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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Five Little People from the American Southeast

George Catlin, "Tchow-ee-pút-o-kaw," 1834

George Catlin, “Tchow-ee-pút-o-kaw,” 1834

The indigenous peoples of the American Southeast lived alongside one another long enough that many of their beliefs about the little folk have at least partially blended together. Carolyn Dunn has written a short article on Southeastern little people that draws from several cultural sources. The picture that emerges from such a cross-cultural survey of the little folk is more often than not quite coherent. If we think of little folk as a species, then we are dealing with a number of closely related subspecies that generally display the following characteristics:

  1. These creatures are very good at not being seen. They are selective about whom they permit to see them at all—generally only children or medicine people.
  2. They are more often mischievous than truly evil, although their pranks can be quite destructive. It is unwise to speak disrespectfully even of those who are well-disposed toward humans, however, as they are quick to take offense.
  3. They are often more kindly hearted toward children, often leading them home when they get lost in the forest.
  4. They live deep in the forest or in other out-of-the-way natural settings.
  5. They are often (but not always) associated with the healing arts. Many of these groups, in fact, serve as spiritual helpers to healers and herbalists and are often instrumental in initiating youngsters into the healing arts.

Here are five types of Southeastern little folk arranged roughly from north and east to south and west.

Yunwi Tsunsdi

There are two prominent groups of faery-like beings in Cherokee legend. There are the nunnehi, tall “spirit warriors” who are indistinguishable from ordinary humans (except for their magical powers), and the yunwi tsunsdi (yoon-wee joons-dee) or “little people,” child-sized beings who live in the rocks and cliffs.

Like the nunnehi, the yunwi tsunsdi prefer to be invisible, although they do sometimes appear to humans. Seeing them, however, is sometimes taken as an omen of impending death. They are well-proportioned and handsome, with hair that reaches almost to the ground.

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” with varying attitudes toward humans. The Rock clan is most malicious, the Laurel clan is merely mischievous, and the Dogwood clan is most benevolent.

Yehasuri

These Catawba little folk, whose name can be translated roughly “the wild people,” are about two feet tall and usually depicted as hairy. They are trickster spirits that live in the forest. They often live in tree stumps and eat a varied died including acorns, roots, fungi, turtles, tadpoles, frogs and bugs.

These little folk are said to behave in ways very similar to the faeries of Europe. They kidnap children, for example, and like to braid the manes and tails of horses. Like the elves of northern Europe, their magical arrows are deadly to mortals. They are said to attack anyone who gets too close to them.

One of their favorite tricks is to prowl around after dark and place spells on any children’s clothing that had been hung up to dry. This bewitched clothing would give babies colic. Therefore, conscientious Catawba mothers would bring in their infants’ clothes at dusk, wet or dry.

Yehasuris are sometimes used as bogeymen to impress upon children the importance of good behavior. Indeed, they do seem to target children more than anyone else. The only way to stop them is to rub tobacco on one’s hands and recite a particular incantation against them.

Este Lopocke

As with the Cherokee, the Muskogee people (Creeks and Seminoles) distinguish between two sorts of little people, one taller and the other shorter. And among the shorter, some are more benign and others are more harmful to humans. George E. Lankford reports the observation of A. S. Gatshet in the 1800s that

The Creek Indians…call them i’sti lupu’tski, or “little people,” but distinguish two sorts, the one being longer, the others shorter, in stature. The taller ones are called, from this very peculiarity, i’sti tsa’ptsagi [i.e, este cvpcvke, “tall people”—DJP]; the shorter, or dwarfish ones, subdivide themselves again into (a) itu’-uf-asa’ki and (b) i’sti tsa’htsa’na…. The i’sti tsa’htsa’na are the cause of a crazed condition of mind, which makes Indians run away from their lodges. (Native American Legends of the Southeast [University of Alabama Press, 1987/2011] 133)

I don’t know if this tracks perfectly with the Cherokee distinction between taller nunnehi and a number of clans or tribes of shorter yunwi tsunsdi, but it at least seems plausible. I certainly welcome any insight readers might be able to give me!

