More Little People

You know about the menehune, the fabled little people of the Hawaiian islands.  Well, recently I was reading Mysteries and Legends of Montana by Ed Lawrence, and was surprised to see that our Northern Rockies region is home to stories of similar dwarf-like people.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the Crow Indians inhabited the plains of Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota.  The Crow have a traditional tale of the Nirumbee or Awwakkule, dwarves who inhabit the Pryor Mountains region of south-central Montana.  The dwarves are generally harmless (aside from the occasional prank) to the Crow people, who provide them with gifts to keep their good favor; however, enemy tribes were badly frightened of the Nirumbee, who were said to kill horses, pull out the hearts with their bare hands, and eat them.  Whoa.  Fear totally justified, there.

Much like tales of Bigfoot, little-people traditional stories exist in Native American tribes throughout North America.  Even Lewis and Clark recorded such legends during their westward exploration.  Sometimes the little people are portrayed as benevolent forest spirits, such as the Woods Elves of Sioux legend.  Some are just plain evil, like the child-eating dwarves of the Apache.  And some are truly weird:  The “Tailed Ones” of Alaska’s Ahtna Indians are human-like, except for their small stature and monkey-like tails.  They live in the trees and are enemies of the people.  (Visit for more on these legends.)

Mysterious mummified remains of a “little person” were found in a Wyoming cave in the 1930s. The perfectly preserved tiny human was about 14 inches tall.  It was found seated cross-legged on a cave ledge in what is assumed to be a ceremonial burial.  In true American fashion, “In the early 1940s the mummy ended up in the possession of Ivan Goodman, who paid a great deal of money for it and displayed it in a jar at his used-car dealership,” writes Earl Murray in his book, Ghosts of the Old West.

But Goodman was not purely motivated by profit, allowing scientists from all over the country to study his canned mummy.  According to Lawrence, the remains were determined by Harvard anthropologists to be those of a 65-year-old man.  Was it a Nirumbee?  During later examinations, other scientists decided that the remains were not of an old man, but those of an infant suffering from genetic abnormalities. But why its apparently exonerated status, with its cave burial?  Both Murray and Lawrence allege that other little-people remains have been found from time to time, so Goodman’s mummy may not be unique.  But what are they — deformed children or miniature, human-like adults?  We may never know, but in either case, it certainly does seem that the little-people legends are rooted in reality.


The Legend of Nam-puh

Idaho, circa 1860. A hulking giant with an appetite for destruction lurks in the wilds of the Snake River country. His enormous footprints strike fear into the souls of men. Known only as “Bigfoot,” he can outrun a galloping horse and swim across a rushing river in seconds. He travels up to 70 miles in a single day, leaving a trail of misery in his wake.

Sounds like a Hollywood movie, right?  But we’re not talking about that heralded hairy ape; this is the so-called “Chief Bigfoot,” a Native American warrior of the 19th century, to whom all of the above is attributed.

Historians believe this Bigfoot was a man named Howluck, who was a commander of the combined Paiute, Shoshone, and Bannock forces during the Snake War. Howluck was a strong opponent of white settlement and led his band in a number of battles against U.S. forces. According to reports, Howluck stood 6’8″ tall and weighed 300 pounds, with a foot length of anywhere from 14-17″. The Bannocks called him “Nam-puh,” which translates as Big Foot. Whites just called him Bigfoot, or Chief Bigfoot.

Nobody’s quite sure what happened to Howluck. Some historians believe he was eventually captured and forced to relocate to a reservation, where he quietly lived out his days. But here the real Nam-puh and the legendary one diverge.

The tall-tale version of Bigfoot was a recalcitrant raider, a marauding murderer. Popular stories held Bigfoot responsible for acts of general mayhem wreaked upon white settlers throughout the 1860s. Giant footprints were allegedly found at various crime scenes in the region. Writes historian Porter Morgan Ward, “Bigfoot, man or myth, began to gather the accumulated hatred of the white population. He was the scapegoat for unsolved crimes, (and) the bogeyman for small children.”

