Darrell J. Pursiful

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Jogaoh: Iroquois Fair Folk


Masked Iroquois dancer

The Iroquois Confederacy was made up of the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk tribes. In the folklore of all of these are stories of the jogaoh. Like the nunnehi of the Cherokee, jogaoh are generally more favorable toward humans than their European counterparts. (The Cherokee and the Iroquois are actually distantly related; the Cherokee language is in fact classified as “Southern Iroquoian.”) The Fair Folk of the Huron-Wyandot peoples, another Iroquoian group, are of a similar nature.

Their name is sometimes translated as “dwarves,” “pygmies,” or “little people.” They often appear as tiny humanoids, perhaps only inches tall. As with most Fair Folk, however, appearances can be deceiving as some of these beings are expert shapeshifters.

These beings are actually an alliance or confederacy of three distinct “tribes.”


Of the three tribes of jogaoh, gahongas most often have dealings with humans. They inhabit rocks and rivers. In Huron-Wyandot lore, these beings are able to come and go through living rock. Guardians of streams, they dwell in caves along the banks. They are especially concerned with fishing. They direct the movements of fish, give them shelter in their deep-water caves, and protect them from those who would over-fish their waters. They can command a fruitful or a barren fishing season, and frequently punish wrongdoing with famine.

Gahongas are sometimes called “stone-throwers” because of their love of a particular game that involves tossing large stones back and forth. They thus possess incredible strength, far in excess to what might be expected given their size. In fact, is is said that “they can uproot the largest tree by a twist of the hand, and hurl massive rocks into the rivers, to lift the waters when floods threaten” (William M. Beauchamp, Iroquois Folk Lore [Dehler, 1922] 46).

Gahongas sometimes visit mortals and lead them to their dwelling-places, where they challenge them to feats of strength. Other mortal visitors are instructed in the Gahongas’ magical secrets: mysticism, exorcism, and dances. As with many stories from Europe, when these visitors return to the mortal realm, they may discover that many years have passed, while it seemed to them they were only gone for a short while.


Gandayahs are associated with plants and plant growth. As a kindred of the fruits and grains, they are the most favored of humankind and most beloved by them. They are beings of sunshine who bring joy and happiness to mortals. In the springtime, they hide in dark, sheltered places and coax the earth to bring forth its fruit. Then, in the summer, they wander over the fields, tinting the grains and ripening the fruits. They also fend of blights and diseases of plants that threaten the harvest.

In times of drought, the Iroquois might search in the wilderness for small cup-shaped hollows in the soft earth. These are  fashioned into “dew cup charms” meant to attract the gandayahs and coax them to begin their work.

It is said that they are especially fond of strawberries. According to one legend, an evil spirit once stole the strawberry plant and hid it under the ground for centuries until it was finally rescued by a sunbeam, who carried it back to the mortal world. Ever after, the gandayahs have kept a special guard over this fruit, the ripening of which marks the beginning of their yearly work.

They frequently visit the mortal realm in various forms, especially birds. If they come as a robin, it bodes good tidings. An owl, however, is a word of warning that an enemy is coming to deceive. A bat denotes a life-and-death struggle close at hand. Even harmless insects and worms might bear important messages for the attentive mortal to discern.


These beings are devoted to hunting. Although they are small, they are sturdy and brave. They dwell deep beneath the soil in subterranean realms where no sunlight penetrates. Many different kinds of animals inhabit this land, many of which are dangerous to mortals. The ohdowas strive to prevent the poisonous serpents and other grim creatures from reaching the surface of the earth. Beauchamp explains,

In the dim world where the Oh-do-was live are deep forests and broad plains, where roam the animals whose proper abode is there, and though all that live there wish to escape, yet both good and bad, native and captive, are bidden to be content and dwell where fate has placed them. Among the mysterious underearth denizens are the white buffaloes, who are tempted again and again to gain the earth’s surface, but the paths to the light are guarded, and the white buffalo must not climb to the sunlight, to gallop with his brown brothers over the plains. Sometimes they try to rush up and out, and then the Oh-do-was rally their hunters, and thin out the unruly herds with their arrows. ‘Tis then that a messenger is sent above to tell the sunlight elves that the chase is on, and the earth elves hang a red cloud high in the heavens, as a sign of the hunt. Ever alert for signals the Indian reads the symbol of the red cloud, and rejoices that the Little People are watchful and brave. (48)

In addition to protecting the surface world from monsters, ohdowas are also the “warriors” of jogaoh culture, charged with hunting down wrongdoers and bringing them to justice.



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