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The Ozark Mountain Region has inherited much of its cultural identity and folk practices from older European tradition, especially from the British Isles and Germany. These stories, languages, religious beliefs, and even some magical methods, developed amongst isolated families in the heart of Appalachia before being carried to the Ozark Mountains around 1820 after the forced removal of the Osage and New Settler Cherokee to Oklahoma. Ozark culture would further develop into what we see collected in the early twentieth century by famous folklorists like Vance Randolph in his Ozark Magic and Folklore and Mary Parler in her multi-volume collection entitled Folk Beliefs from Arkansas. These works cover a range of folkways, many of which are still around today despite the slow decay of Ozark folk culture. One of these traditions that has endured over the years, especially in the more rural areas of the Ozarks, is believing in what Ozark folk call the "Little People," or fairies.
In reality, lore surrounding the Little People represents a blending of Old and New World cultures. This amalgamation would have specifically taken place in the Appalachian Mountains amongst rural families. Part of this tapestry of belief would have come from Pan-Celtic sources like Britain, Cornwall, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Here, fairy lore would have already been a foundational part of the culture for centuries, the fairies themselves representing ancient animistic beliefs from across the Celtic world. German families were also very common in Southern Appalachia and would have added to the story with their own tales of the "Moosleute" or "moss folk," who were capricious guardians of nature and wildling spirits. These European beliefs would have then mixed with those from Indigenous communities in Appalchia, specifically the Cherokee who have what they call the "Little People" or "yvwi tsunsdi" ?? ????, common features of both traditional storytelling and cultural practices.
Physical Characteristics and Personality
In the past hundred years or so, more and more people have begun to use words like "fairy" when referring to the Little People, mostly from folklore and storytelling influences from outside the Ozarks. I was talking to one informant about this very notion and he told me that "the Little People ain't fairies…Fairies are from storybooks and the Little People are real." While this distinction might make some chuckle, it points to a very important notion that the Little People are in most cases wholly unlike the sprites and fairies of the Brothers Grimm and other sources. While this distinction would have been more strictly observed at one time, today most people in the area won't think twice about using the word "fairy" as a suitable alternative to Little People.
Size and Shape
In most accounts, the Little People are said to look exactly like humans except, of course, smaller. There are stories describing them with all kinds of body shapes, often as many as we see in our own world. In general, they are said to wear clothes from the past, reminiscent no doubt of what the first families to settle in the Ozarks wore. In one story I collected, my informant told me that when she was a kid, she saw one of the Little People early in the morning after milking her family's goats. She said he, "looked just like an old man with a beard, except only about a foot tall. He wore old-timey clothes like from the Civil War times and a bright red, pointy hat."
Other stories have described the Little People in very similar ways, but the style of their clothing seems to vary from person to person. Many have described them to me as being from around the Civil War, others offer up a picture of something much more ancient. In one anecdote, my informant told me the Little People he saw were all wearing buckskin clothes and hickory nut shells for hats. The red hat as described in the first story is also often a common feature in descriptions of the Little People. I've yet to been able to deduce this for a factm but I suspect these descriptions are influenced by images of Scandinavian gnomes that were popular features of storybooks and Christmas cards around the turn of the Twentieth century.
Culture and Purpose
Because the Little People's society is viewed as a mirror of our own, they are often described in many of the same ways. For instance, the Little People are said to have their own language, religion, customs, occupations, and pastimes. Very little of this culture can be described in great detail, of course, as the Little People are very cautious of human gazes. This is another similarity shared with Ozark culture itself, which has often been described as highly secretive and distrusting of outsiders as epitomized in the title of folklorist Vance Randolph's collection of Ozark tall tales, We Always Lie to Strangers. Those who are able to recount what they've seen of the Little People most often describe them as performing tasks like milking, hunting for game, chopping wood, or even hanging clothes out to dry. It's important to note that the Little People are often described in very mundane ways compared to their fairy cousins from across Europe.
The purpose of the Little People is often debated, even to this day. Some believe them to be demons or fallen angels, but this claim is held by few in the Ozarks. Most see them as guardian spirits of the land itself. This belief follows, as the Little People are so often associated with certain natural landmarks and features. The presence of the Little People in these specific spots often allows for the survival of certain springs, old growth trees, and even entire patches of forest. The Little People then act as a sort of balancing force between humankind and nature. When we get to invasive, shortsighted, or greedy, the Little People are there to remind us of the importance of honoring the land and protecting it.
These encounters are most often harmless, and the human onlooker usually runs away with a fantastic story to pass around town. In a few cases though, the meeting between a human and one of the Little People is much more intimate. In these stories, the human often rescues one of the Little People from a predator animal like a coyote or hawk. In return for such a kind gesture, the fairy usually rewards the human with a map to buried treasure, precious gems, or sometimes even magical abilities. It's often children who find themselves in these situations, as they are seen as innocent and thereby more likely to help a woodland creature in need.
In a few cases, such close contact with the Little People results in a not-so-happy ending. Hexes from the Little People are quite common, usually upon a person's home or crops. Such curses usually result from negative interactions with the Little People. Examples include cutting down a tree that houses a clan of Little People or bulldozing over one of their sacred springs. These curses are often described as long-lasting and sometimes are even passed down through a family. As the stories go, rectifying such offenses is difficult but not impossible. In one anecdote, my informant told me her father had been cursed by the Little People and was only able to heal himself after he restored the natural spring he'd blocked off to make room for a barn.
Magic and Healing
In one story I collected, a healer told me she was gifted her power as a small child through winning one of these fairy games. She'd met the troop of Little People one morning while she was out picking black raspberries. A particularly wizened old fairy challenged the little girl to a raspberry picking contest. The one who had the most berries in their basket at the end of three minutes was the winner. The little girl agreed, suspecting this haggard old man wouldn't be able to pick nearly as many as she could. So, they started off and the old fairy shot up into the raspberry canes as quick as lightning. The little girl began to cry at the trick but still tried to pick as many berries as she could despite her tears. After the three minutes the old fairy called the game. His basket was full of ripe black raspberries but looking over, the little girl's basket was filled with three times as many. The old fairy was shocked, as was the little girl herself. She happily wiped away her tears and looked at the crowd of Little People. About five or six of them in the front smiled and waved to her with hands soaked in black raspberry juice. As a reward for winning the game, the old fairy gifted the child with healing magic, but told her that she was never again to eat another black raspberry and that if she did her powers would leave her. At the time of our conversation, my informant was around fifty years old and swore she'd never eaten a black raspberry since.
Brandon Weston (Fayetteville, AR) is a healer, writer, and folklorist who owns and operates Ozark Healing Traditions, an online collective of articles, lectures, and workshops focusing on the Ozark Mountain region. As a ...