“We call them faerie. We don’t believe in them. Our loss” – Charles de Lint
Faeries are everywhere. You try scrubbing. You try soaking. Still you’ve got faeries. We in the West are of course most familiar with the old-fashioned Celtic strains, but traditions of magical “little people” are cross-culturally ubiquitous, although the content of their character ranges from merry tricksters to malevolent monstrosities. Native American folklore is no exception. The universality of the “little people” motif across diverse Native American mythologies, despite the varied ethno-cultural backgrounds and sharp linguistic differences of the numerous tribal complexes, from the Wampanoag pukwudgie to the Cherokee yunwi tsundi to the Inuit ishigaq, would seem to indicate that at one time, the wilds of North America were stalked by a vast array of devilishly diminutive tribes of preternatural critters. The presence of pre-Colonial faeries in North America seemed almost too trite and well-trodden a subject to tackle until, as I was researching Wyoming’s San Pedro Mountains Mummy (held to be the actual physical remains of a particularly nasty Shoshone faerie known as a nimerigar), a reference to a peculiar diplomatic arrangement among two species of faerie in ancient Arkansas emerged from Quapaw oral histories, describing how the faerie-like Wakantake jika and dwarven Pahi zka jika formed a strategic alliance to rid the Hot Springs Valley of a malign supernatural predator called the Bakka Bird, offering a rare glimpse into the political history of faeriedom.
The Native American Quapaw tribe (the nearby Algonquin-speaking Illini tribe, first encountered by French explorers Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet, referred to them as “Arkansea”, from which we derived the state name, but the Quapaw spoke a Siouan language) was forcibly resettled from Arkansas to Oklahoma in 1834, but in the 17th Century A.D. were a major force to be reckoned with on the western banks of the Mississippi River in modern day Arkansas. The Quapaw were believed to have originally been settled in the Ohio Valley around 1200 A.D., but migrated west as Iroquois began invading from the north. Hernando de Soto had stumbled upon palisaded Quapaw villages in Arkansas a hundred years earlier in 1541 A.D., but the Quapaw were blissfully free from invading Europeans from about 1541-1673. Given this timeline it would appear that sometime after 1200-1541 A.D. the Quapaw were sharing the Hot Springs Valley region of Arkansas with at least two distinct tribes of faeries. James Owen Dorsey (1848-1895), an ethnologist and linguist for the Smithsonian’s Bureau of American Ethnology, in studying Siouan languages among the relocated Quapaw in Oklahoma noted that “The Kwapa [Quapaw] believe in the existence of dwarfs, whom they call Pahi zka jika, Small ones with white hair, and Wakantake jika, Small mysterious ones. They are not seen often” (Dorsey, 1895, p130). To further narrow our date range, we have the recollections of the 1804-1806 Lewis and Clark expedition, who in the general vicinity of Missouri, just north of Arkansas and in conversing with another Quapaw-related Siouan people called the Maha, had their attention directed to the “Mountain of Little People”, who presumably by that time were fairly thin on the ground. Lewis recorded it in his journal.
It was not till after four hours’ march that we reached the object of our visit. This was a large mound in the midst of the plain about N. 20° W. from the mouth of Whitestone River, from which it is nine miles distant. The base of the mound is a regular parallelogram, the longest side being about three hundred yards, the shorter sixty or seventy: from the longest side it rises with a steep ascent from the north and south to the height of sixty-five or seventy feet, leaving on the top a level plain of twelve feet in breadth and ninety in length. The north and south extremities are connected by two oval borders, which serve as new bases, and divide the whole side into three steep but regular gradations from the plain. The only thing characteristic in this hill is its extreme symmetry; and this, together with its being totally detached from the other hills, which are at the distance of eight or nine miles, would induce a belief that it was artificial; but, as the earth and the loose pebbles which compose it are arranged exactly like the steep grounds on the borders of the creek, we concluded from this similarity of texture that it might be natural. But the Indians have made it a great article of their superstition: it is called the Mountain of Little People, or Little Spirits; and they believe that it is the abode of little devils, in the human form, of about eighteen inches high, and with remarkably large heads; they are armed with sharp arrows, with which they are very skillful, and are always on the watch to kill those who should have the hardihood to approach their residence. The tradition is that many have suffered from these little evil spirits, and, among others, three Maha Indians fell a sacrifice to them a few years since. This has inspired all the neighboring nations, Sioux, Mahas, and Ottoes, with such terror, that no consideration could tempt them to visit the hill. We saw none of these wicked little spirits, nor any place for them, except some small holes scattered over the top: we were happy enough to escape their vengeance, though we remained some time on the mound to enjoy the delightful prospect of the plain, which spreads itself out till the eye rests upon the northwest hills at a great distance, and those of the northeast, still farther off, enlivened by large herds of buffalo feeding at a distance (Lewis, 1847, p78-79).
