The Little People of the Pryor Mountains (known as Nirumbee or Awwakkulé in the Crow language) are a race of ferocious dwarves in the folklore of the Crow Nation, a Native American tribe. The Little People were also seen as imparting spiritual wisdom, and played a major role in shaping the destiny of the Crow People through the dreams of the legendary Crow chief, Plenty Coups.
Native American beliefs in “Little People”
Stories and religious beliefs about “Little People” are common to many if not most Native American tribes in the West. Some tribes (such as the Umatilla of Oregon) referred to them as the “Stick Indians,” while the Nez Perce called them Itśte-ya-ha.
In 1804, the Lewis and Clark Expedition stayed for a time with a band of Wičhíyena Sioux on the Vermillion River in modern-day South Dakota. On August 25, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and 10 other men traveled about 9 miles (14 km) north of the river’s junction with the Missouri River to see the “mountain of the Little People”. Lewis wrote in his journal that the Little People were “deavals” (devils) with very large heads, about 18 inches (46 cm) high, and very alert to any intrusions into their territory. The Sioux said that the devils carried sharp arrows which could strike at a very long distance, and that they killed anyone who approached their mound. The Little People so terrified the local population, Lewis reported, that the Maha (Omaha), Ottoes (Otoe), and Sioux would not go near the place. The Lakota people who came to live near the “Spirit Mound” after the Wičhíyena Sioux have a story no more than 250 years old which describes how a band of 350 warriors came near the mound late at night and were nearly wiped out by the ferocious Little People (the survivors were crippled for life).
The Crow (or Absaroke) were originally part of the Hidatsa, a Siouan people who lived a settled, agricultural life along the Missouri River in what is now western North Dakota. Some time prior to the mid-17th century, the Hidatsa leader No-Vitals led a large number of Hidatsa west into the Yellowstone River valley of south-central Montana, where the tribe lived on the plains, by the river, and in the nearby Big Horn, Pryor, and Wolf Mountains. On the move due to pressure from eastern and midwestern tribes moving west due to white encroachment, the Crow may have settled in the Yellowstone Valley only a few decades before the arrival of Lewis and Clark. A fundamental tenet of Crow religion was maxpe, or “the sacred.”
The Little People of the Pryor Mountains
Crow folklore says the “Little People” live in the Pryor Mountains, a small mountain range in Carbon County, Montana and Bighorn County, Montana. Petroglyphs on rocks in the mountains, the Crow said, were made by these demon-like creatures. Because the Little People live there, the mountains are sacred to the Crow. The Little People are said to be no more than 18 inches (46 cm) (or knee) high. Crow folklore differs slightly from that of other tribes in describing the Little People of the Pryor Mountains as having large, nearly round bellies; incredibly strong but short arms and legs; and little or no neck. In the story of “Lost Boy” (or “Burnt Face”), the Crow told of a Little Person who killed a full-grown bull elk and carried it off just by tossing the elk’s head over its shoulder. The Crow expression, “strong as a dwarf,” references the incredible strength of these Little People. However, they are incredibly fierce warriors, feed primarily on meat, and have many sharp, canine-like teeth in their mouths. Nearby tribes told stories of the Little People tearing the hearts out of their enemies’ horses, stories which may have helped keep these tribes from making war on the Crow. Each year, the Crow made an offering to the Little People at Medicine Rocks (also known as “Castle Rocks”), where they believed some Little People lived. The Pryor Mountains Little People were also known for stealing children, food, medicine, and tobacco. The Crow also believed that the Little People created stone arrowheads, for the Crow themselves only knew how to make bone arrowheads. Anyone who tried to play a trick on the Little People would incur their wrath, which usually destroyed him and his entire family.
The Little People (sometimes referred to as “spirit dwarves”) were also said to be able to confer blessings or spiritual insight (maxpe) to certain individuals. Generally speaking, the Crow would refuse to enter the Pryor Mountains due to their belief in the Little People. However, on occasion a lone Crow would travel to the Medicine Rocks and fast, where one of the Little People might manifest as a lone animal to teach the seeker these insights. The Crow tell of two ways to pass through the mountains without being harmed by the Little People, however. Both involved offerings. According to their folklore, the Little People had befriended a young Crow boy. The boy told the Crow that there was a pass through the mountains which the Crow could use, but they would need to shoot arrows ahead of them as they traveled as an offering to the Little People. This pass, now called Pryor Gap, was known to the Crow as “Hits With The Arrows.” The Crow name for Pryor Creek was “Arrow Creek,” and the Pryor Mountains were known to them as the Baahpuuo or “Arrowhead Mountains.” However, other kinds of offerings, such as beads, cloth, or tobacco, could also be left in order to win safe passage through the mountains.
The Little People also were integral to the Crow practice of the Sun Dance. The Little People were said to be “owners” of any Sun Dance lodge that was built. The Little People judge who among the participants is truly sincere, and confer only on them any visions or spiritual insight. A dancer’s position in the Sun Dance could only be awarded by the Little People.
Physical evidence alleged to be Little People
The physical remains of tiny people have been reported found in various locations in the western United States, particularly Montana and Wyoming (e.g. San Pedro Mountains Mummy). Typically these are described as being found in caves with various details such as descriptions that they were “perfectly formed”, dwarf-size, etc. Archeologist Lawrence L. Loendorf notes that “The burials, of course, are always sent to a local university or to the Smithsonian for analysis, only to have both the specimens and research results disappear.” Loendorf also suggests that the discovery of two mummies of anencephalic infants in the first half of the twentieth century with deformities that caused some people to believe they were adults has “contributed to public belief in the existence of a group of tiny prehistoric people.
As of the late 20th century, some Crow remained convinced that the Little People exist. Members of the Crow Nation passing through Pryor Gap sometimes still leave offerings for the Little People. Members of the modern Crow Nation say they have even encountered them while hunting in the Pryor Mountains. Others, taking a wrong road or footpath, say they have seen them blocking the road, and Little People are claimed to have even healed some sick people. Several white people in the area also claim to have seen the Little People, including a local bar owner, ranch hands, and hunters.