Despite colonial biases, the Cherokee did not copy the Irish Leprechaun. The Cherokee Yunwi Tsunsdi (Little People) was part of ancient legend and myth. As Will Rogers might have said, “The Little People didn’t come over with the colonists, they met the boat.”
These interesting “Little People” figure prominently in many old Cherokee stories, including origin stories. They were probably introduced to non-native Americans by James Mooney in his monumental work “Myths of the Cherokee” published in 1900. The Cherokee medicine man, Swimmer, related to him the following:
“There is another race of spirits, the ‘Yunwi Tsunsdi’, or ‘Little People’, who live in rock caves on the mountain side. They are littlefellows, hardly reaching up to a man’s knee, but well shaped and handsome, with long hair falling almost to the ground. They are great wonder workers and are very fond of music, spending half their time drumming and dancing. They are helpful and kind-hearted, and often when people have been lost in the mountains, especially children who have strayed away from their parents, the Yunwi Tsunsdi have found them and taken care of them and brought them back to their homses. Sometimes their drum is heard in lonely places in the mountains, but it is not safe to follow it, because the Little People do not like to be disturbed at home, and they throw a spell over the stranger so that he is bewildered and loses his way, and even if he does at last get back to the settlement he is like one dazed ever after. Sometimes, also, they come near a house at night and the people inside hear them talking, but they must not go out, and in the morning they find the corn gathered or the field cleared as if a whole force of men ad been at work. If anyone should go out to watch, he would die.”
The Ute version was popularized by the author James D. Doss in his “Charlie Moon” series of mysteries. In the series, a lovable but irascible old shaman, Daisy Perika, regularly consults the “pitukupf” dwarf that lives in a badger hole in Canyon of the Spirits. Here is an excerpt from his book “Shaman Laughs”:
“She was in that place that other Utes whispered about in campfire stories—the subterranean abode of the piukupf.
“The dwarf seemed surprised at the sudden entry of this creature of Middle World into his subterranean domain. He was busy sewing up a tear in his green shirt. He paused from his chore, dropped the deerbone awl into a sandstone pot with a humpbacked red rabbit painted on the bottom. The little man pulled his pipe from under his badgerskin belt. Daisy watched siletly as the pitukupf stuffed a wad of dried kinikinnik into the clay bolw; the dwarf used the inner bark of the red willow when he had no real tobacco. She would rememver to bring a gift of Flying Dutchman. He lit a splinter of dry pinon from a glowing ember on his hearth, and touched this to the pungent kinnikinnik.
“When he was ready, the pitukupf nodded to indicate that his tuest should sit on the floor by the fire. . . . The shaman wanted to ask the dwarf whether he had killed Gorman’s prize bull, but hesitated. If the pitukupf had killed and castrated the bull, he would probably deny any knowledge of the deed. If the dwarf was innocent of the killing, he might be insulted by the implied accusation and become sullen. It was important to take just the right approach with this unpredictable creature. ‘My grandmother told me long ago: ‘The powerful pitukupf in Canon del Espiritu, he know everything.’ ‘ Her grandmother had actually said: ‘That grumpy pitukupf, the one who lives in the badger hole in the canyon, he THINKS he knows everything.’”
There are many stories and legends among Native Americans about “Little People” or dwarfs with magical powers and mischievous ways. But they’re stories were not borrowed from European versions, they were indigenous to Native America.
When asked about the pitukupf in an interview with Art Taylor, James D. Doss once explained, “I don’t go up there ever expecting to meet the pitukupf. However, the answer isn’t really that easy. I don’t, even to myself, say that none of these things exist. As you get older, my experience has been, more and more strange things happen. I’m very cautious, as I get older not to just dismiss things. But that’s not the same as believing they’re true either. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s not something behind some of the myths. I didn’t realize as it turns out, how many Native American groups do believe in a small male character. Whether there was once a little deformed man, a dwarf who started some these rumors, I don’t know.”
author of “The First Raven Mocker“
Book One of the Cherokee Chronicles