Urban Legends: The Navajo Skinwalker
This article looks deeper into the legend of the Navajo Skinwalker and its ties to other shapeshifting myths.
It is very clearly a Native American cryptid and, more specifically, a Navajo creature. However, in doing research for this article, one thing became clear. The Navajo people do not talk about the Skinwalker in regular conversations. They fear a supernatural repercussion if they overstep their bounds in this aspect.
It's as if this creature is sacred, but not in a pleasant Sunday school kind of way. The fear and respect it demands is astounding. This is a far cry from society's view on the other shapeshifting myths found in this article: the Algonquian Indian's Wendigo and the European werewolf.
These creatures have been criticized and romanticized within the media, unlike their Navajo cousin. No matter how society treats these legends, however, one thing remains. Shapeshifting into wild beasts is an ancient fear.
The Navajo Medicine Man
The Navajo healers, Hataalii, are a sacred people who have personal powers that give them the ability to cure the sick and help the injured. The Hataalii are a conductor of the magic of The People, and in this capacity, they have the power to protect.
Their healing practices are in chants and songs. They perfect these songs and use them to conduct their lifework. These mystical figures are powerful.
However, the medicine man can use their powers for evil. And when they complete a specific ritual they will make a transformation into the most feared Skinwalker.
Hataalii to Skinwalker
To become a Skinwalker, a Hataalii must preform a ritual act. They must kill someone dear to them.
- Generally it is a close relative.
- In some legends, they must eat a part of the person.
In killing a loved one, a Skinwalker becomes more beast than human. Once this act is completed, the Skinwalker can shape shift into any animal they chose.
- The most common of animals is the coyote, owl, fox, wolf, and crow.
What Is a Skinwalker?
Ask any Navajo and they will tell you the same thing; Skinwalkers are not myth. They aren't the bogeyman. They aren't a fabricated story to make children stay inside at night. They are real, dangerous, and powerful. Merely talking about them can shift their gaze to you, and doing so could mean death.
In all the literature, there are a few things that Skinwalkers can't do.
- Skinwalkers cannot enter a home. It seems that they are not allowed in unless invited.
- Skinwalkers cannot undo their state. They will always be a Skinwalker.
- In animal form, the Skinwalker prefers to be in darkness, like nightfall.
This creature seems to be a predator. Most Skinwalker stories talk about a giant animal, a wolf, usually, that stalks a person's home at night. It watches them, follows them. It will run alongside a person's car, keeping up with the vehicle even at unbelievable speeds.
Some legends say that the Skinwalker also claims the ability to hypnotize their prey. And if someone is unlucky enough to look into the Skinwalker's eyes, the Skinwalker can take that person's shape. However, there is little evidence that a Skinwalker kills without reason.
Skinwalkers are still human. They have human motives, they have human desires. Like most humans, they have a darker nature. This is what makes a Skinwalker dangerous. They can allow their wilder nature take to control, but contain their inner humanity at the same time, choosing to destroy or not.
According to some Navajo leaders, Skinwalkers once helped their people. They spied on the Spanish invaders, telling their tribes about the white intruders' movements, keeping The People safe.
However, after the Long Walk—the forced march to the Navajo's new home in the 1860s—the Skinwalkers became something The People feared. There is little evidence as to why. Most resources say that the lack of a motive can most likely be tied to the fact that The People try not to talk about Skinwalkers.
There are still claims circulating about grandmothers befriending or becoming Skinwalkers to this day. This legend is still very much alive in the Navajo communities, and many Native American communities west of the Mississippi.
The Algonquian Wendigo
In the cold of the Northern US and Southern Canada, the Ojibwe, Saulteaux, Cree, Naskapi, and the Innu people tell tales of a creature similar to the Skinwalker.
The Wendigo is a creature that once was a human. However, after its transformation, it resembles an emaciated half-human, half-beast that can never fill its amazing hunger. It craves flesh, specifically human flesh.
The most common origin story of the Wendigo speaks of a person who eats human flesh. This cannibalism becomes a habit. They cannot sate the desire to fill on human flesh. This human will then transform into the Wendigo.
Some legends state that the Wendigo will expand with every bite adding to itself the size of whatever prey it feeds upon. Doing so will ensure that it is never full, never satisfied. This creature is definitely no longer human, but it once was. It is the cousin of the Skinwalker.
The European Werewolf & Co.
The word Were comes from an Old English word meaning man. This is important when discussing the werewolf, because it isn't just the wolf that humans have been known to transform into. Werecats, for example, are a common legend told in Asia. For the purpose of comparing this creature to that of the Skinwalker, I will call them all werewolf.
Werewolf mythology can be dated back to Ancient Greece. However, belief in the beast wasn't widespread until Christianity began the hunt for witches. With the Church's assertion that witches were real, the idea of werewolves as a fact grew. They were hunted along side witches during the Church's rule of the Middle Ages.
That werewolves transform only in the full moon, or that one must be bitten or scratched by another werewolf to become one, are all new ideas created within the 20th century. The legend once stated that these people could change at will and as needed.
A few characteristics of ancient werewolf mythology that parallel that of the Skinwalker and Wendigo:
- A spell had to be completed to make a werewolf—usually performed by a powerful witch.
- Werewolves were beasts that fed on flesh and fear.
- Some claimed to be turned into a werewolf to do God's work, or to protect others.
- A human could transform at anytime into a werewolf.
Werewolves, like the Skinwalker, depict the wilder side of humanity.
Whether it is the Skinwalker, the werewolf, or the Wendigo, these creatures prey on our most basic of fears. Deep down within our consciousness, we fear the wild that we've conquered.
Human beings are now a civilized animal. But within us is the ability to become wild once more. The fear that we can return to the shadows of the beast we used to be drives the mythology of these types of creatures.