Dr. Anne Anderson’s story was originally published in Windspeaker in 1988.
By Anne Anderson
Many years ago the Indians were continually being robbed from their nets when they set them in deep water. They became worried as they could not catch any fish for their use.
One day, the men hid near the lake after the nets were set, for they were determined to find out who was taking their fish.
Early in the morning, while they lay hiding in the nearby woods, they heard the noise of paddles in the water. It came nearer and nearer until they could see two in a canoe coming towards their nets.
The men ran to the lake edge and jumped into their boats and gave chase. The memekwesiwak became frightened by the men. They looked away for they did not want anyone to see their faces.
Now mermaids are known to have beautiful faces and fish-like bodies. Finally, one looked towards them, and the men saw how beautiful she was.
The mermaids started to paddle their canoe swiftly and the men were after them. The mermaids paddled into a bay trying to get away but saw that the bay was surrounded by heavy woods and they could go no further. The mermaids’ only alternative was to disappear into the deep water.
The men watched the mermaids slowly sinking their canoe and the mermaids were never seen again. And from thereafter, the men had no trouble with their nets and were able to get catches of fish.
Now a bit about the “memekwesiwak”.
The thesis titled Water, Dreams and Treaties Agnes Ross’ Mémékwésiwak Stories and Treaty No. 5 explores Cross Lake, Man. (Pimichikamak Okimawin) through Cree history and legends. It is meant to draw a line from the destruction of the environment by hydro development to the loss of habitat for medicine and for the beings who provide that medicine.
Author Janice Agnes Helen Rots-Bone highlights the Cree relationship with “mémékwésiwak” and the acquisition of medicine from them to heal people, as told in interviews with her grandmother Agnes Marie Ross.
The paper describes mémékwésiwak as a “water-related spirit being, the little rock people”. Rots-Bone calls them “charming little rock dwelling dwarves” whose existence predates humans. She quotes Cree linguist Stan Cuthand as saying mémékwésiwak are “harmless little people and friendly to humans but they can play tricks on some people who are non-believers.”
Mémékwésiwak are praised for their healing skill, medicine and luck in hunting.
Windspeaker was curious after reading the Anne Anderson story as she equates mermaids to memekwesiwak, so we wanted to learn more. We are using a variety of spellings for the Indigenous name of the little people, because different sources provide different spellings.
In her thesis, Rots-Bone talks of how the Rock Cree say the “mimikwisiwak” are the size of a five-year-old child.
Agnes Ross says mémékwésiwak have no nose, only two holes where a nose would be, and the Rock Cree reference in the paper does confirm that description.
In Anderson’s story the fishermen saw how beautiful the being in the canoe was. Some say the little people have hair that flows from their heads down over their bodies, much like the Disney films and other stories of mermaids depict. But others say mémékwésiwak are quite ugly by human standards, with hair that grows from all over their bodies, as referenced in Rots-Bone's thesis.
The paper mentions that mémékwésiwak hide their faces when encountered by humans, as Anderson’s story notes. Agnes Ross says that mémékwésiwak don’t want to be near humans. “They don’t want people to see them.” They will quickly try to escape close contact with humans, which Dr. Anderson describes when the mermaids paddle swiftly to get away from the fishermen. The thesis also notes another source that says “memegwesiwag” steal fish, and have canoes fashioned from stone.
Agnes Ross describes how each year a medicine man would visit the place where the little people were known to reside, in a house in a rock behind the rapids of the river. The mémékwésiwak would give the man medicine to heal people.
She also said her father would take his family to those rapids.
“My father used to throw tobacco in the water. We would just go to sleep,” she said. “While we were sleeping, we would hear them drumming and singing.”
There’s another story about the little people that was shared with us some time ago. It was first published in Windspeaker in Vol. 18, Issue 7, 2000, and we take an excerpt from that article to print here.
It’s about a healing gift from the “me-megwaysak” during a time of warfare between the Cree and the Blackfoot peoples, as told by Billy Wapass, Jr., who is Cree, to Pamela Sexsmith and translated by Norman Moyah Cardinal.
The article tells how the Crees were gifted hand games, which is a popular North American competition of ‘sticks and bones’. There’s a lot to know about this game, so we have included a link to the whole article at the bottom of the page if you want to know more…
"The first time I heard this story, it spoke of a Blackfoot war party that raided one of our camps," said Wapass Jr. "After the raid, they went back home, anticipating that the Crees would cross into Blackfoot country and retaliate.”
"Back then, you could not step down. They had to cross the Saskatchewan River and when [the Crees] arrived, they were ambushed.
“Back then, the enemy always left one man alive to tell the story of what had happened during a battle. During this raid, a Cree warrior was hit in the head and severely injured. He was so badly beaten that he only made it back to the river. He was ready to give up when he saw what we call in our language me-megwaysak, which translates as elves.
"He had seen one pop out of the sticks. They had always been in our stories, but he didn't know if it was real. The elf disappeared and came back several times. The fourth time the elf appeared, he came straight to (the warrior) and told him that he could help him. He took that Cree man in his hands and carried him down into a deep hole underneath the riverbank where the elves lived. There was a grandmother, grandfather and the wife. They sent for another elfin family to play the hiding game.
"Too sick to move or care, the Cree Indian laid there while two elf families sat on either side of him, singing, chanting and hiding the bones. After they had played for four days, the man became well enough to travel. When he got home to his village, he brought the story and a gift of sticks and bones. That is how we got the healing game, how my father told it to me," said Wapass.
"My grandfather in Frog Lake said that the Cree warrior also brought back a song and, since then, we have been making our own songs. I have actually dreamt of a song that I do sing today. We say 'eke opawatama.' That means 'it came to us as a gift in a dream.' I know that this kind of stuff happens because it happened to me. I dreamt my song this winter and sang it when I awoke. I was very surprised when it was given to me. I have a strong sense that I may have earned it by praying and believing in my culture. … We also have an honor song given to us that is sung before the beginning of each tournament. In that way we honor the me-megwaysak," he said.
You can read the full article A gift from the Little People here: https://windspeaker.com/canadian-classroom/gift-little-people