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19th century photograph of Native Americans

10 mythical creatures from Native American folklore

Native American folklore is full of captivating tales about mythical creatures. But beware, some of these beasts are more friendly than others!

Image: Public Domain

From shapeshifters to ghosts to lake monsters, an incredible range of legendary entities are associated with the 10 main Native American regions across the US and Canada. Let’s look at a standout example from each region.

1. Southwest: Skinwalkers

Skinwalkers are arguably the most notorious figures from Southwest Native American lore and are particularly associated with the Navajo. They are said to be witches who have perverted the ancient medical and magical ceremonies of their people and have the ability to transform themselves into animals such as coyotes, wolves and bears.

Despite a cultural taboo against discussing Skinwalkers with outsiders, these malevolent beings have aroused global fascination in recent years, inspiring films, TV shows and countless TikTok videos.

2. Arctic: The Incerraat

The Indigenous peoples of the Artic region include the Yup’ik, whose tradition contains tales of the Ircenrraat – said to be pan-dimensional little folk who create confusion among unwary travellers across the Alaskan tundra.

They’re reputed to be mischievous rather than outright malevolent, and when left alone will go about their daily chores of fishing and hunting. However, crossing paths with them may inspire them to play tricks on you, and generally make you doubt your sense of reality.

3. Subarctic: The Mannegishi

Among the Indigenous peoples of the Subarctic region are the Cree and their folklore features entities known as the Mannegishi. Like the Ircenrraat, these are diminutive trickster cryptids, though their preferred habitats are waterways such as rivers and rapids.

They are often described as having elongated limbs and bulbous heads, similar to the Grey aliens of ufology According to some accounts, they have a chaotic streak and are fond of capsizing canoes and causing people to drown.

4. California: The Nunasis

One of the most obscure Native American legends lurks deep within the lore of the Chumash people of California. According to their ancient cosmological framework, humans inhabit the Middle World, with the Sun and celestial beings inhabiting the Upper World, and sinister creatures existing in the Lower World.

Among these demon-like entities are the Nunasis, grotesque creatures which can rise into our Middle World to spread bad luck, illness and bad fortune. Little more about them is known in mainstream culture.

5. Great Plains: The Vo'estanehesono

Among the most frightening folkloric creatures are the cannibal dwarves who have allegedly stalked the peoples of the Great Plains. Known as Vo'estanehesono to the Cheyenne and Hecesiiteihii to the Arapaho, they are said to be incredibly war-like beings with the ability to move incredibly quickly and even turn invisible.

Their ultra-aggressive nature has been put down to the fact they actively want to die and ascend to their version of heaven. Alternatively, it might just be because they’re ravenous for human flesh. The good news is that (according to some traditions) the creatures were wiped out in a long-ago war with the Arapaho people.

6. Northeastern Woodlands: The Gici Awas

According to the tales of Northeastern Woodlands peoples such as the Abenaki and the Penobscot, this part of America is home to a formidable creature sometimes known as the Gici Awas. Resembling a tall, stiff-legged, hairless bear, the beast has an appetite for human flesh, and would certainly make for a terrifying sight if encountered by an unwary adventurer in the wilds.

Whether or not the legend of this creature was originally inspired by the discovery of prehistoric bones and fossils in the region is still a matter of debate.

7. Great Basin: Water Babies

They may sound adorable, but the Water Babies mentioned in the traditions of the Bannock, Shoshone and other peoples of the Great Basin are anything but. These dangerous entities are said to inhabit springs and lakes and mimic the sound of crying human babies to lure victims to their deaths.

According to some traditions, the Water Babies originated as the ghosts of human babies who were killed by their mothers when famine spread through the land. Alternative tales present them as inhuman cryptids or ethereal spirit creatures. In any event, they’re probably best avoided.

8. Southeastern Woodlands: Horned Serpents

Horned Serpents commonly crop up in numerous Native American folk tales and seem to be especially prevalent in the lore of the Southeastern Woodlands peoples such as the Muscogee and the Yuchi. Such creatures are described as being brilliantly iridescent, with scales like tiny crystals, larger crystals embedded in their foreheads, and stag-like protrusions on their heads.

Unsurprisingly, given their fantastical appearance, the Horned Serpents are said to possess supernatural powers and are sometimes venerated as god-like beings.

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9. Northwest Coast: The Kushtaka

Looming in the lore of Northwest Coast peoples like the Tlingit, the Kusthtaka are said to be shape-shifting beings which often assume the appearance of animals and have a penchant for luring sailors to their deaths by emitting human-like cries. In other words, they might be thought of as an ominous cross between Skinwalkers and Sirens.

Fortunately, there are other folk traditions which present them in a more benevolent light and tell of the Kushtaka rescuing rather than killing travellers. Like Skinwalkers, the Kushtaka have started making appearances in pop culture, including contemporary horror novels.

10. Northwest Plateau: Naitaka

Okanagan Lake in British Columbia has its very own ‘Nessie’ – a creature fondly known as Ogopogo. Like the Loch Ness Monster, the cryptid has been the subject of numerous alleged sightings and is a mascot of the region. However, what many tourists might not realise is that it evolved from an earlier legend of the Sylix, Secwepemc and other Northwest Plateau peoples.

The original incarnation is known as Naitaka, which generations of European settlers believed to be a malevolent being demanding human sacrifices. However, the Indigenous peoples actually regard it as a living embodiment of the lake itself – a benevolent spirit which guards the valley.