The este lopocke or este lubutke (ee-stee loh-poach-kee) live in hollow trees, on treetops, or on rocky cliffs. Their homes can be identified by an extra thick growth of small twigs of branches in the trees. Despite their small size, they appear strong and handsome, with fine figures and long but well-kept hair. They might let their toenails grow long, however.

These beings are especially known to appear to medicine people and guide them in finding the herbs they need. Encounters with the little people are considered sacred and not to be shared.

The Muskogee sometimes speak of the little people simply as “Gee” (“Ce” in normalized spelling), meaning “little,” so as to avoid using their full name. Even the helpful ones object to being mentioned in a negative or disrespectful way.

Iyagȧnasha

The little folk of Chickasaw lore are sometimes identified as tribal ancestors who now take up residence in the forest. They are said to be about three feet tall. Although they might help those who are in trouble, they are also likely to play tricks on those who have offended them. They allow themselves to be seen only to a few, mostly hunters or medicine people.

They do, however, interact with children. Sometimes they choose a child to live among them for a while to be given special powers of healing. When this child grows up, he or she becomes a healer or herbalist. They might teach other children how to pursue game, as they are accomplished hunters themselves.

Even so, it is considered ill-advised to live near the iyagȧnashas. The Chickasaw would move away from an area if they thought there were little people there.

The worst enemy of the iyagȧnashas is the wasp, the sting of which is fatal to them.

Hatak Awasa

There are several types of little folk among the Choctaw. One, the kowi anukasha, serves much the same role as the Chickasaw and Muskogee little folk in initiating young children into medicinal lore.

Another type, simply called hatak awasa (or hutuk awasa), “little men,” are similar to both the bogeymen and little folk of European myth. Children are warned to be good lest the hatak awasa snatch them away. Although their role can be sinister, they also preserve otherworldly knowledge handed down from olden times.

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”).

Nunnehi: The Fair Folk of the American Southeast

cherokeeThe nunnehi are the principal Fair Folk of the American Southeast. They are helpful spirit warriors who dwell in rocks and hills. They prefer to live on the tops of mountains and hills. Like the daoine sídhe of Ireland (and many other Old World fae), they are said to enjoy dancing and music. It is said that, the closer one came to singing nunnehi, the farther away they seemed to be. They were able to become invisible at will, but when they permitted themselves to be seen, they looked exactly like other Native Americans. They wore traditional Cherokee clothing and spoke the Cherokee language in the Overhill (i.e., Tennessee) dialect.

The Cherokee name for these beings can be rendered nunnehi, nvnehi, or gunnehi. Whatever the form, the name means “people who live anywhere.” The singular form is nayehi.

Although nunnehi is a Cherokee word, the Creeks had a legend of similar beings, said to have once inhabited the Ocmulgee Indian Mounds in Macon, Georgia. In Revolutionary times, the Creeks still claimed that, when forced to encamp there, they heard at dawn the sound of Indians singing and dancing, as if going down to the river to purify themselves and then return to the old townhouse (James Mooney, Myths of the Cherokee [Dover, 1995 (reprint)] 475). Robbie Ethridge writes,

 James Adair, and eighteenth-century trader and writer, reported that every Indian knew of the Ocmulgee Old Fields. These old fields, too, were haunted. In fact, according to Adair, one could hear ghost warriors dancing at night. Adair claimed he never heard or saw the ghosts even though he had often camped there. His Chickasaw companions explained that was because he was an “obdurate infidel in that way.” (Creek Country [University of North Carolina Press, 2003] 52)

The Creek also describe an ancient battle in which their warriors emerged from a mound and defeated a Cherokee war party—an exact parallel to similar legends told by the Cherokees themselves about the nunnehi who lived beneath Nikwasi Mound near Franklin, North Carolina.

The nunnehi are generally quite hospitable to mortals, especially those who are in trouble. There are a number of stories of nunnehi helping lost travelers and returning them safely to their homes. In 1838, it is said, the nunnehi invited members of the Cherokee nation to retreat to their domain at Pilot Knob, North Carolina, and thus escape forcible deportation to Oklahoma. Other nunnehi are said to have migrated to Oklahoma as a sort of vanguard for humans forced to walk the Trail of Tears.