June 29, 2014

The Little People Who Live Under the Hill

In September of 2012, a developer trying to build housing in Montville, Connecticut received some surprising news during a town hearing. They would need to alter their project because it threatened small stone structures that had been made by magical, dwarf-like creatures that lived underground.

Readers may be familiar with situations like this from Iceland, where construction projects are not allowed to harm the dwelling places of elves. But they are rare here in New England, where most people don't believe in fairies, elves, and dwarves. (Bigfoot, ghosts, and UFOs are another story...)

However, magical little people are an ancient tradition among the Algonquian tribes that are native to this area, and the developer was planning to build 120 units of housing on Mohegan Hill, which is the historic and spiritual home of the sovereign Mohegan Tribe. Although the hill is not technically within the boundaries of the tribe's reservation, it is still very important to them. A letter from the tribe's historic preservation officer explained the significance of the stone structures:

The sacred stone piles on Mohegan Hill are a critical feature of the traditional landscape of Mohegan Hill; they were created by the “Little People” who live deep within the ground of Mohegan Hill. These “Little People” or Makiawisug are the ancient culture heroes of this region. These stone piles also possess powers that protect the Mohegan people from outsiders. Not only do the “Little People” still live within the ground on the Hill and continue to guard the stones, these stone piles are perceived as being made of the bones of Mother Earth and they contain messages that guide generation after generation of Mohegan People. Contemporary Mohegan tribal members make offerings to the “Little People” in hopes that they will continue to protect our Tribe.

The Makiawisug are similar in some ways to the fairies or dwarves that are familiar to people from European folklore. According the Mohegan medicine woman Gladys Tantaquidgeon (b. 1899, d. 2005), the Makiawisug are ancient beings who have lived under Mohegan Hill since before the Mohegans arrived. They are dense, bulky and born from the stones of the earth. But they are also delicate, wearing lady slipper flowers as moccasins. The Makiawisug are often mistaken for small children on the rare occasions they are seen by humans, but are quite wise. Many medicine people among the Mohegan learned their skills from the Makiawisug.

Photo of Gladys Tantaquidgeon from Wikipedia.
Tantaquidgeon learned four important tips about the Makiawisug from her elders:

1. If you come upon one of the Makiawisug, do not look directly at him. If you look directly at the Little People they will point their finger at you, which allows them to become invisible. Once invisible they will secretly enter your home and steal your possessions. 

2. To get help from the Makiawisug, leave them offerings. They prefer baskets of cornbread and berries, but sometimes they will also accept meat.

3. Never speak about the Makiawisug during the summer. This is the season when they are most active and wandering through the woods. They will be offended by overhearing your comments and you don't want to offend them. (See #1 above.) I realize I am publishing this post in the summer and it may incite discussion. Maybe you can think of it instead as a warning to avoid discussing the Little People, particularly if you are out in the woods. 

4. The Makiawisug are led by Granny Squannit, a very powerful and ancient being. Stay on her good side! Granny Squannit is most likely the modern name for Squauanit, a goddess who was one of the thirty-seven deities revered across southern New England by the Algonquians. 

These four rules come from the book Medicine Trail: the Life and Lessons of Gladys Tantaquidgeon by Melissa Jayne Fawcett. I think it's quite interesting that some of them are similar to rules about interacting with fairies from Europe. For example, in Europe fairies are said to be most active around the summer solstice, and Europeans who believe in fairies often don't speak directly about them for fear of offending them. In many parts of Europe it was also traditional to leave out offerings for the fairy folk, who often were said to live inside certain hills with their queen.

I suppose if you are historically minded you might say the Mohegan picked up some European traditions from English settlers and added them to their original Makiawisug beliefs. If you're feeling a little more metaphysical, perhaps you'd say that although European fairies and Mohegan Makiawisug are different beings, magical beings across the world still share a lot of similar traits.

But whatever you say about the Makiawisug, try not to say it during the summer, and certainly not if you're walking through the woods!

PS - The information about the housing developer and the stone structures is online here.

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