Lakota people have their own scary stories about spirits, ghosts and little people. I had always assumed that they were just superstitions…a way to explain the things in the dark. Until one year, that is, when I stayed with friends while attending the Yankton Sun Dance in eastern South Dakota. My friend had invited his parents to join us that year. It was a common practice for people to stay up late into the early morning hours. For, in order to attend the Sun Dance, a person had to ‘purify’ by attending at least one Inipi (or sweat lodge) and these usually occurred after the sun went down and could run until midnight.
One night, as the women made frybread and talked into the night, Florence (my friend’s mother) started sharing her youth and how things had changed over the years. I was fascinated with her stories of her past…real stories of relatives in her family…Black Elk and Crazy Horse. She had not been brought up on Yankton but had been raised as an only child out on the grasslands near Pine Ridge. One by one the women went to bed and then there were just the 2 of us. While my friend continued making mounds of frybread for ceremony the next day, Florence continued her stories. Against the stillness and background of soft (and not so soft) snores, she started speaking ever so softly of her childhood experiences.
She shared that she had spent much of her time alone as a child on the prairie. Her only toys were dolls her mother made and little tipis and horses for the dolls that her father had created. She told me that she led a quiet if lonely life out on the prairie. Until one day, when she was about 5 or 6 years of age, when ‘they’ came. When I asked who ‘they’ were, she carefully searched the dark corners of the kitchen and resumed in an ever quieter voice…saying the words ’Little People’ in a hushed tone. I struggled not raise my eyebrows or smile…this was a respected Elder after all and she deserved my courtesy. So I kept my comments to myself and continued to listen half-heartedly…looking at the clock and yawning, hoping she would notice that her daughter-in-law had left to go to bed and my desire to do the same.
She described the Little People as some being knee-high in height while others were approximately ankle-high. Three came to visit her on a regular basis but one…a female…came all the time. They spent many happy hours playing with her dolls and small items that Florence never knew what they were. This Little Person told her that the Little People didn’t like Human Adults because they ruined the world but that they loved their children…that the Human Children were the hope for this world. Florence said that the Little People didn’t really speak words but instead seemed to “think” words and pictures into her head. The Little One described the different types of Little People…there were ones that played pranks on adult humans…tying their shoes together to trip them…hiding or stealing items that were important…while others played more serious even dangerous pranks on people. Florence told me that she was forbidden from speaking the Little Female’s name to other humans because if the others heard you speaking about them, they would come…and that, Florence told me, was something “you would not want” in a tone that spoke of dire consequences. At this point, I shivered just a bit because this story was starting to ‘feel’ true.
And so Florence and her Little People happily played together for nearly a year until one day, when Florence told her mother about her little friend. Florence’s mother was shocked and distressed and she ran to tell her husband. Florence listened as they spoke in hushed and urgent tones but she didn’t understand. Later that month, they moved away and Florence never saw her friend ever again. Her mother sternly admonished her to never call the Little Person’s name and to never tell anyone her story.
Florence stopped at this point and I asked her why she was told not to tell the story. She looked at me with eyes that were filled with a small fear and said that her mother had told her that their family had many, many stories of encounters with the Little People…stories with harsh and sad endings. Placing her hand gently on my arm in compassion, she told me that they were everywhere and that a person could never know when they were listening. “And now”, she said, “they know about You and that you know their story…so be careful…to always look in the dark corners, tall grasses and low bushes…and to be very careful how you speak of them.” I started to exhale slowly, trying to digest all that I had heard, when, at that very moment; we both heard a small movement and turned to see the ‘glitter’ of eyes in a dark corner. Reaching out, we slowly took each others hand and quietly backed out of the kitchen. Though we never spoke of it again…it was never forgotten.