The account of Bigfoot’s demise was written by a man who claimed to be a bystander to Bigfoot’s final moments – or, some reasonably surmise, by a newspaper editor trying to sell papers on a slow news day — and published years after its supposed occurrence.

After a bounty was allegedly placed on Bigfoot’s head, a gunfighter named John Wheeler set his sights on the reward. Wheeler ambushed Bigfoot as he traveled through an isolated canyon. After being shot over a dozen times, the mangled and bleeding Bigfoot asked Wheeler for a drink of whiskey; he downed the pint and then, theatrically, proceeded to confess his life story to the gunman. He said he was of mixed ancestry: black, Cherokee, and white. As a young man, he was rejected by his lover’s family because of his mixed blood, and the woman left him. Hurt and enraged, he turned against the world and to a life of crime.

Bigfoot was buried at the scene of his death. Wheeler, filled with sudden remorse, swore never to confess the details of Bigfoot’s death in all his days (and was conveniently dead himself when the story went to press).

Despite its utter lack of verifiable fact, this tale seems to have passed smoothly into the annals of undisputed history, at least for a time; it was later published in an 1884 book entitled History of Idaho Territory, and the site of Bigfoot’s alleged demise was commemorated with a roadside plaque, of all things.

The final resting place of the elusive Howluck remains a mystery, but the frontier legend survives.

Idaho State Historical Society Reference Series: Bigfoot.

Gulick, Bill. Big Tracks Recalled Legendary “Bigfoot” of Idaho 100 Years Ago. Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, 1966. Reprinted on

Ward, Porter Morgan. Bigfoot: Man or Myth? Montana: The Magazine of Western History, vol. 7, Spring 1957.

Aloha, Menehune! Mysterious “little people” of Hawaii

A while back, I was talking to a relative in Hawaii. We were talking about Bigfoot (what else?), and the fact that there had been no reported Bigfoot encounters in that state.

“No,” he said, “but we do have Menehune.”

Menhune are legendary “little people” that are said to populate – or once have populated – the Hawaiian islands. Two to three feet tall, Menehune enjoy playing games and performing feats of strength by day. But at night, they work tirelessly to build structures such as irrigation ditches, heiau (temples), and retaining ponds. They are said to be exceptionally strong and smart, and expert craftspeople.

The merry Menehune are sometimes used as advertising figures in Hawaii, like this little guy for Menehune Water Company

The merry Menehune are sometimes used as advertising figures in Hawaii, like this little guy for Menehune Water Company

Folklore has it that Menehune were the original residents of the islands, populating Hawaii long before Polynesian settlement. As Martha Beckwith writes in her book, Hawaiian Mythology, “Hawaiian families count the Menehune as their ancestral spirits and helpers, and these little people play the part of benevolent godparents to their descendants.” Within that role, they may occasionally perform favors for, or act as protectors to, their earthly family members.

The Menehune are credited with building various structures in the islands. One I have had the good fortune to visit is Mo’okini Heiau, on the island of Hawaii.  This heiau, a sacred site where human sacrifice was once performed, was built of stones culled from an area 12 miles away. Hawaiian lore says the industrious little laborers formed a line and passed individual stones, man-to-man, from their quarry to the temple site until it was completed.


Mo’okini Heiau, temple walls

If the Menehune existed in antiquity, what became of them? My relatives have a Hawaiian friend who asserts that the unfortunate little people caused offense to King Kamehameha the Great, and the king’s henchmen rounded them all up, forcing them to leap to their deaths from a towering cliff. Folklorist Beckwith reports various tales which allege the Menehune eventually migrated to the mysterious “floating land of the gods.” But even now, people in Hawaii sometimes report encounters with the little people of legend.  If you like, you can read about some of them at the following links:

