It seems that nearly every culture on earth has its own stories of little people. They are variously called gnomes, dwarfs, fairies, trolls, imps, and by many other names, but it is truly curious just how prevalent such tales are across cultural and geographical divides. The Native American tribes of what is now the United States also have plenty of stories of such entities, and here we will look at the mysterious little people of Native lore.
One of the prominent Native American stories of little people comes from the wilds of Arizona, from the Yavapai, which literally means “people of the sun,” comprised of four different tribes that once inhabited an area of Arizona bordered by the San Francisco Peaks to the north, the Pinaleno Mountains and Mazatzal Mountains to the southeast, the Colorado River to the west, and to the Gila River and the Salt River to the south. Among the lore of the Yavapai is the belief that the land was once, and still perhaps is, inhabited by a race of little people they call the Kakaka, described as being only around a foot in height, and having perfectly round heads with no nose. They seem to have a very spiritual element to them in a sense, and according to the book Oral History of the Yavapai by Mike Harrison:
The Kakaka are just like Indians. But little, tiny Indians. They live in the mountains...and they talk to Yavapai, but they don't talk to everybody; just to the teacher, the leader--like medicine men. For it is the Kakaka who give instruction and teaching to their medicine men. The Kakaka never die. They are around all the time. You can't see them all the time, but it can happen sometimes... But quick like that and you can see them no more...They are just like the wind, like air.
The preferred habitat for these creatures has long been said to be under the desolate mountains of the area, in particular Granite Mountain, Jerome Mountain, Superstition Mountain, Four Peaks, Fossil Creek, and Red Mountain. Here they live down in the dank depths of subterranean caverns, which are occasionally lit up somehow as if it is daytime, but they are also said to sometimes fashion tiny houses above ground, which can occasionally be found in the mountains and which the tribes have always known to leave well enough alone. Although the Kakaka were traditionally rarely encountered by anyone other than medicine men and tribal leaders, this is not always the case, and they have frequently been spotted all the way up in to the modern day. Some interesting details about these encounters are that the Kakaka will often vanish into thin air when seen, and lost time is often reported in their presence. One such story allegedly happened in 1872 at Four Peaks, where a Yavapai tribesman was taken by the Kakaka to their underground lair. For the man he had only stayed with them a couple of days, but when he returned to his village it would turn out that 40 years had passed.
Such races of miniature entities can be found throughout a wide range of other tribes as well. The Crow people, who once occupied the Yellowstone River valley, stretching from present-day Wyoming, through Montana and into North Dakota, have their own version of the little people, which they call the Nirumbee or Awwakkulé and which are said to dwell in the Pryor Mountains, of Carbon County, Montana and Bighorn County, Montana. In the Crow stories, these creatures are fierce, ugly dwarves which stand only to about the height of one’s knee and have no necks, short, powerful limbs, a rounded, distended stomach, and sharp fangs for teeth. These malicious beings are said to be immensely strong for their size, many times stronger than a human being, and are considered to be very aggressive and ferocious, often depicted as something more like a demonic creature rather than benign miniature humans.
The stories surrounding the Nirumbee are typically horrific, with tales of men’s heads torn off or horses with their hearts ripped from their chests common, as were reports of them stealing children, food, medicine, livestock, and tobacco. These creatures were once so feared that the Crow would often leave offerings such as beads, cloth, arrows, knives, or tobacco in the places they were thought to dwell in order to appease them and avoid incurring their wrath, and it was considered normal to carry such offerings whenever passing through the mountains to guarantee safe passage. Such was the ominous reputation of these little people that even other tribes in the region stayed away from these places. Yet for as ruthless and mean as they were considered to be, it is also said that they would on occasion appear to certain individuals to give guidance. This most notably supposedly happened to the great Crow chief Plenty Coups, who was shown a vision by the little people that showed them the dangers of the incoming white settlers, shaped the way he led his people, and is widely considered by the tribe to be one of the reasons they survived into the modern day. Interestingly, the Crow truly continue to believe that the little people are real, sightings have continued in the present day, and many still leave offerings for them.
A similarly menacing version of the Native little people has long been feared by the Sioux, of what is now South Dakota. The Sioux believed that these fierce diminutive creatures lived within “spirit mounds,” and would defend these lairs with great and intense, violent ferocity. The Lakota people have a story that claims that 350 warriors were once completely annihilated after venturing too close to one of these mounds, and these creatures were even mentioned by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. In 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, along with 10 other men, apparently went to see a spirit mound near the junction of the Vermillion River and the Missouri River, in what is called South Dakota today. They claimed that the little people were “devils,” about 18 inches tall, and that they had very large, misshapen heads and carried sharp arrows. These creatures were so feared that the Native tribes of the area refused to go anywhere near where a spirit mound was supposed to be, and mostly avoided places where the little people had been seen altogether.
Also rather menacing are the tales from Delaware and Wampanoag folklore, as well as the traditions of the Ojibwe, Algonquin, Abenaki, Wampanoag, and Mohican tribes, in which we have the diminutive, impish, troll-like entities known as the Pukwudgie, also spelled Puk-Wudjie, which basically translates to “little wild man of the woods that vanishes,” as well as various other regional names along the same lines. That is an apt description of these creatures, as they are generally described as being between 2 to 5 feet in height, with grey faces, long hair, an often ugly, trollish appearance, often with quills along their backs, and the ability to appear or disappear at will, as well as other magical powers such as invisibility and the ability to mesmerize with a stare. Said to inhabit vast swaths of the northeastern United States, the Great Lakes region and southeastern Canada, in the lore these are said to be incorrigible trickster spirits, stealing food, starting fires, and accosting travelers at any chance they get, sometimes even attacking and killing humans, as well as orchestrating various acts of nefarious sabotage. Depending on the tribe, the lore describes them as being anything from harmless nuisances to truly dangerous monsters, but one common feature is that they are considered best to be avoided.
