13 Oct

31 Ghost Stories – Day 13: The horror of the skin-walker

Posted by Bryan White | Wednesday October 13, 2010 | 31 Ghost Stories

Navajo WitchThe human race has always been a tribal culture. From the humble beginnings of Early Man, gathering into groups to survive became vital to the perpetuation of the species. These days most people claim they want to be left alone but we tend to group ourselves based on our tastes and interests and we form the same kind of feudal rivalries of earlier iterations of human tribalism. As a result, those of us who walk on the outside, genuinely by ourselves, living according to our own plan, are often ostracised and treated with suspicion. If you don’t fall in line with the pack, there must be something wrong with you. I mean, who actually wants to be an outside, right? Most outsiders these days just get nasty looks and sideways comments about the way they dress but back in the day, choosing your own path and not living among the tribe often left you saddled with a public stigma, the sort of brand that made you most likely to be lynched by an angry mob. It was always the same old line, too. If you lived alone, were not married and had no children, then you must be in league with whatever malevolent being opposed your culture’s primary deity because who doesn’t want to be a part of the group? Here in the United States, since mankind first settled this place, the results of living according to your own plan were no different and because of this, Native Americans spawned their own nasty version of the witch mythology. The details vary from tribe to tribe but the fundamentals are the same. One undesirable member of the group has committed some sort of taboo act and has gained a terrible power in the process. The Skin-Walker terrorized the tribes in a million different disguises. In the South West and the plains states, the skin-walker was a witch who used animal pelts to take the form of that animal and depending on which tribe you ask, they either became that animal from top to bottom or they became some kind of horrible mutation of that animal. An animal with the shape of a deer, the antlers of a deer but the skin and eyes of a human may be spotted in the forest, doing its best to scare and kill the game there so that the tribe will have nothing to eat.

Maintaining tradition has become an important part of the tribal lifestyle of Native American cultures and with those traditions remains a deep superstition. Skin Walker legends and ghost stories remain to this day with people, both Indian and otherwise, reporting encounters and attacks throughout the South West, mostly in Navajo territory. Motorists on lonely reservation roads report spotting animals in human clothing racing across the roads and highways in the night, horrrifying hybrids of human and crow or wolf-men surrounding homes, trying to get in. These legends persist to this day.

WendigoIn the northern states and in Canada, however, the skin walker legend became something much more awful. States in the South Western United States never really had to deal with winter. They had their own challenges but the Northern climate presented its own set a challenges. A period of dead seasons where food stopped growing and game hibernated. If an individual or a group didn’t prepare for the winter properly, they’d find themselves shit out of luck with nothing to eat but each other and in some case, they did. The sickening notion of cannibalism is something that runs deep in our reptile brains and inspires a special kind of fear of those who have gone there. In Algonquian tribes, those who’ve broken that unbreakable taboo are stricken with a special kind of bad reputation and the corruption of another’s flesh seeps into their own being, perverting their form and turning them into something wild and uncontrollable. The Algonquians called it Wendigo, a creature that used to be a man. Eating the flesh of another person reduced you in status until you were just a wild animal with an unquenchable desire to kill and eat humans. The Wendigo’s description changes from tribe to tribe but it is most commonly described as a mixup of man and animal: walking on hind legs, covered with hair, massively strong and unbelievably fast.

The Wendigo legend is mostly a thing of the past as the urbanization of tribal culture and the ready access to food has eliminated the cause of what many Native Americans believe led to one becoming a Wendigo. The Navajo believe that evil is all around us and turning to evil can grant you terrible powers to change into ugly perversions of wildlife. With evil going nowehere in particular, the skin walker legend will persist.

1 Comment 

  1. October 17, 2010 4:12 am


    Cool post – I like your take on the marginalized people being accused of evil by the village collective idea. I did a post on the wendigo recently on my blog – http://bit.ly/bIEfQ0.

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