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Navajo Yebichai dancers

What is a skinwalker? Facts about the Native American legend

Skinwalkers are terrifying creatures based on tales from the Navajo, a Native American tribe from the southwestern United States. They are said to possess shapeshifting powers which they use to terrify communities.

Photo of Navajo Yebichai dancers by Edward S. Curtis | Welcome Collection | Public Domain

The skinwalker legend

The Navajo legend of skinwalkers has received a lot of attention thanks to the growing notoriety of Skinwalker Ranch – a Utah hotspot of bizarre phenomena. The exact origins of the skinwalker mythos remain ambiguous, though they are generally said to have been shapeshifting evil witches with the ability to take possession of animals and other people. These ominous abilities are alluded to in the Navajo phrase ‘yee naaldlooshii’, meaning ‘with it, he goes on all fours'.

According to some traditions, skinwalkers were once healers and people of medicine who were corrupted by their own power and turned to evil – in modern times, comparisons are frequently made with the Sith Lords of the Star Wars universe. It’s also been said that social transgressions and the breaking of tribal taboos can cause anyone to become a skinwalker.

Frequently imagined in the form of monstrous coyotes, wolves and bears, skinwalkers are supremely powerful beings said to be near-impossible to kill. Although, according to widely reported lore, a bullet or knife rubbed with white ash may just do the trick.

A skinwalker figure in the mist

The Skinwalker in Popular Culture

As one of the most mysterious and menacing entities from Native American lore, it’s no wonder that the skinwalker has stalked its way into TV shows, films, books, and even the odd videogame. Here’s a look at some prominent examples of these shape-shifting witches in pop culture.

Curse of Skinwalker Ranch

In the mainstream imagination, the word ‘skinwalker’ is perhaps most strongly linked to the TV documentary series, Curse of Skinwalker Ranch. The show delves into the very strange goings-on at the eponymous ranch in northern Utah, which has long been synonymous with all kinds of eerie phenomena.

The ranch is in a prime location for such things, since the wider region has for countless decades been ground zero for what one journalist has described as ‘simply unbelievable paranormal activity. UFOs, Sasquatch, cattle mutilations, psychic manifestations… you name it, residents here have seen it.’

One of the more recent takes on the lore is 2021’s Skinwalker, which takes us back in time to the 19th century and sees all kinds of supernatural mayhem break out when a pair of cowboys rob a Native American burial site. Ultra low-budget and shamelessly taking liberties with the authentic lore, this horror Western is one for skinwalker completists only.

Skinwalker books

Anyone wanting to curl up with a creepy read on skinwalkers has a few titles to choose from. The most well-known is Hunt for the Skinwalker by Colm Kelleher and George Knapp, two men who have personally experienced some of the weird phenomena at Skinwalker Ranch.

The book tells the whole story of the ranch, with its opening section focusing on the family who faced horrific monsters and other traumatising incidents. This part of the book reads like an episode of The X Files crossed with The Amityville Horror, but the tone then shifts with the arrival of scientific researchers sponsored by wealthy property and aerospace magnate Robert Bigelow. His interest in the ranch helped cement its status as a place of enduring fascination, akin to Area 51 and the site of the Roswell crash.

Kelleher and Knapp have since published a follow-up to that landmark book: Skinwalkers at the Pentagon, co-written with James T. Lacatski. This volume places Skinwalker Ranch in the wider context of research carried out into UFOs and unexplained happenings by the US government. Despite its title, it’s more about the weirder side of the military-industrial complex than Navajo lore, although it does look at the particularly chilling ‘hitchhiker effect’, where some military personnel who visited the ranch seemed to take strange phenomena back home with them to their families.

A book which goes back to the lore itself is Skinwalkers, Shapeshifters and Native American Curses by Gary and Wendy Swanson. It’s a compendium of personal encounters with creatures and curses related to Native American culture, drawing on insights from members of the Navajo and other indigenous nations.

