Skip to main content

What is a skinwalker? 4 Native American myths and legends

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

The indigenous peoples of North America have complex cultures stemming back thousands of years and varying widely from tribe to tribe. Some folkloric tales and myths have become increasingly well-known in recent times – here are four of the most fascinating.

1. The Skinwalker

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 whose history we explore in more detail here. The exact origins of the skinwalker mythos remain ambiguous, though they are generally said to have been evil witches with the ability to change their shape or 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 medicine men 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.

2. The cannibal dwarves of the Great Plains

The Arapaho, Cheyenne and other tribes of the Great Plains have one frightening legend in common: that of a race of terrifying cannibal dwarves of formidable strength. Known by several names, including the Hecesiiteihii and the Teihiihan, they were said to be child-sized and insatiably aggressive. According to some versions of the legend, they were war-like because they believed they could only reach the afterlife by being killed in battle.

Their exact characteristics vary depending on the tales shared in different tribes. In some tellings, they were one-eyed in the manner of a Cyclops. In others, they were squat, no-necked creatures, or had wings. They were also commonly supposed to have magical powers, even being able to turn invisible.

Fortunately, these malevolent, carnivorous goblin-like creatures are commonly regarded to have been wiped out in an ancient battle with an alliance of tribes, although stories of little folk – some more benign and merely mischievous – are integral to the legends of many North American tribes.

3. Wendingos

Known to the many Algonquain tribes of the North American continent, wendingos are among the most frightening and fearsome creatures of indigenous lore. The concept of this macabre entity has been frequently appropriated by writers of comics, horror novels, TV shows and films, with wendingos often depicted as werewolf-like creatures, often with antlers or horns.

However, the original lore describes wendingos as giant, emaciated humanoids, often freezing cold and driven by an appetite for human flesh. It’s widely thought wendingos were grotesque manifestations or symbols of the harsh winters and lack of food which many tribespeople had to endure. There was even an early psychiatric condition dubbed “wendingo psychosis”, describing people of the Algonquain regions who were seized by cannibalistic compulsions.

An early example was reported by Jesuit missionaries in Canada in 1661, who wrote of a local malady striking local people which ‘affects their imaginations and causes them a more than canine hunger. This makes them so ravenous for human flesh that they pounce upon women, children and even upon men’.

The person perhaps most associated with the phenomenon of wendingo psychosis was Swift Runner, a Cree Indian who worked as a trapper in Canada. In the winter of 1878, he horrified his community by slaughtering and eating his own wife and children. He later claimed he’d been overcome by the spirit of a wendingo – a defence that didn’t prevent him from being sentenced to hang by a jury that included his fellow Crees.

4. Queen of Death Valley

Located in California, Death Valley is a scorching slice of America, and one of the hottest places on Earth. It’s also associated with myths and legends of the Timbisha Shoshone tribe, who have inhabited the unforgiving Death Valley region for over a millennium. According to generations-old stories, Death Valley was once a lush, green landscape of rolling meadows and gushing springs.

At that time, the legend goes, the tribe was ruled by a matriarch who demanded her people build a vast, lavish palace. They did as she asked, working tirelessly to drag slabs of stone with which to create her home. Over time, the queen became tyrannical, enslaving her people and being cursed by her own daughter. Nature itself took vengeance upon the queen for her vanity and wickedness, the sun intensifying in heat, causing the fertile landscape to dry and wither.

This was the tribe’s origin story of Death Valley as we know it today, and it’s said the queen’s doomed palace can still be glimpsed as a shimmering mirage in the desert heat.

8 Facts about skinwalkers

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

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.