The Tsunsdi, the “Little People” of Cherokee lore

Published 1:04 pm Thursday, February 29, 2024

Long before there was ever any talk in these parts about Irish Leprechauns and pots of gold at the end of the rainbow, the folks who eons ago populated these beautiful mountains around us spoke with great awe and reverence of a race of “Little People” who lived in caves and behind waterfalls and tried to avoid, at all costs, any contact with human beings. 

James Mooney, in his monumental work entitled, “History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees,” first published in 1900, tells of the Tsunsdi, or Little People of Cherokee lore. Mooney collected story after story from the Cherokee on the Qualla reservation in North Carolina as well as from their cousins in Oklahoma who had been carried there along the infamous Trail of Tears. Both groups of these noble people still had memories of colorful legends about the Tsunsdi.

The Tsunsdi were described as small, human-like creatures whose stature barely reached a man’s knee. They had long hair that fell almost to the ground, as the Cherokee described it. They dwelt in caves, among rocks and behind waterfalls. They were industrious yet fun-loving folk who spent a lot of time dancing and drumming. In fact, the people said, if you wander deep into the mountains and listen carefully you can hear their rhythmic drumming among the hills and deep forests. 

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Although they were elusive, they were also kindhearted and were known to assist people who might be lost in the mountains or woodlands. They were especially sympathetic toward young children who had wandered away from their parents, and they were known to care for these little ones and then guide them back to their homes. But the folks who encountered the Little People were always solemnly warned never to divulge their whereabouts or any details about their encounters. 

Legend has it that one man, after being lost in a deep winter snow, was taken in by the Tsunsdi and was fed and well cared for, but he was warned not to speak of what had happened or he would surely die. After safely returning to his village the man refused to discuss where he had been and what he had experienced, but finally, he could contain himself no longer. He told his friends and family about the Little People of the mountains who had shown him such compassion, and two days later he died.

Legend has it that the Tsunsdi are notorious rock throwers. If you get too close to their hidden lair, they’re liable to pelt you with stones, which the Cherokee explain is the reason you find so many rocks along isolated woodland trails. The Tsunsdi, they reason, have been trying to preserve their privacy. The Cherokee will also tell you if you find a knife or a trinket along the trail you better leave it alone until you repeat, “Little People, I want to take this.” It could belong to one of the diminutive Tsunsdi, and if you don’t ask their permission to take it you could soon find yourself in a shower of rocks! It’s a fascinating and endearing legend. 

So, this spring or summer should you go on a picnic to Pearson’s Falls be sure to leave the place better than you found it. There just might be a family of the Tsunsdi living behind the waterfall and you surely don’t want to risk offending them. Unless, that is, you want to be pelted with rocks!