Little People of the Southeast

by Carolyn Dunn

Nearly every country in the world has stories of "little people." North American Indian tribes are no exception, and while rare, stories of fairy–like or dwarf–like creatures inhabit Native storytelling traditions. Some tribes consider them to be human beings, only very small in size. Yet others believe them to be powerful spirits that ensure humans behave in culturally specific, proper ways. In most Southeastern native traditions in the United States, these Little People have many roles attributed to them in narrative traditions.

To some, Little People are like other folk: humans, only smaller. But there are also spirits that can take the shape of Little People. One such group of spirits is called Yunwitsandsdi by the Cherokee. These spirits live among the rocks and hillside caves of northern Georgia and the Carolinas, following the Southeastern nations during Removal to present day Oklahoma. The Yunwitsandsdi are great lovers of music. Sometimes, deep in the woods or in the mountains, the sounds of drums, rattles, and beautiful songs can be heard.While the Yunwitsandsdi can be helpful and kind, they do not like unwelcome visitors and have been known to cast spells over folks who have happened upon them. The origin of the Little People remains cloudy; there are some stories, like this Choctaw emergence story, that mention their origins:

The old ones tell us of the time of creation, long long ago, when men and women first entered the world above from under the great cave at Nanih Waiyah. Now Nanih Waiyah is the center of our world, it is where we came out to join the people of the sky. We, the Choctaw, came out first, and saw that the land and water were beautiful. We came out from the cave of Nanih Waiyah where the old water is, and when we emerged, wet and breathing, we dried ourselves among the earth there, the sun darkening our faces as we dried.Taking the fire with us, it was part of us. It was so beautiful, that we stayed and made Nanih Waiyah our home, dropping fire and tobacco seeds; we still live there today.

Next, the Muskogees came out of Nanih Waiyah, where they were born wet and breathing; they dried themselves on the red earth and turned brown like us; but they looked around and explored the world. They followed the birthing sun, to the east, where they settled and made their home in this new place, dropping fire and tobacco.

The Cherokees emerged next from Nanih Waiyah; they were wet from water and from creation. They found the world beautiful, and after sunning themselves brown upon the earth, they moved and followed the trail of the elder brothers. When they stopped to smoke tobacco, they lost sight of the Muskogees and went further, to the north, where they settled and made a people and new words.

The Chickasaws emerged next from Nanih Waiyah, their skins shining wet with water and breath. They too sunned themselves at the foot of Nanih Waiyah, and found it beautiful. They stood up and moved to follow the Cherokees to the north; they settled there near them and made a new people.

But even before we emerged from Nanih Waiyah, there lived on the earth before us the Little People, the Hutuk Awasa. Each person in this world of ours has a spirit helper, a person to take them along the journey of life, to share with them knowledge and understanding of the spirit world. We call these the Hutuk Awasa. They are that, little men and women, who help us along our way. Kanakawasa is the name of one such Hutuk Awasa, and he lives in rocks and caves, in a broken part of our world. He is not much bigger than a child of two or three, and he is sometimes funny looking.To see him move is to see something that is unnatural to the world of men and women. It is a funny thing to see Kanakawasa move as a man or woman, as he is a full grown man but the size of a bitty child.

Yuka Keyu was a child a long long long time ago, and he was sick from a fever and in his sickness he wandered away from the village and came to the edge of the tree line, far from the village. Now Kanakawasa, who is always on watch for the Hutuk Awasa, found Yuka Keyu wandering in his sickness, and took him far away to his home in the rocks. Kanakawasa’s family was all there in the cave, and they were happy to see the small child Kanakawasa had brought home. Kanakawasa’s wife Ipanche Falaya was a great healer and nursed Yuka Keyu back to health. Soon it was time for Yuka Keyu to return home.Kanakawasa’s wife Ipanche Falaya had by her side three pouches which she offered to Yuka Keyu. Now Yuka Keyu, though he was a child, had been raised by his parents and grandparents to be respectful to his elders. Yuka Keyu saw that Ipanche Falaya had three pouches, and he waited patiently to see which Ipanche Falaya would offer him.

Ipanche Falaya took out of her pouch a long knife, with a bone handle that had been carved into a face resembling that of Kanakawasa. Yuka Keyu thought it quite handsome, and very powerful, but he was wary of its power. He waited patiently for Yuka Keyu to open the other pouches.

Next, Ipanche Falaya took out some plants. Yuka Keyu looked at the plants. He recognized the snakeweed that his parents warned him never to touch. He shook his head. Next, Ipanche Falaya pulled from her pouch seeds of many colors and designs. Yuka Keyu smiled and took these seeds with many thanks for the return of his health, and Kanakawasa returned him to his village. When Yuka Keyu grew taller, he told this story to his own children, and became a very powerful doctor.

This story comes from a very old cycle of stories from the Choctaws of Mississippi, and follows along other Southeastern narrative traditions surrounding what we have come to call in English the Little People. The teaching behind this story is to show young people the value of patience; it also tells us of the relationship of the great nations of the southeast and how and why our stories, languages and ceremonies are so similar. We’re also told that in his three choices Yuka Keyu made a good one in that had he chosen the knife, he would have turned to evil later in his life. If he chose the poisonous herbs, then his medicine would have harmed people.In choosing the seeds, then his service as an Indian doctor was good for the people and for himself. His perseverance and patience shows us that by allowing events and choices to unfold, then we can make decisions in life that will allow us to live a life of service to our people and great joy will come to those who wait.

These Little People are spirits whose presence was known to many of the Southeastern indigenous nations, including the Choctaw, Muskogee (Creek), Seminole, Chickasaw, and Cherokee, among many others. One of the most popular Cherokee stories involving the Little People who came to the aid of humans is the story "The Daughter of the Sun," in which the Sun, jealous because humans couldn’t look upon her without wincing from her brightness, sends her strongest light which burned humans and caused illness and death among the people. The humans hatch a plan to kill the Sun, and with the help of the Little People, send two snakes to bite the Sun. Instead,the snakes bite the Sun’s daughter and she dies, causing the Sun to grieve and grieve and then the world turns bitterly cold and dark. Once again, the humans turn to the Little People who help them retrieve the Daughter of the Sun from Usunyihi, the Darkening Land. But when the daughter cries out, the humans are frightened and open the basket in which they’ve put her. The daughter escapes, turns into a redbird, and flies away. The sun, still grieving, refuses to leave her daughter’s house and her tears create a great flood. Those that survive, again with the help of the Little People, send seven men and women, all great singers, dancers, and storytellers,to the Daughter of the Sun’s house where they entertain the Sun until finally she stops crying and begins to smile, replenishing the earth once again. Here the Little People come to the aid of the humans, but they can also be tricksters as well. The Cherokee writer and historian Robert Conley, in his biography of John Little Bear, Cherokee Medicine Man, describes the Little People as mischievous. Little Bear tells Conley that the Little People like to hide things from him, and yet Little Bear uses them often in his practice. "We ask them for help and send them places to do things."(1). We know the Little People show all aspects of human character: those that help the Indian doctorswith medicine and magic; and the tricksters who always have a lesson to teach those who are willing to listen.