Skinwalker games

It was perhaps inevitable that skinwalkers would materialise in the world of video games. One of the most talked-about examples is Skinwalker Hunt by independent game developer Andrii Vintsevych, which was released in 2021 on the videogame distribution platform Steam.

It allows you to step into the shoes of a ‘Native American monster hunter’ who is hunting down skinwalkers across the globe. Placing an emphasis on atmosphere and exploration rather than a linear storyline, the game has been praised for its simplicity and the dark mood it conveys.

Another game on Steam, Luis R. Gamboa’s Skinwalkers, has a similar aesthetic, plunging the player into dark woods where a skinwalker stalks the shadows, though experienced gamers have reported completing it in a matter of minutes. If only the real-life mystery of Skinwalker Ranch could be so easily resolved.

The ranch made the news in the 1990s when its then-owners – an ordinary family just looking for a quiet country life – allegedly came face to face with monstrous coyote-like beasts which seemed impervious to bullets. Could they have been skinwalkers or a related phenomenon? Nobody can say, although the discovery of dismembered livestock and the presence of strange lights in the sky have inspired all kinds of X Files-ian theories. The truth remains out there.

Skinwalker movies

The nuances of skinwalker lore are not generally very well understood beyond Navajo communities since there is a cultural taboo on discussing this entity with outsiders. Of course, this hasn’t stopped various filmmakers from seizing on the tantalisingly terrifying premise for numerous horror movies over the years.

An early example was 1993’s Shadowhunter, starring Scott Glenn – best known as Stick from Daredevil and Jack Crawford from The Silence of the Lambs. Glenn is in grizzled, noirish form as a world-weary LA cop who finds himself in pursuit of a mysterious ‘coyote man’ wanted for murder – a quest which takes him deep into Arizona’s Navajo reservation, and even deeper into the menacing skinwalker mythos.

Two decades later, horror fans were treated to another cinematic take on the entity: Skinwalker Ranch, not to be confused with the TV series, though it also is about the eerie enigmas of the Utah landscape. As the Paranormal Activity-esque poster implies, Skinwalker Ranch is a found footage horror movie, following researchers as they investigate the disappearance of a ranch owner’s son by way of cameras set up around the property. While the film received mixed reviews, it’s notable for being an early screen adaptation of tales associated with the real-life ranch.

A digger surrounded by eerie lights
Image: Skinwalker Ranch

Skinwalker Ranch: The ultimate history of Utah's paranormal hotspot

Curse of Skinwalker Ranch follows a group of intrepid investigators as they explore a corner of America that's become synonymous with all kinds of disturbing phenomena, from shocking sights in the sky to unidentified creatures that skulk in the shadows.

The focus of intense attention from ufologists, billionaires, cryptozoologists, and even senior political figures, this outwardly ordinary stretch of land has been described as a “weirdness pizza with everything on it”. Here is the whole strange story so far.

The beginning of the mystery

Sprawling across 512 acres in northeastern Utah, Skinwalker Ranch was established back in the early 1930s by a couple named Kenneth and Edith Myers. Over the ensuing decades, they expanded the size of the ranch and leased it out to other farmers to raise cattle. In other words, it was an entirely typical rustic enterprise, and it’s interesting to note a distinct lack of weird activity on the ranch while the couple lived there. At least, that’s according to Kenneth’s brother Garth, who worked at the ranch in his younger years and later recounted that “nothing, unequivocally, absolutely nothing” peculiar occurred in the Myers era.

The Sherman ranch

That would all change in 1994 when the ranch was purchased by Terry and Gwen Sherman, who moved there with their two children. Just a few years later, an article appeared in a Utah newspaper, The Deseret News, which can be considered the founding document of Skinwalker Ranch lore.

Titled “Frequent Flyers?”, the article examined the Sherman family’s bizarre experiences in the short time they’d been living on the property. Several specific incidents were described, including the sighting of “orange, circular doorways that seem to appear in mid-air”, and a “red glowing thing” that “lit the whole side of the mountain up like broad daylight”.