Menehune tales may be dismissed as folklore, but as with many legends, they have basis in reality. One theory is that the meaning of the word has been garbled in translation. The Tahitian word “manahune” translates as a lowly person, someone of small social stature. Perhaps, through the years after Tahitian people settled in the Hawaiian islands, “manahune” became corrupted as “menehune” and the word was identified literally with people of small physical stature.

homo f

Artist’s rendering of Homo floresiensis

But real evidence of “little people” populations has been found in the Pacific – albeit not in Hawaii (yet). In the Philippines in 2003, researchers discovered Homo floresiensis, a three-to-four-foot-tall human relative who lived perhaps as recently as 12,000 years ago. And in 2008, researchers found remains in Palau, Micronesia, of what are thought to be extremely small Homo sapiens who lived about 1,000-3,000 years ago. As this article states, “It is well established that populations living on isolated islands often consist of individuals of smaller stature than their mainland cousins — a phenomenon known as island dwarfism.” Could the Polynesians who eventually settled in the Hawaiian islands have encountered these “little people” on their Pacific journeys, originating the Menehune legend? Or could similar little people have actually lived in the Hawaiian islands at one time?

As with so many other legendary creatures, the tales of the Menehune have stood the test of time. Whatever you believe with regard to the stories’ origins, you at least have to admit they’re first-rate folklore.

Beckwith, Martha. Hawaiian Mythology. Universty of Hawaii Press.


Small-Bodied Humans from Palau, Micronesia

Stories of the Menehunes

Homo floresiensis

Gorn but not forgotten: Strange creatures on two legs

Having recently finished Linda Godfrey’s book, American Monsters, I am struck by the fact that most of the creepiest cryptids chronicled therein walk bipedally, like people do. Godfrey mentions various dogmen, a gator man, and the lizard man; and of course, the oft-represented Sasquatch, in her book. She often quotes witnesses as saying how freaked-out they were when they realized the creature they were watching was walking on two legs — because that is the moment they understood this was no run-of-the-mill animal, but something very, very strange indeed.


Godfrey also makes reference to the being some Native American tribes know as the Windigo, which is often represented as a giant, cannibalistic, walking, human skeleton. But aside from terrifying Native American spirit-beings and cryptozoological oddities, Western culture has a tradition of putting a pair of legs beneath our embodied fears.


For example, the Devil himself is depicted on two legs.  We also have Beowulf’s nemesis, the monster Grendel; the infamous werewolf; and any number of movie monsters from The Creature from the Black Lagoon to the Aliens from Alien — not to mention those creatures formerly known as human:  Zombies, vampires, and Frankenstein’s monster. H.P. Lovecraft’s sea-dwelling, telepathic, ultra-creepy Cthulu is basically a giant octopus, but on top of a humanoid body.  Even in ancient times, beings like Medusa, the Cyclops, and the Minotaur – kind of like us, but not quite – were fearsome monsters featured in story and song.

Basically, the creatures we fear most deeply walk on two legs.

What is it about bipedality that makes unknown animals just that much weirder?  Why wouldn’t we devise some slithering, slimy, tentacled, multi-eyed, totally bizarre animal to be a classic, legendary beast of terror? Is it a lack of imagination on our part, or is it inherently creepier for us to imagine our scariest creatures as having that little bit of human-ness – bipedality – which we like to think of as a trait peculiar to our own species?

The element of bipedalism figures into extraterrestrial depictions, too.  Think about the “greys,” those big-headed, skinny alien beings that have come to be so well represented in our culture.  It’s a little ridiculous to assume that creatures from other planets would all evolve methods of locomotion the same as our own, isn’t it?  Even within that paragon of culture, Star Trek, the aliens look an awful lot like normal two-legged earthlings. Well, sometimes they look like this:

Gorn with the wind

The Gorn.  A handsome specimen

All Trek aside, perhaps injecting an element of the familiar into what we imagine to be “unknown” is a subconscious representation of our fear of ourselves. Or perhaps “creepy” is just that much creepier if it is a little bit, but not quite, familiar to us.