I’ve talked about this subject briefly when I wrote up a post on the CherokeeNunnehi which can be found in the archive. The idea of the “Little People” as they are called is a little different, as the Nunnehi tend to be seen more as just immortal, ghostly beings, and the Yunwi Tsundi, or the “Little People” as they are sometimes called, are spirits of the land and are often associated with certain rock formations, trees, creeks, caves, etc.
The Ozark hillfolk inherited a rich tradition of beliefs surrounding the land spirits, mostly from their Appalachian ancestors who mixed Old World fairy traditions with the beliefs on the Yunwi Tsundi (and other native variations) that they encountered in the New World. All of this was rolled together into a very interesting folk belief that honors the unseen forces of nature as a possible source of both wealth and woe.
There are many stories out there about encounters with the “Little People” one story goes something like this…
…There was once a boy named Johnny who was walking back through the woods toward his home after a long day of climbing rocks and running around with his friends. He was walking down beside the creek when all of a sudden a little man sitting on a bolder out in the middle of the creek yelled to him, “Boy, don’t come this way!” Well, Johnny wasn’t about to have some little man tell him what to do, so he picked up a bunch of rocks off the bank of the creek and started a-throwing them out at the little man. Even though every rock hit its mark the little man was unhurt and just laughed and laughed before disappearing into the creek.
Now, Johnny just continued on his way without even thinking about the little man again, and soon enough he was at home next to the fire eating cornbread with his mother and father.
When Johnny’s father asked him about his day the boy told him about climbing the rocks, and running around with his friends, and about the little man in the creek. Johnny’s father swore up and down at the boy, telling him he had offended one of the “Little People” and that bad times might fall on their family. Johnny just laughed though, and said he wasn’t afraid of no little man.
That night as Johnny put himself to bed upstairs he started feeling a little feverish, out of nowhere, but blamed it on being out in the cold too long that day. Johnny’s father got worried about the boy and decided to stay up next to the fire downstairs to make sure everything was alright.
In just a little while Johnny’s father woke up to a strange thumping sound coming from upstairs. Thump, thump, thump, then the sound of something like feet shuffling across the floor. Well he worried about his son, so he jumped up, ran up the stairs, and caught poor Johnny just as he was about to throw himself out the window. All the while Johnny was completely asleep and had no recollection the next morning of what had happened to him the night before.
This went on night after night for almost a month until Johnny’s dad made the boy take some food out to that very rock in the creek where the little man had been sitting as a sort of apology for the great offense Johnny had committed. After the boy left the food the sleep walking stopped almost as suddenly as it had began.
The family managed to escape misfortune, and Johnny knew better than to offend any of the “Little People” ever again.
Often the “Little People” are given different tribe names depending upon their personalities or where they live. There may be the “Cave People” or the “Creek People” or different nations named after certain trees like the laurel, dogwood, or cedar. It’s interesting to see how the animistic beliefs from Europe and the New World were able to mix together and stick around considering most of the time these so called “superstitions” about the fair-folk or the keepers of the land so often get turned into mere fairy stories.
On more than one occasion I’ve talked with hillfolk who refused to cut down certain trees, or move certain rocks, for fear of offending the folk that dwell there. I even met a healer once who said she got her powers from one of the “Little People,” a tale that harkens back to both the Irish “Fairy Doctors” and many of the Native healers, both of which often rely upon training or gifts given by the spirits of the land.