Hunters may have encounters with little people in Alaska. Photo by Paxson Woebler.
Like stories of elves in Scandinavia or Menehune in Hawaii, indigenous Alaskans have stories of little people.
Sean Asiqłuq Topkok, a professor at UAF, heard a story about them while growing up in Teller: Two hunters decided to climb up a mountainside. They looked down into a dale and saw little people harvesting caribou. One was strong enough to lift a caribou overhead and carry it. The hunters knew they shouldn’t interact with the little people, so they just watched. Eventually, the hunters returned home, but their friends had grown old and some had passed away. One villager recognized them and said they had been gone so long everyone assumed they were dead.
In Inupiaq, such a story is known as an unipkaat, which translates roughly to “legend.” The word legend is associated with a fictional story in English, but not for Inupiaq. “They’re still seeing little people,” Topkok says.
Alisha Drabnek of Kodiak has never seen a little person, but she’s heard stories from Alutiiq elders, who call them sungcuk. Sungcuk would sometimes pull pranks on people, like tying their hair in knots while they slept. Other times, sungcuk would help those in need.
“Imagine living on the land and cooking by firelight in your house,” Drabnek says. “The very dancing way the fire moves, it’s hypnotizing. The type of music we play—the drumbeats—have a trance-like component. So, the culture allows you to sort of travel between spirit worlds more easily and I think we have lost a lot of that as we have become modernized.”