Memories of Johnson Catolster and the Cherokee little people
I woke up this morning with the echo of Johnson Catolster’ gentle laughter in my head. I had been dreaming that I was riding through the Great Smoky Mountains Park with Johnson, and as we came down U.S. 441 past the Smokemont Campground exit, he had suddenly stopped his old truck and pointed. “There!” he said, “See that clump of little cedars near the road? Well, he was standing right there, looking left and right like you do before you cross the road, and I stopped right here.”
“Who?” I said.
“The little man! One of the Yunwi Tsunsdi!” Then, he gave me a quizzical look, shook his head and laughed. “Ah, unegi, sometimes, when we are talking, I forget that you are a white man ... a nice enough fellow, but white, nonetheless.” Then, I woke up, hearing Johnson Catolster say, “You white people don’t believe in foolishness like that,” his words and laughter echoing, fading in the darkness.
That dream was actually a variation of a conversation that Johnson and I had one rainy afternoon in the old Community Health Representatives office in Cherokee. Sometimes, at the end of the day, Johnson would tell old stories about things that happened “before the Park and the tourist came.” My office was just across the hall, and I would come over and sit, listening to Johnson talk about the old Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school, the Cherokee Fair and his own wild youth. Blessed with an innate talent for storytelling, he could keep me (and a bunch of tribal employees) enthralled for hours. But, on this particular afternoon Johnson’s tale strayed into enchantment and mystery.
When he attempted to change the subject I persisted in demanding more information. “Are you telling me that you actually saw one of the Cherokee ‘little people?’” Johnson merely smiled. “OK, if you won’t tell me about your personal encounter, just tell me about them. Where did the little people come from?”
“Nobody knows that. They have always been there,” he said. “I don’t think they die either.”
“You mean they are immortal?”
Johnson laughed. “Well, no one has ever found a Yunwi Tsunsdi graveyard.” Johnson frowned and then said, “I think they are becoming fewer. Fading away.”
When I ask why, Johnson said, “Because their world is changing. Things like highways, planes, television – those things drive them deeper into remote places. Of course, the remote places are becoming fewer, too.”
“What will finally become of them?”
Johnson shrugged. “They will just become something else. Fog, or a pool of water. Maybe a raven.”
“How do they live? What do they do?”
“Mostly, they play, and my grandfather said that they don’t need food or sleep. They just have a good time. When I was young I would sometimes camp deep in the woods, and I often heard them laughing at night. They would spy on me. They play games. They love to play tricks on Cherokee hunters. The little people could imitate animals and the hunters would go charging off after deer and turkeys they weren’t there!”
“I can remember when families visiting the park would sometimes have children who would wander off into the woods. After days of searching, the parents would get desperate enough to follow the advice of a Cherokee ... someone who would tell them to ask the Yunwi Tsundi for help. They can always find lost children.”
“How do you ask them to help you?”
“Just go into the woods and call them. They will hear. I have taken mothers into the woods and told them to ask for help. Sometimes, it worked. Someone would find the children standing near the road where the little people had led them. Sometimes, the children were never found.”
“Why do you think that they failed to find some of them?”
Johnson shook his head. “They never failed to find them, but sometimes they would lead them deeper into their own world where the children became like them. They are there now, happy and laughing, playing forever.”
Johnson went on to spin tales of outrageous pranks and I thought of the Irish “wee folk” who also danced, sang and sometimes kidnapped children. Then, Johnson began to talk about a “hidden lake” deep in the Smokies where both animals and Cherokees went when old age or terrible diseases sapped their strength. Both animals and old grandfathers could wade into the lake and be healed. Only the Yunwi Tsundi know where the lake is.
Several months later, Johnson Catolster lost a leg to diabetes. As the disease spread to other limbs, Johnson seemed to fade like Yunwi Tsundi. Finally, he stopped coming to sit in his old chair outside the CHR office.
Perhaps Johnson met his friends up near the Smokemont Campground, and perhaps they traveled with him deep into the park, to a fog-shrouded lake where old bears wade into the healing waters. Perhaps he is there now, chuckling at the antics of the little people. I’d like to think so.