The Quapaw were not the only pre-Colonial indigenous human inhabitants of Arkansas, as the territory was hotly contested by the Quapaw, Caddo, Chickasaw, Osage, and Tunica tribes, many of who also made historical reference to bands of faeries. Caddo traditions describe the ghostly, nocturnal “Lost Elves” that haunted the wilderness and lived inside hollow trees. Tunica folklore mentions a mythical dwarf named Tonop, reported to be half a human’s height and also half as narrow, possibly also having only one eye. The Osage describe a race called “the Wild People” noted as being 1-2 feet tall, sometimes winged. The dangerous Wild People were credited with magical powers, sometimes kidnapping children or using witchcraft to harm people. Certainly, there seemed to be broad agreement among warring tribes in the Arkansas region that troops of faeries had also claimed portions of the territory. Even Algonquin speaking tribes such as the Miami, early occupiers of Indiana, southwest Michigan, and western Ohio (removed to Oklahoma by 1846) make allusions to little people called the Pa-i-sa-ki (remarkably similar to the Quapaw Pahi zka jika), or “little wild men of the forest” who already occupied North America before the arrival of Native Americans, mentioning that they were about two feet tall, with white skin and light brown hair, wore shirt-like garments woven with long grasses, bark and sometimes fur and lived in caves along river banks, sometimes building small huts out of grass or tree limbs when they were away from their caves on hunting trips. While the specific names may change, the depictions of the “little people” of Arkansas are oddly consistent, as are the association of these faerie-like fellows with the origins of the thermal springs of the Hot Springs Valley in Arkansas. Although “Pinnetahs” seems to be an Anglicization of the name Pahi zka jika, and the origin of the faerie tribe named the “Arlingtongees” (or Arlingees) is clearly a local appellation associating these tiny indigenous folks with nearby Arlington, Arkansas, the physical descriptions remain constant. According to Quapaw oral tradition, the Pahi zka jika were subject to the predations of a supernaturally evil airborne predator called the “Bakka Bird”. Finding themselves unable to effectively resist, the Pahi zka jika (Pinnetahs) had a sit down with the Wakantake jika, and signed a mutual defense pact.
