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Our Own Little People

ANy mythographers or ethnographers reading?  I have just learned that American Indian people across the entire continent have stories and legends about a race of little people living around them.  My ignorance of Indian myth and legend is nearly total so it is no surprise I should be surprised.  But what amazed me is how the Indian stories and accounts of these people match with great exactness what might be called the etholology of the European little people -- elves, fairies, leprechauns.  They stand about knee-high, mostly; they live in deep forests or in mountain caves; they can't be seen when looked at directly, but with patience they can be made visible.  If they want not to be seen they can point a finger at you and cause you to be unable to percieve them, or root you to the spot while they escape.  Leaving gifts of food or tobacco for them will bring you their help. Some are truculent, stone-throwers who move great stones around the territory. You must speak of them with respect or they will play tricks on you, and not speak of them at all in the summer when they are often about.  In one story at least, a poor boy who helps them is taken by the little people to their land (he shrinks to their size when he enters their little canoe) and when he returns after a couple of days he finds that many years have passed.

Canit be that these stories are affected by European versions learned later by Indian story-tellers?  I can see where any people might think up the idea of very small humans, but is that enough to generate all the other notions about them?  (We don't see them commonly, so they must have a way of remaining invisible, etc.).  It's enough to tempt me to think that once we did have small companion species, back before the Indians came to the Americas, and that the stories are part of a world story. I mean I'm tempted, you know, not like convinced.

ANyone know these legends and can give me thoughts?  References?


( 64 comments — Leave a comment )
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Dec. 8th, 2013 11:02 pm (UTC)
Someone with more patience to burn however may find something. I wasn't trying very hard, I admit.

Various keyword search strings run through academic databases of the appropriate journals of anthropology, ethnohistory and so on, come up with nothing.

The hits on google aren't anything one could site as definitive primary source material; most of them deal with art and / or associated world folklore-myth-etc. In contrast, f you go to google scholar, which cites academic journal articles, again, nothing.
Dec. 8th, 2013 11:54 pm (UTC)
Good filtering. I looked at wikip and found much supporting material, but none of it cited. Much want for it to be true, but nothing evidenced. Were they there? Has no Auberon-alike-anthropologist recorded it for us? Or did no-one around at the time do an Auberon-at-the-bird-table and draw it on bark ... er, oh, right.
Dec. 8th, 2013 11:04 pm (UTC)
Wendigo and skin-walker are about all the native peoples' supernatural creatures of which I know, but on your last thought, "It's enough to tempt me to think that once we did have small companion species, back before the Indians came to the Americas, and that the stories are part of a world story": Homo floresiensis, maybe.

On your last post, my response might have gotten lost among the others: B looks very like what mrmad56 on ebay has labeled as a "VINTAGE SILVER PLATE TEA CADDY"
Dec. 8th, 2013 11:27 pm (UTC)
I dunno about little people, but I've noticed a lot of stories around the world that talk about people who live in the mist, or under lakes. And dislike cooked food, of one kind or another. Sometimes it's specifically bread (do you know the old English piseog about keeping bread in your pockets to keep fairies away?); sometimes it's any kind of cooking. It's just... interesting.
Dec. 9th, 2013 01:42 am (UTC)
I don't know about Native American traditions, but the Australian Aboriginals have a whole tradition of little people (Some with magical abilities) that live in the trees, or rocks, or other hidden place. The best resource I know for this is Patricia Wrightson's The Wrightson list which is Ms Wrightson's research over many many years into this subject.

Patricia Wrightson was our only Hans Christian Andersen award winner (for writing), and is one of our great fantasy writers. Sadly, she is not as weel-known as she should be. If you have the chance, please try to read some of her books. Among the best are: The Nargun and the Stars and The Ice is coming (first book in the Book of Wirrun triology).
Dec. 9th, 2013 03:02 am (UTC)
I remember the TH White's book you once summarized in an interview, "Mistress Masham's Repose", and finding it kind of uncanny in comparison with the lore from my area, and even the lore in Little, Big. In Gulliver, his little people are generally counted silly and stupid, whereas in the folklore from my area (Very Northern Pacific Canadian), little people are seen as wise and more knowledgeable than the big. I only have one reference on the subject at hand (John Bierhorst's "The Mythology of North America"), but it summarizes the trope thus:

"Little People:

The contest between small and large, or to a lesser extent, between clever and stupid is one of the recurring themes in Indian mythology. Heroes, if they are abnormal in size, are frequently elfin, whereas villains tend to be giants, preferably stupid ones.

