By: Brent Swancer ……
Sprawled out over a portion of the Carbon and Big Horn counties of Montana, and Big Horn county in Wyoming, located south of Billings, Montana, and north of Lovell, Wyoming, are the Pryor Mountains. Named after Sergeant Nathaniel Hale Pryor, a member of the historic Lewis and Clark Expedition, the range rises from the flat prairie land around it to loom like some ancient, inscrutable monolith. Peaking at about 5,000 feet above the surrounding land, it is a place of sweeping vistas of spectacular rugged limestone canyons, sub-alpine prairie plateaus, and they are home to a broad diversity of unique ecosystems and stunning biodiversity, with around 1,000 species of plants have been identified on this island oasis among the prairies, many of which are unique to this one range. The land is also sacred to the native Apsáalooke, or Crow Nation, who call the mountains Baahpuuo Isawaxaawuua, or “Hitting Rock Mountains,” as well as Arrow Shot Into Rock Mountains, and who believe that the First Maker travels through here as he watches his creation. There are numerous myths, legends, and stories that the Crow people have told of this majestic land, and one of these is the tale of the mysterious little people said to dwell here.
According to the Crow legends, the Little People, known to them as the Nirumbee or Awwakkulé, were diminutive creatures standing no more than 18 inches high, with large heads, sharp and pointed teeth, pot bellies, incredibly strong but short arms and legs, and little to no neck. Despite their small stature, their physical strength was said to be vast and legendary, with them able to kill a full grown elk with their bare hands and carry it off slung over their shoulder, or to be able to tear a horse’s heart out, and they were seen as fierce and formidable warriors as well as highly territorial. They were also known as being mischievous troublemakers, stealing children, food, medicine, and tobacco, as well as very vengeful, seeking to destroy people and their families for the smallest perceived slight. It was likely this fierce reputation that kept other potential enemy tribes at bay, and indeed there are tales of enemy tribes being driven back by the Little People, such as a time when the Cheyenne and Sioux arrived to be driven out by hundreds of little people who carried bows and arrows. However, although the Little People were seen as ferocious and somewhat beastly, they were said to have high intelligence, possessing the ability to fashion stone arrowheads when the Crow could only make ones fashioned of bone.
These Little People were greatly feared, with the Crow hesitant to venture into their domain, and they would make annual offerings to them at Medicine Rocks, where they were said to dwell, in an effort to appease them and keep peaceful relations. Indeed, offerings to the Nirumbee such as beads, cloth, arrows, knives, or tobacco, were seen as essential to anyone who dared travel through the mountains where they lived, to not do so meaning certain injury or death. Offerings could also sometimes convince the Nirumbee to give help, such as providing plentiful luck in hunting or fishing. Yet although the Nirumbee had this sinister and fearful reputation as brutish, fierce warriors, they were mostly on good terms with the Crow people. It was said that they would impart wisdom, guidance, and knowledge to the Crow, as well as confer blessings or spiritual insight to certain chosen individuals.
One such example is chief Red Plume, who in his childhood ventured into the domain of the Nirumbee after fasting for four days at the top of the Big Horn, and was taken into the mountain by four little people. There they told him that his red eagle feather would protect and guide him, and that he would one day become a great leader of the Crow People. Red Plume would nevertheless spend his younger years being relentlessly taunted and bullied for telling others of these predictions, until one day he raided an enemy Lakota camp and slaughtered them all, from that day winning more battles until he finally realized the prophecy given to him by the Nirumbee, becoming a great chief.
Probably the most famous tale of a famous Crow leader encountering the Little People was the legendary Crow chief Plenty Coups. After a four-day fast in a sweat lodge when he was only 9 years old, after which he had rubbed his body with sage and cedar to remove any smell, he then bravely marched right into the Nirumbee’s territory. There he would claim that he had a vision of the Little People, in which they took him into a spiritual realm and told him that he would accomplish many great deeds and one day become the leader of his people. When they sent him back on his way, Plenty Coups felt invigorated and infused with a sense of purpose, later saying:
“I had a will and I would use it, make it work for me, as the Dwarf-chief had advised. I became very happy, lying there looking up into the sky. My heart began to sing like a bird, and I went back to the village, needing no man to tell me the meaning of my dream. I took a sweat-bath and rested in my father’s lodge. I knew myself now.”
