by Carolyn Dunn
The Little People are indeed helpers and teachers. According to Jean Hill Chadhuri, the Muskogee oral historian and teacher, the Muskogee saw the Little People (Este Lubutke) as the "colorful and figurative way of speaking of the small bundles of energies of trees and bushes."(2) 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." Perhaps the Little People took the journey west before Removal to Indian Territory, making the way for the Trail of tears.
The Seminoles in Oklahoma have similar stories of the Little People. Willie Lena, an Oklahoma Seminole traditional elder, told anthropologist James Howard that the Little People look and dress like Indians and speak Muskogee.(3) The Little People are described as very friendly to children, and as in some Choctaw stories, the Little People are responsible for teaching children the ways of medicine plants and herbs and teaching children how to become Indian doctors."They feed and care for these children and often teach them the use of herbal remedies."(4) Interestingly, while some tribes describe the Little People as "very handsome," (5) to the Choctaws and Seminole, they are described as "ugly." Having heard this many times from several sources, it is my belief that perhaps the Little People are not physically ugly in their features, but due to the unnaturalness of their movement within a human–looking form they are perceivedas supernatural and therefore ugly. For example, Willie Lena describes the Little People as ugly; in his book Life with the Little People, Chickasaw writer Robert Johnson Perry, in collaboration with Muskogee Creek illustrator Chester Scott, describes them as good looking and peaceful. Yet in my own family, I have heard them described as "ugly," with long toenails and fingernails.
While most encounters with the Little People are recorded as positive, not all meetings end well for the humans involved. As the Cherokee folklorists Jack Kilpatrick and Anna Grits Kilpatrick noted in their book Friends of Thunder: Folktales of the Oklahoma Cherokees, these encounters can take a dangerous turn. In the chapter "Leprechauns of Oklahoma," the Kilpatricks wrote: "But although they are benign, there is a danger of becoming fascinated with them and following theminto unpredictable adventures."(6) There are many stories of the Little People dealing with the Deer Woman spirit, who is one of the Little People. There is a famous Cherokee narrative (reprinted by the Kilpatricks in Friends) of the Deer Woman and her sister who steal a handsome young man away from family and friends at Stomp Dance and lead him to eventual insanity.
We have several stories in my family that apply to the Little People. Most of them are benign; most people have two or three Little People spirit helpers that assist us in our life’s journey. My grandfather would tell my cousins stories about the Little People; my mother–in–law warned her children and grandchildren not to step over puddles or water after rain lest they get charmed into joining the Little People who lived under the water’s surface.Sometimes we see them, and sometimes we don’t, but we never doubt their existence. Wherever we go, the Little People follow us; where there is Muskogee or Cherokee or Chickasaw or Seminole or Choctaw blood, the Little People are there as well, causing mischief, singing beautiful songs at night, and dancing Stomp Dances in fires carried from Oklahoma and beyond.