Rarely thumb-sized, as in European lore, the little people are generally thought to range in height from about ten inches to three feet. Although some are mischievous, as a class they are helpful, impressively clever, and sometimes quite old. According to the Wyandot, they are old enough to remember the Flood, and the Passamaquoddy believe they are here before Gluskap."

And it goes on to catalogue it further to catalogue examples all the way from Canada through to Mexico. In general, most of the academic writing on the subject isn't very helpful (even that written local to my area), but this one seems rather true to what I've heard or seen in art (My only caveat with the quoted definition being that size is not always a bad thing; Raven is often given the ability to grow to an enormous size or shrink down depending on his situation; the closet psychologist in me wants to say this parallels his ability to enter the worlds of the humans of the gods interchangeably).

The other matter (as you alluded to) is that a lot of the widely-reported and Academically covered lore (Windigo, Cannibal, Coyote) derive from the earliest-reported "Indian stories" and are largely influenced by European contact. Much of the best Lore is still Oral. But I can (luckily) assure you that at least the Little People trope is really quite old; I've seen it frequently carved in Family poles from before contact, and encountered many FN artists who can attest to having heard it from those living before European contact. If you're interested, I have some more material on the subject (First Nation's Lore) but not immediately at hand...

Edited at 2013-12-09 03:33 am (UTC)
Dec. 9th, 2013 04:59 pm (UTC)
Thanks for this thorough reply. I see I have research to do.
(no subject) - artimaean - Dec. 10th, 2013 12:57 am (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 9th, 2013 04:28 am (UTC)
Are you talking about pukwudgies? I think they're supposed to be mischievous tricksters with enlarged noses, fingers, and ears. When they kill you, they can control your soul and use it to cause mischief for their enemies. Their archenemies were these two giants who helped out the Wamponaog (sp?) peoples, earning those peoples' affections and making them jealous. They killed the giants' children in retaliation, and then either the giants killed them or they ambushed the giants, depending on the story. Something like that.
Dec. 9th, 2013 05:01 pm (UTC)
Pukwudgies, definitely, and little people who go under dozens of names in Indian culture from Rhode Island to New Mexico and the Pacific Northwest. Though I have been warned against "uniformity of beliefs" which warning I take seriously
Dec. 9th, 2013 04:31 am (UTC)
I wrote about them in my New England's Gothic Literature: the local Mohegans have a strong set of little people traditions. I've spoken with people who claim to have seen them.
Rick Hautala, who died this year, heard similar legends in Maine. His Untcigahunk: Stories and Myths of the Little Brothers collects a novel and a number of stories as transformed by him with an essay describing the "real" stories.
Dec. 9th, 2013 11:58 am (UTC)
for a 10-minute play contest, Nineweaving and I wrote a version of The Tempest set in the New London colony in the 1640s, with one of the M’kumwess (the Mohegan name for these beings) standing in for Ariel. Will happily send you the document by email if you're interested.
(no subject) - crowleycrow - Dec. 9th, 2013 05:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - crowleycrow - Dec. 9th, 2013 05:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - negothick - Dec. 9th, 2013 07:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 9th, 2013 05:12 am (UTC)
I have a source; I'll check with him.
I have a close friend who is an academic anthropologist. His field/specialty is about North American Indians. I'll ask him. Will let you know if there's anything to pass along.
Dec. 9th, 2013 05:19 am (UTC)
Knud Rasmussen collected many stories about the Inugarulligait/Inugarullit which are discussed at some length in Frédéric B. Laugrand and Jarich G. Oosten, Inuit Shamanism and Christianity: Transitions and Transformations in the Twentieth Century (2010). This article makes a good point about the varied use of the term 'dwarf' in this context.
Dec. 9th, 2013 08:13 pm (UTC)
Fascinating. Very strong dwarfs are present in every culture, no doubt because they are present in every human society (can there be pygmy dwarfs?). L. reminded me of the dwarf shaman in the film Black Robe, about Jeduits in Canada. If the Inuit thought they had both strong dwarfs and vanishing little people it's hard to think the one was just a variant of the other.
Dec. 9th, 2013 09:29 am (UTC)
I have nothing to add except: what an interesting topic, and what a great range of thoughtful and knowledgeable responses from your LJ contacts. I look forward to learning more about these small folk.
Dec. 9th, 2013 04:04 pm (UTC)
Ancient Little People Found?
You might be interested in this, from National Geographic in 2008. There was a photo essay in the magazine:
Dec. 9th, 2013 04:44 pm (UTC)
a little info back from my anthropologist friend
Here's my friend's response: "I've never heard this. Inuit legends refer to a people they encountered as they migrated across Canada from Alaska (though they don't have that as an explicit belief) called "Tunit" as very short, but incredibly strong (able to lift boulders, etc.), but no forests or caves, and none of the other features." Semyaza's comment here yesterday sounds worth checking out his or her provided link.

