NATIVE AMERICAN BELIEFS IN THE “LITTLE PEOPLE” OR FAE FOLK
by Nicole Canfield
When we hear stories and older legends about fairies or the “wee folk,” many of us usually get the picture of green pastures in Ireland or maybe the highlands of Scotland. How many people actually think of fairies being residents of the Americas? Did you know that many (if not most) of the Native American tribes, in both the United States and Canada, had their own beliefs in fairies? They called them “little people.”
I was surprised to learn that Native Americans also believed in fairies, and, then again, not so surprised. It seems that almost every culture has their own version of fairies or “little people.” With the Native Americans being so in tune with nature, why would their beliefs be any different from the ancient Celts and other Europeans?
▪The Little Person Mummy
There is a mystery surrounding a “little mummy” that was discovered back in the 1930s in the San Pedro Mountains. Because the little mummy was discovered in a cave, it was speculated that there was a tiny race of humans that lived in caves within the mountains. This little mummy was sitting upright and had a flattened skull. It also had very tan skin and sat about 7″ tall. So, if it stood up it would have been a little over a foot tall!
Could this little mummy have been proof of the “little people” so greatly believed in by the Native Americans? Unfortunately, the little mummy has disappeared since its discovery, so no further testing has been done on it since the 1950s. Most scientists who have studied the photographs claim that it is simply the mummy of an anencephalic fetus. But the question was posed as to why the little mummy would have a full set of adult teeth?
If someone was to turn this little mummy into science, would we find that there was such a thing as the “little people?” Could they have been related to the many legends of the wee folk and faeries from the European continent across the Atlantic Ocean?
Beliefs of ‘Little People’ in the Americas
If you watch the documentary The Fairy Faith, a Native American tribe in Canada called the Eskasoni has many legends of the “little people.” There is one particular hill in Nova Scotia where the Eskasoni claim the little people have lived for centuries. Many of the townsfolk warn their children against going to this mountain, for fear that the little people will take them away. Remarkable stories of the Eskasoni people coming into contact or encountering these “little people” can be seen in the film.
▪The United States
The Shoshone tribe in the United States have their own name for the legendary little people: the Nimerigar. The Nimerigar were a race of little people who lived in the Rocky Mountains, specifically in the Pedro Mountains, and were also thought to live near the Wind River. The Shoshone believed that these little people were actually quite protective of their homes and would use bows and arrows as weapons. Of course, they were poisoned arrows. The little mummy found in the San Pedro Mountains is actually theorized to have been one of the Nimerigar who the Shoshone tribe so strongly believed in for many years.
All the way on an island range in the Pacific, in our beautiful state of Hawaii, the Native Hawaiians also believed in a fairy race or “little people” that they referred to as the Menehune. Again, their beliefs are very similar to the Shoshone’s Nimerigar and the Eskasoni’s little people. The Menehune of Hawaii were thought to live in untouched forests and mountains on the Hawaiian islands. Legend has it that they were the main residents of the Hawaiian islands before Polynesian people came to reside there. They were also thought to have built the Menehune fishpond in Niumalu and the Kikiaola ditch near Waimea.
Now, the Choctaw Natives also believed in the little people and called them the Kwanokasha. The natives were generally quite afraid of these little people. There was a legend that told of the Kwanokasha carrying away little boys to their caves in order to test their spirit. Three wisemen would wait at the cave for the Kwanokasha and the little Choctaw boy, and they would present the boy with three things: a knife, a bag of poisonous herbs, and a bag of healing herbs. If the boy chooses the knife, he would be destined to be a killer. If he chooses the bag of poisonous herbs, he would only provide bad medicine to his people. But, if he chooses the bag of good healing herbs, he would be a very powerful medicine man to his people. Just like the Hawaiians and the Shoshone, the Choctaw also believed that the little people lived in caves. The Kwanokasha were thought to be between one to two feet tall.
▪There were three kinds of little people to the Cherokee tribe: the Laurels, the Rocks, and the Dogwoods.
The Rock People were the malicious ones, stealing children and wreaking havoc because they feel that their space has been invaded.
