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Fairy lore has long history as told among the Cherokee tribe

Mary Phillips Published: June 28, 2013

Fairies can be found everywhere, even in Oklahoma, as this story that first appeared in The Oklahoman on Jan. 17, 1937, illustrates.

“There are red-skin fairies, just as certainly as there are dwarfs or pixies of lighter hue.

“Although the legends and gods of the Indians are well known, it remained for a worker on the writers’ project near Tulsa to unearth Indian fairy lore.

“So far as is known, the Cherokee tribe is the only one which had fairy stories to tell around the camp fire, William Cunningham, director of the state writers’ project, said Saturday. They probably learned the stories from Scots who mingled and married into the tribe generations ago. But the tales were told, and there is even a spot in Oklahoma where the ‘Little People’ live.

“Three miles south of Salina, on the country road leading to Locust Grove, there is a small, unnamed creek at the foot of a high range of rocky bluffs. The Grand River flows a few hundred yards to the west, and in this tiny valley was a beautiful grove of locust trees, which gave the name to the Cherokee village of Locust Grove, located there until recent years.

“High on these surrounding bluffs, and atop those which extend down the river about a mile, is the only place in the new Cherokee nation where the fairies of Indian legend made camp in Oklahoma. In Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia, there were many villages occupied by the ‘Little People,’ always far back in the mountains, where they were seldom seen.

“When the Cherokees moved to what now is Oklahoma, some of the pixies followed them and there in the sylvan nook near Locust Grove they made camp, and there they have remained, impervious to advances of the white man’s civilization.

“One must be with an old Cherokee to catch a glimpse, however fleeting, of the elusive fairies. But it is not uncommon for such a veteran redman to see signs of their presence.

“A pale face and an Indian were fishing recently in the Grand river when a boulder came rolling down the bluffs.

” ‘We move on,’ said the Indian, gazing tolerantly at the bluffs. ‘The “Little People” want us to leave some fish for them.’

“The pale face followed his glance to the top of the bluffs, but saw only the cliff-cut sky above. Perhaps, had he glanced a bit quicker, he would have caught a glimpse of the elusory fairies of the Cherokees, for it was the ‘Little People’ who had sent the boulder down in protest.

“Information concerning the red men’s fairies was obtained from S.W. Ross, 64-year-old resident of Park Hill.”

This definition of Cherokee fairies is taken from the website www.native-languages.org/cherokee-legends.htm:

” ‘Yunwi Tsunsdi’ (Little People): A race of small humanoid nature spirits, sometimes referred to in English as ‘dwarves’ or ‘fairies.’ They are usually invisible but sometimes reveal themselves as miniature child-sized people. Yunwi Tsunsdi are benevolent creatures who frequently help humans in Cherokee stories, but they have magical powers and are said to harshly punish people who are disrespectful or aggressive towards them. Their name is pronounced similar to yun-wee joon-stee (or yun-wee joon-stee-gah,) which literally means ‘little people.’ The singular form is Yvwi Usdi (pronounced yun-wee oon-stee.)”

The WPA (Works Progress Administration) Writers’ project put many people to work and saved many stories from being lost during the Great Depression.

S.W. Ross was a Cherokee Indian writer born in 1871. He was a contributor to The Oklahoman’s editorial page, and his multi-faceted life will be examined in a future Archivist column.



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