My friend's opinion is that there is no 'uniformity of beliefs' and assertions of that nature will lead you astray. He has been a professor of North American Indian anthropology at a very prestigious university for over 30 years, and did field work among the Inuit as well as elsewhere.

Dec. 9th, 2013 04:57 pm (UTC)
Re: a little info back from my anthropologist friend
Even better, for my purposes, and thanks. I will assume no uniformity of beliefs -- but maye the little people are the same people, migrating with the Inuit, then on south and east, over the space of ... millennia?
Re: a little info back from my anthropologist friend - (Anonymous) - Dec. 11th, 2013 12:52 am (UTC) - Expand
Late addition comment! - tinacastanares - May. 27th, 2014 01:31 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Late addition comment! - crowleycrow - May. 27th, 2014 01:35 am (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 9th, 2013 07:18 pm (UTC)
Fidelia Fielding, last native speaker of the Mohegan language, who was Medicine Woman in the 19th century, used (according to her niece Gladys Tantaquidgeon, who told it to me) to leave offerings for the M'Kumwess and sometimes left the dinner table to speak to them. Gladys Tantaquidgeon was herself trained as an anthropologist, receiving a degree from Columbia some time in the early 1930s. She lived to be over 100.
Dec. 9th, 2013 08:15 pm (UTC)
Yeats once asked an old Irish weaver if he believed in the little people. Believe in them? he said. Amn't I pestered with them night and day?
(no subject) - tinacastanares - Dec. 11th, 2013 12:54 am (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 9th, 2013 07:58 pm (UTC)
You might also be interested in the Hawai'ian menehune, who are dwarf-sized fishers & craftspeople said to have existed in Hawai'i prior to the arrival of the Polynesian settlers; there's a good deal of controversy as to whether their body of myth might have been the product of European contact, however. The most thorough scholarly work on their origins seems to be a 1951 book by K. Luomala, The Menehune of Polynesia and Other Mythical Little People of Oceania.
Dec. 9th, 2013 08:08 pm (UTC)
Thanks -- Mythical Little People of Oceania is wonderful all by itself. I think years of research have to go into what the first-contact hearers thought they heard, and what the aboriginals thought the Europeans said. It's like a linguistic quantum measurement: attempts at measurement alter what is measured.

Edited at 2013-12-09 08:13 pm (UTC)
(no subject) - eluneth - Dec. 9th, 2013 08:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - crowleycrow - Dec. 9th, 2013 08:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 11th, 2013 05:50 am (UTC)
While it's from Macfarland, and thus to be taken with whichever grains of salt you have handy, amateur goblinologist John Roth compiled a smallish encyclopedia on just this subject: American Elves.

Dec. 11th, 2013 11:58 am (UTC)
Thanks for the hint. And I see on Amazon that i can acquire the book for $1,681.51!
crazy Amazon user seller prices - anomiedysthymia - Dec. 12th, 2013 07:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: crazy Amazon user seller prices - crowleycrow - Dec. 12th, 2013 09:32 pm (UTC) - Expand
John E. Roth - joculum - Dec. 16th, 2013 01:44 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: John E. Roth - crowleycrow - Dec. 16th, 2013 02:07 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: John E. Roth - joculum - Dec. 20th, 2013 12:20 am (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 12th, 2013 06:35 am (UTC)
I had the same thought as you when Stó:lo storyteller Sonny McHalsie told us about the people who live under the water and in the woods. They are just like us but smaller. The Stó:lo, the River People, live beside the Fraser River in southern British Columbia, a place of lakes, forests and mountains as well as the giant Fraser.

I asked Sonny if these other people are real. He said he asked his mother. She said they are as real as we are. There are two categories of what we would call mythical or mythological which do not include these people. On one level, also real but in a different way, are ones like the witch who catches children away from home after sunset and, on another level, the ones who are mythological like the great bird who brings the storms by clapping his wings. For this people, the mountains are beings and story-tellers and stories happen on them. Implicit in the landscape is seeing and knowing and remembering. You might want to talk to Sonny. His number is on the web as 604-824-2420, toll-free at 1-800-565-6004. He is an interesting man.

I thought about the Welsh fairies which Shakespeare wrote into his plays (and see Wirt Sykes, Welsh Goblins) and about the Hobbit people who had then just been found, their bones anyway, and I wondered if we had driven off or killed these people, other hominids, and have since lived with a deep guilt that becomes, everywhere, story.
Dec. 12th, 2013 11:48 am (UTC)
Well said and thought. I wonder that too. It may be that in our world, a world differently balanced between the ascertainable and the imaginable, to hold a thought (not even really a belief) that is so unlikely -- I mean surely a couple of centuries of archaeologists and antiquarians would have turned up a few bones closer to us-- is to think rather like the people (pre-present people? People of older or undisturbed cultures?)who hold that the world is full of rarely-seen beings that leave little trace, who yet are as real as we are.
(no subject) - spoilsofannwfan - Dec. 13th, 2013 12:35 am (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 12th, 2013 07:11 pm (UTC)
Baby stealing
Mythological female beings who steal babies seem to be a candidate for universal existence -- they exist in Mexican folklore and in Central Australian too; on the latter see Kathleen Kemarre Wallace's Listen Deeply. In the Central Australian version, they also put their own babies in place of the stolen ones, cf European changelings.

(John, what happened to my previous comment on the Australian little people, the dulagar? You didn't get it? You didn't like it?)
Dec. 12th, 2013 09:29 pm (UTC)
Re: Baby stealing
I don't know what happened to the comment -- Sometimes LJ marks as "suspicious" anonymous comments with links, but then they tell me about it and I can unfreeze it. Yourd idn't among them. I almost never delete a comment -- except one of my own. Please repost!
Dec. 13th, 2013 09:35 pm (UTC)
Thanks, John, trying again. The dulagar are the indigenous little people of south-east Australia. They have red eyes and a toe with a hook for scarpering and digging. They are herbivores (but maybe eat fish?); they smell bad. They live underground in holes beside streams. Dingoes are often their companions. They can be mistaken for wallabies. Horses can sense them in the bush when we can't and act up. Whatever we do in the bush during the day, at night they do the same. The contemporary Aboriginal elder Dave Tout Nadijwoji once tracked a dulagar for 20 miles in the Monga Forest, following its characteristic footprints with the hooked toe. At night he left it a gift of food. In the morning the food was gone and a fresh fish was there in its place. Dulagars are protective of their territory and can take revenge if threatened eg by causing a rainstorm. They also reward meritorious actions with gifts of food (berries, fish). Humans can perform actions that keep them calm and on side.

There are also indigenous giants, the Warkie. But that would be another story.
Dec. 14th, 2013 02:13 am (UTC)
Re: Dulagar
It really is worldwide. Maybe it's just natural to imagine such people. As Samuel Johnson said about Gulliver's Travels: “When once you have thought of big men and little men, it is very easy to do all the rest.” But why is the "all the rest" so similar across so many cultures?
Dec. 14th, 2013 07:54 am (UTC)
Maybe it is like the dulagar's hook. Every new variant on the story as told by a visitor or heard elsewhere by someone returning is taken in, scarpered as it were, into the story. These memes are seen at work in European stories about how to identify a changeling by tricking it into revealing its age, all the same to the point that one suspects something else is going on with these changed children.

This does not answer the question of why there are these stories in the first place. If, given the power of memes, cultural genes, there ever was a first place for any story, is also a question. The giants I can see in the great size and frightening power of things beyond our control as thunder, rocks, fire, wild water, hunger. The little people come from something different. They have nothing to do with giants or any powers these represent They have no powers but trickery, change, and changing time. This puzzle or weirdness forms part of the deep attractive power of Little, Big whose fairies are both and neither large and small, for or against us, and we are made players in their games but not them in ours. Our stories about them are much occupied with warning against contact. Leave them be, is the universal message.