The Shermans also discussed circles of flattened grass, curious markings in the soil, and – perhaps most disturbing of all – the inexplicable deaths of several cows. One animal was found with a hole in its eyeball but otherwise untouched. A second cow also had a hole in the eye, along with another in its rectum. A strange, pungent chemical smell hung in the air.

The article only scratched the surface of what the Shermans had been through. There was another, striking incident where Terry and Gwen saw a fearsome wolf-like creature bearing down on their livestock. Despite being shot multiple times by Terry, the creature seemed entirely unharmed and simply slunk away, leaving a rotten smell in its wake. At other times, they also witnessed tall, bipedal, Bigfoot-like visitors on the ranch, as well as a “heavily muscled” beast with “curly red hair and a bushy tail”.

Dr Travis Taylor pointing at a video screen
Dr Travis Taylor in 'The Curse of Skinwalker Ranch' S04 E14

Enter Robert Bigelow

The landmark article in The Deseret News attracted the attention of Robert Bigelow, a man with a longstanding interest in UFOs and the paranormal. But Bigelow wasn’t some eccentric adventurer, or a wild-eyed conspiracy-touting crackpot. He was, in fact, a billionaire property magnate with friends in very high places.

Indeed, Bigelow had set up his own research group called the National Institute for Discovery Science (NIDS), described as a “science institute engaged in research of aerial phenomena, animal mutilations, and other related anomalous phenomena.”

Just weeks after the Shermans’ story was published, Bigelow took the ranch off their hands for a few hundred thousand dollars. He then brought over members of NIDS to conduct thorough research on the ranch. The NIDS scientists set up observation posts and 24-hour surveillance equipment and very soon began to witness a spate of strange phenomena. This included lights in the sky, yellow-eyed animals that couldn’t be identified, and the mutilation of a cow which took place less than an hour after it had been tagged by the ranch manager. What made this even more bizarre was that, despite having been disembowelled, there was no blood anywhere around the cow. It was as if the area had been forensically cleaned.

What’s more, the equipment used by the NIDS team seemed to come under attack. Cameras would malfunction and wires would be yanked out of casings, much to the confusion of the researchers. A retired army intelligence officer who worked with NIDS mused that there was some kind of “pre-cognitive sentient intelligence” at work, able to intercept the plans of the team and sabotage their tools before they could record phenomena.

NIDS eventually disbanded in 2004. But that was far from the end of Robert Bigelow’s exploits on the ranch.

The government connection

A few years after NIDS shut up shop, Bigelow received a peculiar letter from a senior official at the US Defense Intelligence Agency. This person was curious about the research that had been done at the ranch and was invited to pay a visit. There, according to one sensational witness report, the DIA official was confronted by a vivid, multi-coloured, shape-shifting object that floated in front of him before quickly disappearing.

It’s been speculated that this visit influenced the formation of the DIA’s Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP), which was initiated that same year by none other than Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who happened to be a friend of Robert Bigelow’s. Given a $22 million budget, the AATIP commissioned research into wormholes, warp drive technology, UFOs, and other unexplained phenomena – a sort of real-life equivalent of the X-Files.

Many in the corridors of power were hostile to such an outlandish endeavour, with one intelligence official later telling the New Yorker “There were some government officials who said, ‘We shouldn’t be doing this, this is really ridiculous, this is a waste of money.’” But Harry Reid’s clout ensured it remained in operation, working in direct collaboration with an aerospace subsidiary owned by Robert Bigelow.

This all led to the Bigelow subsidiary’s publication of an almost 500-page document called the Ten Month Report, which detailed numerous cases of unexplained aerial phenomena. It even described Skinwalker Ranch as a “possible laboratory for studying other intelligences and possible interdimensional phenomena.”

The AATIP was dissolved in 2012, and there has since been much debate over its exact nature and findings.

