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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?


( 65 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
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