When he was 11 years old, Plenty Coups would have another vision. On this occasion he spent days walking through the realm of the Nirumbee while fasting, but was unsuccessful until he chopped off the tip of his index finger as an offering. Upon doing this, the little People appeared to him to take him deep under the mountain and tell him that the days of the Plains Indian was ending, and that white man would soon cover the land like bison, but that he as a future chief could stop it if he used his wits and developed his mind and listening skills. Just as predicted, Plenty Coups did become a great chief, and when the white man came, the Crow managed to survive through coexistence and negotiation. Plenty Coups was able to guide his people through this tumultuous time, and largely due to his efforts to this day the Crow Indian Reservation is only a short distance from the Pryor Mountains and Medicine Rocks. This survival in the face of extinction has long been mostly credited to his vision with the Little People.
There are numerous other tales involving the Nirumbee. One of these is the story of boy who one night fell into a bonfire and horribly burned his face, which earned him the cruel nickname “Burnt Face” among his tribe. One day, Burnt Face went into the realm of the Nirumbee, where he built a Sun Dance lodge, and here the Little People approached him. On this occasion they were not aggressive towards this incursion into their territory, but rather took pity on him, not only healing the scars on his face but also imbuing him with healing powers of his own. From then on, the Nirumbee were considered to be integral to the Crow practice of the Sun Dance. In another story, a child was seperated and lost in the wilderness, where he was adopted and raised by the Little People, absorbing some of their magic in the process. When he was grown, it was said that he possessed superhuman strength and could lift columns of stone.
There are many other such stories, yet although this may seem to be all firmly lodged into the realm of myth and legend, the Crow have always seen them as very real, and there are accounts that seem to hint that the Nirumbee might be something more than merely a fairy tale, and indeed one account from the Lewis and Clark expedition explains how in 1804, as they were in the region they traveled to the mountain of the Little People, they saw “devils that carried sharp arrows that could strike from a very long distance,” and who would viciously attack anyone who came near. When the Burlington Railroad decided to build a tunnel for a rail line from Billings to Cody, Wyoming, the Little People were blamed for a series of calamities that befell the project, such as freak accidents, tunnel collapses, a small pox outbreak, and various inexplicable mechanical malfunctions.
In 1906, after a fire burned down 10,000 acres of timber after being started by sparks from a train engine, one train engineer would claim to have seen the Little People fanning the flames and guiding the fire away from the forest and towards the train line. To this day there have been sporadic sightings of creatures very much like the Nirumbee in the Pryor Mountains made by the Crow, hikers, campers, ranch hands, and hunters, making one wonder whether there is perhaps something to the old Crow stories. The Crow themselves have always seen the Nirumbee as real, and right up to the present they are known to leave offerings for them when passing through the Pryor Mountains, and there are petroglyphs on rocks in the mountain that are said to be made by the Little People. They continue to be treated with respect by the tribe, often the subject of vision quests and other rituals, and one Crow elder by the name of Burton Pretty On Top has said of this:
“We get permission from the Little People … from the animals. We get permission from them to come into their home. The vision quest is something very, very important, something very sacred. This place we consider as our church, our sacred place, for prayer. And we had hoped that our non-Indian brothers and sisters … come with the reverence and respect that the Apsáalooke have when they come into these mountains. We want to keep the Pryor Mountains sacred and holy so that the next seven generations can use this in a sacred way.”
It is all certainly a rich tapestry of lore and wonder that causes one to wonder if perhaps the tales told by the Crow were based in some sort of truth. Were these Little People they spoke of ever real in any sort of way? Were they some sort of nature spirits, like fairies, or perhaps a type of undiscovered creature that led to the legends? Could they have been inter dimensional interlopers? Or is this all just legend and lore, purely the construct of the human mind? Whatever the case may be, the Crow certainly seem to think they are real, and they are just another of the many mysteries that pervade this mysterious mountain domain.