An abandoned car by Skinwalker Ranch
The Curse of Skinwalker Ranch S03 E02

Meanwhile, back at the ranch

Robert Bigelow’s tenure at the ranch finally ended in 2016, when the property was sold to another wealthy real estate magnate, Brandon Fugal. Fascinated by the history of the area and the countless allegations of paranormal events, Fugal brought with him a new team of researchers to, in his words, “truly get to the bottom of what was happening.”

Fugal’s arrival has helped propel this story to global notoriety since his research there forms the basis of Curse of Skinwalker Ranch. He, along with astrophysicist Dr. Travis Taylor and other scientists, have literally dug deep into this enigmatic expanse of land. In the very first episode, Dr. Taylor developed radiation-style burns after opening a porthole, and the unusual events have continued ever since, from tech going haywire to UFO sightings and the discovery of underground caverns.

What Fugal described in 2020 as “the most unusual real estate play that I’ve ever had involvement in” continues to bring up surprises. And, while much of the scientific research conducted by both Bigelow and Fugal has tended to focus on possible inter-dimensional and extra-terrestrial activity, there’s another, unavoidable subject that is highlighted by the very name of the ranch: skinwalkers.

Navajo and Ute lore

The encounters that the Shermans and various researchers have had with physical creatures, from an apparent Sasquatch to fearsome wolf-like predators, sets Skinwalker Ranch apart from other UFO hotspots around the world. It’s naturally led many to speculate about creatures chronicled by indigenous Americans, most notably the skinwalker of Navajo lore.

Skinwalkers were thought to be community healers who became corrupted by the power they mustered, and turned to evil. It was said that such witches were able to possess, or even transform themselves into, wild animals like coyotes and bears. This power is alluded to in the Navajo name “yee naaldlooshii”, which means “with it, he goes on all fours”.

But why has this ominous element of Native American folklore been evoked in connection with a ranch that’s actually situated many hundreds of miles from Navajo territory? A popular theory is that it all stems back to violent animosity between the Navajo and another tribe, the Ute, whose territory is only around 20 miles from Skinwalker Ranch.

As historian Sondra Jones, author of Being and Becoming Ute, has put it, “The Navajo were more aggressive people, they took slaves, they had Ute slaves.” It’s been said that the volatile and violent relationship between the tribes led the Navajo to place a curse on the Ute, unleashing skinwalkers within their territory.

The veracity of such allegations is open to debate, and some – like Betsy Chapoose, the Cultural Rights and Protection Director for the Ute – have said they’ve personally never known of an alleged Navajo curse.

Quite aside from the skinwalker mythos, the phenomena at the ranch has also been linked to Ute lore. Comparisons have been drawn between the surreal skylights and potential UFOs to what Sondra Jones describes as the “evil sprites” that haunt Ute terrain, emerging from “reservoirs of negative power”.

Sceptics’ views on Skinwalker Ranch

Poltergeists, Navajo werewolves, Ute spirits, undiscovered animals, alien visitors, interdimensional portals: there are numerous tantalizing theories regarding Skinwalker Ranch. But there are also more pragmatic, sceptical takes on the property and its outlandish history. Could it all, in fact, be sheer make-believe?

As noted earlier, Garth Myers – whose brother Kenneth lived for decades on the ranch before the Shermans arrived – has emphatically denied knowing of any unusual activity. He even got into a minor spat with Robert Bigelow, when the property tycoon rang Myers up and outright accused him of hiding the truth about “UFOs coming there”.

If Myers is right in saying that his family never had any noteworthy encounters in all their years living on the ranch, it certainly does beg the question of why things suddenly got strange when the Shermans moved in. Some sceptics may wonder whether the Shermans exaggerated, or even invented, their experiences. Perhaps to drum up attention and inflate the price of the property, which they did indeed go on to sell to a suitably fascinated billionaire.

