Mohegan Story: Healing of the Forest Little People

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This Mohegan legend about the benevolent nature spirits, called the Makiawisug, illustrates the spiritual potency of the native universe, and the healing necessary to face the invading Massachusetts Bay Pilgrims and their fear of the Antichrist.

maze, Massachusetts woods, Amherst

These “little people” were called Makiaweesug by the Mohegan, and those who were especially perceptive could see them sometimes in the woods. Photo By Jessica Aldridge.

The Little People or Makiawisug

Long ago, before White people came, there were giants and little people as well. These “little people” are called Makiawisug by the Mohegan (“People of the Wolf” in Algonquin dialect). Those especially perceptive could see them sometimes in the woods of Quinnetucket (Connecticut, or “Long River”). After nightfall, the call of the whip-poor-will signals their arrival. They are generally friendly spirits, especially if left alone and treated with respect, according to tradition.

Wearing moccasin flowers for shoes, they gather the gifts at night. In fact, Makiawisug means “whip-poor-will moccasins.” The Little People are quite shy, and if you stare at them, they point their finger at you and you will no longer see them. Then they might cause mischief and you wouldn’t know whether they were doing it or if it was just an accident.

Massachusetts woods

The Mohegan left baskets with food at the edge of the woods so the Little People could take it and not bother the people. Photo By Jessica Aldridge.

If the Makiawisug came to your house asking for food, you should always give them what they wanted. So they wouldn’t have to ask, the Mohegan would leave baskets of food, such as corn cakes and berries, or even meat in the woods for them. In return for kindness, they taught the Mohegan people how to grow corn and use healing plants. They keep the earth well and grant favors for those who honor their ways.

Historian Bernard Bailyn in “Smithsonian”: “Their world [of the First Americans] was multitudinous, densely populated by active, sentient and sensitive spirits, spirits with consciences, memories and purposes, that surround them, instructed them, impinged on their lives at every turn. No less real for being invisible…the whole of life was a spiritual enterprise…the universe in all its movements and animations and nature was suffused with spiritual potency.”

When the English settlers came and disrupted the traditional way of Mohegan life, many forgot to help the Makiawisug. As a result, many Mohegans and Makiawisug fell ill. At this time of Bad Spirits, there lived a medicine woman. One night, during a terrible storm, she heard the whip-poor-will. When she looked outside, the bird wasn’t to be found, but a small boy stood in the rain on her doorstep. It turned out he was a grown Makiawisug named Weegun, who told her to come help someone who was sick.

The medicine woman packed up a few things and told her husband that she was going out to help the man. With the Little Man leading her, she walked on and on through the storm, and the woman didn’t know where she was being taken. Suddenly, the storm seemed to stop as they began to descend into the ground. The Mohegan woman was surprised, because she realized this was the realm of the Little People. But keeping her surprise to herself, she did not ask any questions. Weegun led her to a beehive shaped chamber of rocks. Saying nothing, the Little Man led her inside where a very old woman lay ill on a bed of skins.

Massachusetts Bay Colony, Pequot People

The savage Pequot War and the 1638 Treaty of Hartford that outlawed the Pequot People [and separated them from the Mohegan, who cooperated with the colonists], were the consummation of the Puritans fear of the devil and the English desire for power. Image: Pequot War Engraving from the Library of Congress, Indian Country Today.

“The butchering that went on [in the Pequot War, which the Mohegan fought on both sides] cannot be explained by [the Massachusetts Bay Colony pilgrims] trying to get hold of a piece of land. They were really struggling with this central issue for them, of the advent of the Antichrist.”  — Bernard Bailyn

The Makiawisug told the medicine woman that this was Granny Squannit, who must be made well. Granny Squannit is very powerful, and she is known to cause storms when she argues with her husband, Moshup the Giant. Her illness was the reason for this storm. Worse, healers often look to Granny Squannit when the need is dire for help in healing, and here she was the one who was sick.

In “The Pequot War,” author Alfred Cave wrote that Puritans believed God did everything to benefit them and Satan was the instigator of their troubles. Puritans thought Native ceremonies were devil worship, and if nothing bad resulted from those ceremonies, a Christian God had intervened and saved them.  — Christina Rose, “Indian Country Today”

The medicine woman treated Granny Squannit for nearly a moon before she got better. In return for restoring Granny Squannit’s health, the Makiawisug gave the medicine woman a basket of gifts and told her to remember them. She was blindfolded and taken back to her own. When they arrived, she took the blindfold off, but the Little Man was already gone and she could not tell which direction they had come.

Only when she returned did she open the basket. Inside were quartz crystals, painted skins and bunches of herbs.

Massachusetts, Jessica Aldridge

Life in the New England woods. Photo By Jessica Aldridge.

She told her husband about her adventure and they wanted to find the Little People and looked and looked for them but couldn’t find them. Some think that the Little People died out when the Whites came, but the Mohegan feel that they just live far back in the woods and show themselves only to those who still believe in them.

The earliest clans of the Delaware Tribe included the Wolf clan, or Mohegans, who settled in upstate New York. After migrating to Connecticut this group became today’s Mohegan Tribe.

Adapted from Mohegan Stories as well as William S. Simmons, 1986: Spirit of the New England Tribes: Indian History and Folklore, 1620-1984. Hanover NH: University Press of New England. From “Brothertown Oral Traditions,” by a group of Mohegans who migrated to Wisconsin.

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