☆ The Laurel People are friendly, but also mischievous, and like to play common tricks on us (the bigger people). They say that the Laurel people will tangle your fishing line with a stick and make you think it is a huge fish, until you reel it in and see only a tiny stick. They want to make you laugh and keep you young-at-heart, just as they are.
☆ And, as for the Dogwood people, it is said that they are good-hearted and enjoy taking care of us when they can. Some even relate the Dogwood people to the Scottish “brownies.”
The Crow believed in little people that they called the Nirumbee. They were thought to have lived in the Pryor Mountains and may have given visions to Plenty Coups (an early twentieth century Crow chief). According to some Crow Natives, due to a vision that the little people gave the Crow chief Plenty Coups, the little people are accredited with keeping the Crow people safe and together. It is said by some members of the Crow that, even to this day, if they pass through the Pryor Gap, they will leave offerings to the little people in remembrance of their aid to the Crow nation.
There are many more legends of the little people told by dozens of Native American tribes. Many of them are very intriguing and include stories of how the little people came to the Natives’ aid in times of great need. Most of the time, the little people were feared, as they were unpredictable and mysterious to the Native Americans. In most of the legends (if not all), these little people looked similar and acted in similar ways.
In my opinion, how can we discredit all of these cultures and legends, and merely brush off the idea of these “little people’s” existence? Maybe the fairies of Ireland and various places in Europe were simply a type of little people that the Native Americans believed in. Maybe, they weren’t fairies at all, but actual people who were quite small and knowledgeable in the areas of magic and healing.
Whomever these little people actually are will probably never be known, but one thing is for sure: there are too many legends and beliefs in these little people to ignore the possibility of their existence.
A Fairy Melting Pot
It is my belief and understanding that there were fairies in North America before the white man came, and those are the little people that the Natives speak of in their legends.
But, I also believe that when the white man came over from Europe and other places, he brought with him some of the house/home and garden fairies from his native land. Some of these fairies that were brought over to North America from elsewhere could have included the Scottish Brownie, the Pixies, the Gnomes, and many more.
This has created a melting pot of fairies in North America, very similarly to the way people have evolved on this continent. We have a melting pot of cultures, and so we, therefore, have a melting pot in the faerie realm as well.
▪Modern Real Fairy Encounters in North America
So what about in today’s age? Have the little people of Native American beliefs disappeared? Many people, both native and new to this continent, have had encounters with these “little people” or what many call faeries or fairies. I am one of those people.
Even in my suburban home in the Tampa Bay area in Florida, I have had three experiences with the “little people” or faeries. And, I believe in them, to say the least. I don’t truly consider my real fairy encounters as significant as others’ when I compare them.
My favorite fairy encounter story is one about a woman and her children. While the children were picnicking in the forest one day, the mother began hearing sounds of a very strange magnitude. It sounded unlike any music she had ever heard in her entire life, and she thought it was utterly strange, especially because she hadn’t seen anyone in the area, and no one lived in that area of the woods. The music got louder and closer and the mother asked her children if they heard it too. They said they did. The mother didn’t want to stick around to see what was making the strange, enchanting music, so she gathered her children and left. The little girl, who is now a grown woman, admits that there was something even stranger than the sound of the music that day. As their car was driving away from the site of the experience, she looked back (even though her mother told her not to) and she saw a circle of little people, all dancing together and looking quite merry! She didn’t tell anyone for years for fear that no one would believe her or that it would be bad luck to tell others about her fairy encounter.
Another story is one told to me by a woman on HubPages about her when she was a little girl. The little girl and her sister awoke one morning to see a tiny group of faeries dancing above the wall of their toy shelf. They were tiny, with wings, and seemed to be quite friendly and happy. To this day, the woman swears that fairies indeed exist.
Are the fairies with wings related to the little people of Native American legends, or are they two entirely separate beings? Do the little people of Native American legends actually have some sort of ties with human beings or are they otherworldly beings? We might never find the answers to these questions. But, if you ask me…that is good. Why ruin a good thing? If we were to find a living little person or a living fairy, society and the world would simply experiment and exploit it until the magic was gone.
So, for now, the idea of fairies and little people will remain alive in my imagination and in my reality, too. I don’t need science to prove or disprove their existence