January 10, 2016

The Little People with the Deadly Stare

This post is probably better suited for Lent, but I thought I would share it now because it is also a little bit spooky, and seems appropriate for a rainy gloomy Sunday like today. So here goes!


The Passamaquoddy Indians live in northern Maine on the Canadian border. They dwell primarily in two areas, Indian Township in Princeton and Pleasant Point Reservation in Perry. Many Passamaquoddy also dwell in Canada across the border, which was drawn through their ancestral lands centuries ago.

Most Native American folklore from New England is full of interesting supernatural beings, and Passamaquoddy lore is no different. Their stories tell of demi-gods, thunderbirds, and talking animals. They also tell of magical little people.

The Passamaquoddy claim there are two types of little people associated with their tribe. The first are the Nagumwasuck, who live alongside the Passmaquoddy on their reservation and have a society that parallels the human one. When a human dies the Nagumwasuck mourn. When a human baby is born the Nagumwasuck celebrate. When a church was built on one of the reservations the Nagumwasuck made a tiny version of their own.

Although they are hideously ugly and don't like to be seen, the Nagumwasuck overall are benevolent. Not so their cousins the Mekumwasuck. The Meckumwasuck are quite short (about three feet tall) and have extremely hairy faces. They live in the woods outside human society and dress in outlandish clothing. Overall this doesn't sound so bad, but here's the kicker: anyone the Mekumwasuck looks directly at will sicken and die.


The Passamaquoddy converted to Catholicism centuries ago, and apparently the Mekumwasuck converted along with them. These dangerous creatures now watch over the church, and will punish anyone who tries to violate the Catholic Church's rules.

For example, back in 1970 several men broke into a Passamaquoddy church to steal the sacramental wine. This was a bad idea. The Mekumwasuck appeared and chased off the men, who were terrified. One of the would-be-thieves tried to escape through a window but got stuck. The little people beat him until he broke through the window and ran off into the night.

Even minor infractions can draw the attention of the Mekumwasuck. In 1971 the local priest gave the community permission to hold a dance in the church - even though it was Lent. (If this were a horror film the ominous music would play.) People were uneasy because dancing during Lent didn't sound quite orthodox, but about seventy-five people still came out for it.

Shortly after the dance started a teenage boy nervously said the thought he had seen a Mekumwasuck lurking nearby. He asked his cousin if he could see it. At first the cousin refused to look, fearing the entity's deadly stare, but finally worked up his courage and looked. He too saw the Mekumwasuck.

Clearly this was a bad omen. Within minutes everyone fled the dance. Happily no one died that night, but if they had not heeded the Mekumwasuck's warning who knows what might have happened? It was the last time anyone tried to hold a dance during Lent.


I first read about the Mekumwasuck in Joseph Citro's book Passing Strange (1996), but it seems like the story originally appears in Katharine Briggs's A Dictionary of Fairies (1976). The Passamaquoddy information is one the few New World sections in Briggs's book, which covers mostly European fairy lore.

Interestingly, Briggs claims she was given the information by Susan Stevens, an anthropologist who married into the Passamaquoddy. Stevens was actually serving as a chaperone at the Lenten dance that ended so abruptly. That means that story actually happened and is not just a traditional tale handed down over time.

Briggs suggests that the Mekumwasuck are basically European gargoyles adopted into a Native American culture, but I think she has it backwards. Native Americans in New England already had traditions about magical little people well before the Europeans arrived, and these traditions changed based on the situations the different tribes found themselves in.

For example, while the Mekuwasuck kill anyone who desecrates the Catholic Church, the similarly-named Makiwasug of Mohegan folklore are less malevolent and less focused on Christianity. While the Makiawasug also do not like being looked at they will not kill anyone who sees them, but instead will simply steal their belongings. Sometime in the past the Passamaquoddy and the Mohegan probably shared similar beliefs about the little people, but those beliefs have diverged over time based on their subsequent histories.

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