monsters inhabit deep underwater pools as well as the high mountains.

An uktena is as large around as a tree trunk. Its scales glitter like sparks of fire. It has horns on its head, naturally, and a bright, diamond-like crest on its forehead. This crest is greatly prized, as one who can retrieve it is supposedly imbued with the power to become a great wonder-worker. This is a dangerous quest, however, because the uktena’s dazzling appearance draws people toward the creature when they should be running away.

For the Creeks, the story is pretty much the same, though their horned serpent does not seem as outright evil or destructive as that of the Cherokees. It might even appear to wise young men. The Creek horned serpent is a huge creature armed with crystalline scales, with an extremely bright crystal adorning its forehead. As with the uktena’s diamond crest, this crystal is said to grant mystical powers to whoever might retrieve it.

The Creeks have another supernatural serpent called the tie snake, and accounts differ as to whether they two are the same or whether they are, in fact, distinct creatures—though sometimes called by the same name. I’ll tackle tie snakes in a later installment.

Uncanny Georgia: Water Cannibals

Cherokee mythology includes a number of supernatural beings: some friendly, some neutral, some definitely hostile. In this last category are the ama yvwigisgi or “water cannibals.”

Water cannibals live at the bottoms of deep rivers. As their name implies, they are partial to the taste of human flesh, especially that of small children. According to James Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokee (1900),

They come out just after daybreak and go about unseen from house to house until they find some one still asleep, when they shoot him with their invisible arrows and carry the dead body down under the water to feast upon it. That no one may know what has happened they leave in place of the body a shade or image of the dead man or little child, that wakes up and talks and goes about just as he did, but there is no life in it, and in seven days it withers and dies, and the people bury it and think they are burying their dead friend. It was a long time before the people found out about this, but now they always try to be awake at daylight and wake up the children, telling them “The hunters are among you.” (349)

Kidnapping children and replacing them with a magical decoy sounds like the tactic of a European troll or faery. I can’t help but wonder if this detail came about after the Cherokee had dealings with Europeans or whether it reflects a more universal mythical theme, perhaps a way to rationalize the sudden death or sickness of a child.

Water cannibals have yet to appear in the Into the Wonder Series, although a character refers to them at one point in Children of Pride. Similar creatures from Choctaw mythology called the okwa naholo do appear, however, in The Devil’s Due.

Deer People: Native American Forest Folk

deerSeveral Native American peoples have legends of a half-deer, half-human being that lives in the forest and is sometimes dangerous to humans. In the Southeast, the Choctaw tell of a mischievous deer man called kashehotapolo. Cherokee folklore has a shapeshifting “deer woman.” These two apparently have little in common except their deer-like attributes and the general part of the world in which they live.

The kashehotapolo love to frighten hunters in the woods but are otherwise more mischievous than malicious.They inhabit the marshes and swampy woodlands. The Choctaw say these beings screech and wail as they dash past lone hunters at lightning speed.

What does a kashehotapolo look like? Reports vary. Some say its true form is an antlered humanoid, although it can take the form of an ordinary deer. Others report the creature has an undersized head. Yet others say he has a shriveled face, the body of a man and the legs and hooves of a deer. This confusion about its appearance is explained by the Choctaw by saying the creature ran so fast that few ever saw it clearly enough to clearly state what it looked like.

In contrast to the Choctaw deer man’s mostly harmless demeanor, the Cherokee “deer woman” is a seductive shapeshifter. They are able to assume the form of a deer, although they may retain some deer characteristics even in human form (most often possessing hooves instead of human feet). Although they can be helpful to women, especially those hoping to conceive children, they are often dangerous to men. Men who are adulterous or promiscuous are their favorite targets. Deer women might lead such men to their deaths or else leave them to pine away from lovesickness.

Deer women are also found in the folklore of the Great Plains. In the Lakota language, they are called Anukite (“double face”) or Sinté Sapela Win (“black-tailed woman”). Plains legends tend to paint them as irredeemably evil. In Cherokee and other eastern folklore, however, they can be helpful to humans, although they are still considered dangerous and unpredictable.

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”).