I would like to know why they are here.
Dec. 14th, 2013 09:23 am (UTC)
It is perhaps unnecessary to mention that little green (or rather, Grey) men exhibit much of the behaviour of the older breeds of little people; showing the persistent strength of the meme into the present day.
Dec. 14th, 2013 11:25 pm (UTC)
Currently trying to resist the urge to paraphrase a line from Tropic Thunder in relation to the title but the urge was too strong. "What do you mean by '"our" own little people' "

Edited at 2013-12-14 11:25 pm (UTC)
Dec. 14th, 2013 11:52 pm (UTC)
...but failed, I note. Okay -- our continent's own little people? Is that also too possessive? I do think of myself as belonging to this continent (along with uncounted others of various derivations, living and dead.)
(no subject) - (Anonymous) - Dec. 15th, 2013 12:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - crowleycrow - Dec. 15th, 2013 12:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
Dec. 16th, 2013 07:17 pm (UTC)
link to an AA group for fairies that's been spam locked
Dec. 17th, 2013 01:55 am (UTC)
Louisiana little people.
My friend who sits on the Ishak-Attakapas tribal council (for what that is worth as a source) tells me that most natives have little people stories. They often live near bodies of water, and interestingly, are sometimes described as bearded. They can occasionally play pranks on folks who live near lakes and rivers. You can mollify them by leaving a plate of candy and cigarettes for them.
Dec. 17th, 2013 02:09 am (UTC)
Re: Louisiana little people.
Thanks. In the Northeast and other regions they are described as "hairy". Isn't that odd? Northeast and Western Indians were mostly beardless.
Dec. 18th, 2013 06:57 am (UTC)
Barbarians. Them and us, the hairy bearded ones and the smoothly-barbered civilized ones. So the Romans thought.

Many groups we assume are without facial hair go to painful lengths to remove it (I am thinking of the sharpened shells employed by Polynesian men) while others, maybe including some groups of North American indigenous men, have little facial hair. This division - hairy barbarian and smooth-faced civilized man - is odd when you look at photos of the Victorian-styled men who made the post-colonial policies which emasculated, infantilised, men by making them state wards and effaced women's powers and place. Their fierce sideburns, gigantic mustaches, projecting eyebrows and thick Macassered hair shout barbarian. Contemporary photos, romantic, posed by the photographer but not by the subject, show the vanishing native male as beardless and thus, in an odd turn of fashion, effete.

I wonder if the little people were hairy before the white men came.
Dec. 20th, 2013 01:31 pm (UTC)
Stan Gooch
The writer Stan Gooch always said in his books that all folklore, beliefs and traditions involving fairies, pixies, trolls, etc, derive from our racial memory of our first meetings with, and eventual inter-breeding/ destruction of Neanderthals. That they were smaller than us, were partially nocturnal, had a different religions; that we - Cro-Magnons - had a paternal, sun-based religion, and Neanderthals a matriarchal, moon-based religion (therefore veneration of menstruation - from which then derived all sorts of taboos and mis-treatment of women). That our disgust upon meeting with these hairy, squat(probably left handed = all sorts of other taboos) with their weird, nocturnal religion & (probably) music, led to worldwide myths that are difficult to explain in any other way. He made many parallels between the beliefs of far-flung peoples - e.g. American Indians & Australian Aborigines. Even if you only agree with a fraction of what he said, his books are fascinating. He was one of the very first to be convinced that Cro-Magnon and Neanderthals interbred, and that we (esp Europeans) are the result of this interbreeding - now more or less proven and fairly orthodox. His greatest book, I think, is Cities of Dreams.
Dec. 20th, 2013 02:40 pm (UTC)
Re: Stan Gooch
I remember the theories -- they were popular at around the time of The Descent of Woman, which postualted that humans evolved as basically sea creatures, living by the sea and on fish and fishning -- thus our hairlessness (an advantage in swimming) and our fat butts (for sitting on rocks) and more that I forget about how this created the human ethos. I admire and honor them.
Jan. 19th, 2014 05:44 pm (UTC)
universal beliefs
I have read that stories about aliens and alien abductions share many features throughout the world. Before the industrial revolution, the stories were more netherworldly, with demons and succubi and such, and since then, the aliens come from other planets instead, but all share behavior and body characteristics--big eyes, gray skin, sexual probing, dragging bodies out windows, etc. I saw some research that suggested that the similarities can be attributed to the fact that, despite all the different cultures, we are all human and share similar if not identical brain structures. Perhaps all these stories of elves and dwarves and little people arise from similar brain events.
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