Ages ago, “when the sun was young and green were the heads of all the mountains” the Pinnetahs, reputed pigmies of the North American Indians, may have occupied the Hot Springs valley. They preyed on birds and beetles. Although small in stature, they were very brave and industrious. The large and ferocious Bakka bird was the great enemy of these pigmies. It has been described as having “an eye like the sun, a head like a bear, the claws of the cougar, and a beak as long and sharp as the buck’s antlers.” When it flew, its wings covered the valley, and its dark shadow fell upon the earth like the clouds of a terrible storm. The Bakka had its nest on the summit of a mountain, and, each day when the sun shone, this mighty bird of evil omen would fly over the crags of the Valley of Hot Springs, seizing in its huge talons human prey from among the Pinnetahs. Mounting, then, like a flame of destruction, it would leave behind it the victim’s wailing relations. The dreaded Bakka fed upon the flesh of the helpless Pinnetahs, and covered the mountain with their bones. At length the Pinnetahs met in council, and invoked the aid of the Indian pixies, who could appear or disappear at will. The fairies came gladly to their succor. Early one morning the combined forces of the Pinnetahs and the fairies, known as the Arlingees, collected. The pixies were clothed “like the web of the spider, with their coats of hazy thistledown and their caps of velvety azure.” They were ready to battle the Bakka. The generals of these two little tribes believed that stratagem meant more than force. They built a high wall of stone, which they covered with branches, and strewed with leaves. Above it they bent pine trees, ready to fall when the trigger of their trap was sprung. They dug an exit through which they might escape when the bird dropped upon them. When their labors were finished, they lay in wait for their enemy. With the dawn of day they saw the approach of the winged monster, and the valley darkened by his shadow. Poising in the air, while the pigmies entered their enclosure and scrambled to safety, the Bakka swooped down, crashing through the branches and the brambles. The trigger was sprung and the heavy pines fell upon the bird, and crushed him. From the dying evil bird “rose a vapor dyed in crimson, till it spread across the heavens like a blanket wet with murder; then it lifted and expanded, drifting slowly northward till it vanished from the vision, leaving a smoke and a stifling odor in its trail.” The evil bird was killed by the cunning of the pigmies and the pixies. The wind blew the carcass to the infernal regions whence it came. It disappeared, and from the spot where the bird had lain, hot and soothing water gushed forth. The flow of these waters has continued to this day (Allsop, 1931, p232-233).
This little bit of combat engineering had the unforeseen, but fortunate consequence of creating the refreshing and rejuvenative thermal springs in the Hot Springs Valley, taken to be a sign that the Great Spirit was not such a bad guy after all, in allowing the depredations of the Bakka Bird. One may want to equate the Bakka Bird with the equally ubiquitous Native American concept of “the thunderbird”, but in most instances the thunderbird is regarded as a more benevolent figure, or simply a messenger from the Great Spirit, rather than a specter of faerie-eating nastiness. It is a little curious that the war between the alliance of the Pahi zka jika and Wakantake jika against the Bakka Bird is strangely reminiscent of ancient stories of a global war between pygmies and cranes (for more information, see “World War Zero: The Forgotten Conflict of the Pygmies and Cranes”). Nonetheless, nothing beats a good hot soak after battling monsters.
Thus the bird of evil died, by the cunning of the Arlingtongees, and the labor of the pigmies, and released were all the phantoms held in torment by his cruel and mysterious power. Then the pixies called the wind to aid them, to blow the carcass of the Bakka to the regions it had sprung from, and out of the spot where lay the dead bird gushed a hot and soothing water that would heal all pains that flesh was heir to; that from out the source of evil might flow a compensation as a proof of the compassion which the Great Spirit feels for all his people (Buel, 1880, p57).
Obviously, the triumph of the Ozark Faerie Alliance lived on in Quapaw mythology, even though it appears that by the turn of the 19th Century, the Pahi zka jika and Wakantake jika themselves had also vanished from the scene, a “fairy tale” in its truest sense, and while we hem and haw about the precious sensitivities of our nation’s troubled youth and the terrible lessons of Grimm’s fairy tales as originally told, deep in the heart of darkest prehistoric America we can unearth far more salient teaching moments, for as Luna Lindsey observed, “Real fairy tales end in blood or tears”.
Allsopp, Fred W. 1867-1946. Folklore of Romantic Arkansas. [New York]: The Grolier socity, 1931.
Buel, James W. 1849-1920. Legends of the Ozarks. St. Louis: W. S. Bryan, 1880.
Dorsey, J. Owen. “Kwapa Folklore”. Journal of American Folklore 8:29: American Folklore Society: University of Illinois Press, 1895.
Lewis, Meriwether, 1774-1809. History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis And Clarke: to the Sources of the Missouri … Performed During the Years 1804, 1805, 1806, by Order of the Government of the United States. New York: Harper, 1847.