Darrell J. Pursiful

Home » Mythology » Paissas: Fair Folk of the Great Lakes Region

Paissas: Fair Folk of the Great Lakes Region

Ne-Sou-A-Quoit, a Fox chief, from History of the Indian Tribes of North America

Ne-Sou-A-Quoit, a Fox chief (via Wikipedia)

In the Central Algonquian languages spoken around the Great Lakes, one finds reference to a faery creature called (in various forms) a paissa. There are numerous variations on this term based on which specific language one is dealing with, but the word is almost always pronounced something like pah-ee-sah, and the plural form is paissake (pronounced pah-ee-sah-kee or similar). I’m using the Sauk term for simplicity’s sake. Some of the variant forms are:

  • Apa’iins or Pa’iins (Anishinaabe)
  • Apayaciha (Fox)
  • Pahiins (Ojibwe)
  • Pa’is (Potawatomi)
  • Paissa or Apayashiha (Sauk)
  • Paisa (Illini)
  • Páyiihsa (Miami)
  • Piesiihia (Kickapoo)

In whatever form, the word simply means “small person.” It can refer either to a mythological being or to an ordinary human who is short of stature. For example, “Pa’is” is a common man’s nickname in Potawatomi, similar to “Shorty.”

Paissake are usually described as about two feet tall. In most stories, they are portrayed as mischievous but generally benign nature spirits. They may play tricks on people but are not truly dangerous. In other stories, however, paissake have more formidable magic powers. They are even able to pose a credible threat to humans and even to the semi-divine culture hero Wisahkeha (Wisake, Wisakechak, etc.)—but usually only if they are provoked.

It is very likely that “little people” in these cultures are actually more than one type of faery creature. According to one online source, the Anishinaabe and Cree languages, the cognate term apa’iins is used to refer to at least three different types of being:

  • The apa’iins properly so-called: a dangerous trickster spirit, sometimes with great magical powers.
  • A generally benevolent child-sized creature called either a memekwesiw (Cree) or a memegwesi (Ojibwe)
  • A tiny, insect-like faeries called wiings.

These “little people” don’t fit neatly in Mason Winfield’s “two-tribe” model of benevolent and powerful “Healers” and mischievous if not malevolent “Tricksters.” In broad terms, however, the model may still work. On the one hand, “paissa” occasionally refers to powerful eldritch beings. On the other hand, the term “paissa” can refer—and more often does—to mischievous but benign creatures. There are still two tribes, but rather than “Healers” and “Tricksters,” it seems to be more “Dangerous Tricksters” and “Benign Tricksters.


%d bloggers like this: