The Dwarves of Native American traditions were called by various names throughout Indian Country. My own tribe, the Arapaho, called them the Little People (Heecesiiteihii) while their neighbors in the Northwest, the Nez Perce, called this race of people the “Stick Indians”, the Its’te-ya-ha.
In 1954, Lucy Armstrong, a Nez Perce, shared her stories of the Stick People that her father and an Elder passed down to her. The story in its entirety is in Ella Clark’s book, Indian Legends from the Northern Rockies, on pages 50-51.
According to Armstrong, the Stick Indians wore deerskins wrapped around their bodies and lived in the deep woods. In this, it is similar to stories of the Arapaho who say the Little People live today deep in the remote Wind River Mountains.
She said that the Stick Indians could make themselves invisible by rubbing themselves with a certain type of grass though, at other times, they would remain visible. They would hoot like owls and howl like coyote so that it was difficult to tell the Stick Indians apart from the wild animals.
As in many cultures, including the Catholic Irish with their leprechauns, the Nez Perce would occasionally put out food for the Stick Indians. According to Armstrong, people would hear whistling in their home and know that it was these Stick Indians. They would then put out bits of salmon for the intruders and, invariably, in the morning the food would be gone. This reminds me of my own experience of offering milk to the Little People and the milk was gone in the morning without the cup being spilt or knocked over.
Reminiscent of the Arapaho story of the dwarf who used the cottonwood for an arrow, the Nez Perce also claimed that the Stick Indian was extremely strong. Armstrong said that an old white man reported that a Stick Indian stole his sheep and their calves. He had told her father that he had caught the little man with a calf under each arm and that he was too strong for the sheepherder to do anything about the thievery.
Armstrong’s reports of modern day sightings correlate with that of my tribe as well. Usually the sightings are when tribal members are out in remote Wind River Mountains in hunting camp. Phillip, a young Arapaho man, told me just the other day that he had seen several of the Little People silhouetted on a rock above his head while hunting in the Wind Rivers. They got out of the area quickly and didn’t stick around to study the other hunters.
In Armstrong’s father’s case, he was a boy at hunting camp with his aunt and uncle when a storm blew up. His uncle told him to cover his face because a strange visitor was coming. However, the curiosity of children is great and he peeked. The visitor was a little man with “very small eyes and a wrinkled face. He had long hair, uncombed, and he wore nothing but a deer skin wrapped around his waist and hanging down to his knees.” (pg. 50, paragraph 7) His Uncle fed the visitor and the little man left with his deer meat and some salmon. As punishment, her father’s face was swollen in the morning. This is a familiar story told to us kids of any race to get us to obey our parents or elders when they say, “Don’t look!”
Armstrong also claims that her grandmother’s father found a tiny boy dead on a flat rock. This is an interesting find since, according to Dr. Susan B. Martinez who wrote The Lost History of the Little People, the little people usually cremated their dead. Perhaps the boy had not yet been buried? And was he really a boy or a full grown man?
The Stick Indians are also given credit for tricks and, perhaps the way they see it, helping us out. Armstrong tells a story of a family out huckleberry picking near Mount Adams. They had locked their baby in the car for safety but while they were picking the berries, heard the baby cry. They hurried back and the baby was gone. They heard another cry, and hurried in that direction and found their child. They claimed that the “Little People” had taken the baby out of a locked car. Today, the parent’s would have been charged with neglect so perhaps, the Stick Indians saw themselves as doing a good deed.
The only difference of the Nez Perce Stick People from the Little People of Arapaho myth, is that the Nez Perce version talks about their ability to turn invisible by rubbing themselves with grass. And I think this is probably just an explanation they came up with for the Little People being such an elusive people.