But if this was indeed what happened, how would that account for the multitude of disturbing events chronicled by the Bigelow and Fugal research teams? It should also be noted that the wider Uintah Basin, where the ranch is located, has been known for unexplained phenomena for generations. The original Deseret Times article on the Shermans included a statement by local investigator Joseph ‘Junior’ Hicks, who said “I’d estimate over 10 percent of the population of the Uintah Basin has seen something.”

If it is to be accepted that such phenomena are real, a more down-to-earth explanation for the vivid lights and whooshing aerial objects is that people have been glimpsing secret weapons testing by the US government. Which would certainly not be unheard of in Utah.

Meanwhile, the deaths of livestock in the area might be due to the toxic environmental consequences of nearby fracking sites. As reported in an article on Skinwalker Ranch in the publication Utah Business, “the land is perforated by more than 8,000 gas wells and 2,000 oil wells and has been a fracking destination since the 1960s.” A Rolling Stone piece on the basin also noted that the region was “fraught with carcinogenic gases like benzene, rogue emissions from oil and gas drilling.”

Of course, this wouldn’t account for the almost surgical mutilations allegedly inflicted on livestock. And, when all the witness accounts are collated, it amounts to a sizeable literature that spans so many years and features so many disparate testimonials, that even hardened cynics may wonder just what is going on at Skinwalker Ranch.

There’s every possibility that more revelations will come as Brandon Fugal, Travis Taylor and their team continue to explore the land. With the sheer amount of cutting-edge technology being utilised, what started as a “very intriguing science project” for Fugal may yet yield some of the most noteworthy scientific finds in the history of paranormal research.

Curse of Skinwalker Ranch
Image: Curse of Skinwalker Ranch

8 facts about the skinwalker

Let’s explore some interesting and essential facts about the mythical skinwalker:

1. They represent the essence of evil

Many different indigenous American tribes believe in and have ancient stories linked to the skinwalkers. The Hopi, Navajo and Ute tribes all talk of the skinwalker creatures which represent the essence of evil. They feed on power and are terrifying creatures that should be avoided at all costs.

2. Transformational powers

Skinwalkers are particularly terrifying because they can shapeshift and take the form of any animal at will. They are most commonly seen as coyotes, wolves, eagles, foxes and crows. Different tribes have different accounts of the legend but in some stories, you’ll find skinwalkers that can ‘steal’ faces from different people and appear as someone you know or even absorb themselves into a person’s body.

3. Training and gruesome initiations

Skinwalkers have many years of training and practice before they are allowed to get involved with the initiation ceremonies and rituals. Skinwalkers often have to sacrifice a sibling or relative before being allowed to fully realise their powers.

4. They are often found around graves and graveyards

Skinwalkers are often found around graveyards and seem to enjoy time spent around the dead. In Navajo myth, they are said to dig up bones and use these bones to make charms and spells.

5. Skinwalkers have no age limits

While the majority of skinwalkers are adults, there is no age limit and there have been many sightings of child skinwalkers.

6. A history steeped in mystery

There are several different legends which discuss the roots of the skinwalkers. Some suggest that it comes from the ‘long walk’, which saw skinwalkers shapeshift to escape the horror of living under the torture of the white man. As they shifted to animal form, they could not be caught by soldiers.

Another origin story suggests that they were a tradition started by the poorer communities, as skinwalkers would dress up in their ceremonial dress and knock on doors. Richer people began to leave something outside for the skinwalkers but as times changed, the offerings were reduced, and this led to resentment. Now, they simply exist as hateful people out for revenge.

7. Is it a bird, a fox or a skinwalker?

Even in the modern day, there are sightings of rapidly moving animals, much faster than any animal could move naturally. Often these are attributed to the skinwalkers as the beastly shapes can run alongside moving cars. Skinwalkers are said to be able to run huge distances in their animal form.

8. The medicine man is their nemesis

The only way you can defeat a skinwalker is with the magic and charms they use themselves. However, a blessing from a medicine man can provide some protection. Medicine men are recognised as the only people who can effectively combat the dark magic possessed by the skinwalkers.