Many tribes describe these creatures as having been once peaceful and friendly, but then became more malevolent over the centuries, turning to ever more malicious behavior towards us. It is interesting to note that sightings of Pukwudgies have continued right up into the present day, with these gray little trolls often seen in conjunction with mysterious orbs of light. One well-known supposed encounter with these little imps was given by a woman walking her dog one day when the animal became agitated and ran off. When the witness chased after her beloved pet, she apparently then came face to face with a 2-foot-tall little humanoid creature with a slightly muzzled human-like face, pale gray skin, and short, stocky legs. The woman would claim that this creature would follow her home and terrorize her for several days afterwards, appearing at her window at all hours.
The Cherokee, historically of what is now southwestern North Carolina, southeastern Tennessee, western South Carolina, northeastern Georgia, and northeastern Alabama, also have their stories of the little people, which they call the Yunwi Tsunsdi. Far from the troll-like countenance of the Crow little people and Pukwudgies, the Yunwi Tsunsdi were described as “hardly reaching up to a man’s knee, but well-shaped and handsome, with long hair falling almost to the ground.” They are also known to be quite benevolent in disposition, helping and guiding those who treated them with respect and left offering for them. However, if one were to anger them or to even speak of them to others, they are known to cause misfortune, illness, calamity, and death. Indeed it is considered to be very bad luck to talk of them or tell others of a sighting, and it is said that one is not to speak of the little people for 7 years after seeing one and to never talk about them at night.
The Yunwi Tsunsdi were nevertheless long considered to be protectors and guardians of the Cherokee people, purportedly escorting them along the notorious “Trail of Tears,” during which they were forced to make the perilous journey from their native home in Georgia to an alien land now called Oklahoma in the year 1838. They have such a prominent place in Cherokee beliefs that they are still sighted up into modern times, and sometimes even by outsiders. In the book Mysterious Oklahoma there is an account apparently given by a journalist named S.W. Ross in 1937, and which involves a Virginia aristocrat named George Murrell and a Mr. Latta, who were out fox hunting in the days before the Civil War near the town of Park Hill, in the Cherokee Nation, when their dogs picked up the smell of something that sent them into a frenzy.
From their excited baying, the fast running animals were apparently quite near their object of pursuit. Major Murrell and Mr. Latta were close together, and upon coming near the hounds, saw running at great speed, immediately in front of the foremost hounds, a dwarf-like being with long black hair streaming in the early breeze run on a short distance and then suddenly vanish, leaving no trace nor track. Immediately, the hounds lay down, panting and weary. The men stood in awe, unable to believe their eyes. There are some things we do not understand.
Another modern day account allegedly happened personally to a Cherokee cultural expert by the name of Leslie Hannah. At the time it was normal for him to make frequent trips back and forth from his home in Oklahoma and his job in Kansas. At the time of the incident they were all staying in Kansas when his young daughter, only 4 years old, came into his room and asked to sleep with he and his wife. Hannah says of what happened next:
My wife and I were half asleep and said okay. The next morning, I asked her why she had got in bed with us and she said, ‘That little man in my room, he’s bothering me.’ I kind of dismissed it and thought maybe she had a dream. Well, the next night, she again climbed into our bed, and the next day she again said, ‘That little man was bothering me.’ The next night, before she went to bed, Hannah asked his daughter if the little man was still there and she replied, “He’s right there in the closet.” “I asked her what he was doing, and she said, ‘He’s just standing there looking at you,’” I sat down and spoke in the direction of the little man, “Clearly you came back with us from Oklahoma and you are welcome to stay here so long as you behave. But if you scare my daughter I will come after you with some medicine and I know people who can do that. And from that time on, she said he left.
Another tradition of little people comes from the Mohegan people, historically based in present-day Connecticut, who called the creatures the Makiawisug meaning “whip-poor-will moccasins," due to the fact that they wore leaves as shoes. These beings are generally said to be benign if one treats them with respect, and follows the rules of contact with them. One rule is that you must not stare directly at them, as they will then use their powers to paralyze you and steal your belongings. One must also never talk about them in the summer, and whenever passing through their realm it is important to leave offerings for a safe passage. The lore has it that the Makiawisug taught the Mohegans how to grow corn and how to create medicine and healing potions, and they were said to make the land fertile and protect the tribe from calamity. It is said that when white settlers arrived, the Mohegans began to neglect the little people, and this caused them to bring sickness and strife to the Mohegans, and it was not until a tribal healer helped a sick Makiawisug that peace was restored again.
The lore of little people runs across many other tribes, and this has just been a selection, but they all share some commonalities and are all very strange, indeed. It is interesting to note that in many cases of these tales, the little people in question are not merely constructs of myth and legend, but rather considered to be very real features of the landscape. This mirrors many of the other tales of little folk throughout the world, and like in those stories many of these creatures are seen right up into modern days. Are these merely the product of lore and myth, or is there perhaps something more to them? Why is is that the stories of little people are so pervasive throughout so many disparate cultures and geographical areas? We may never know the answers to questions such as these, but the tales of these mysterious little people live on, as they always have and perhaps always will.