Mason 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.
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  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.
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.”
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.”