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Witchy Wednesday: Skinwalkers in Navajo Legend

Growing up 10 minutes outside of an Indian Reservation in the northwest US, I overheard my fair share of Native American lore, or at least, that of the particular nation that lived nearby. For the most part, these urban legends consisted of things like Water Babies (imagine my surprise when I find my hometown listed specifically there), but I was also made very aware of others, such as Wendigos, and Skinwalkers.

Creatures like Wendigos, and their east-coast cousins, the Wechuge, seem to stem more from their metaphorical meaning in cautioning against greed. Wendigos in particular are described as tall, gaunt, and incredibly malnourished, who feed on human flesh, birthed from normal, mortal men and women. Painted within a scene of a winter famine, they’re said to be born from a person’s greed overtaking themor, more frighteningly, when someone finds themselves feasting on other humans while stranded without food.

Wendigos even lend their name to a type of psychosis, which involves a person craving human flesh, even when there is ample food supply nearby. In the case of Swift Runner in 1878, he claimed a Wendigo killed and ate his family members one scarce winter, while others believed he devoured them, himself.


But rather than focusing on Wendigos, I want to shift focus to something far, far more menacing: The Skinwalker.

Based in Navajo legend, Skinwalkers are said to be medicine men, spellcasters, or witches, who achieved the highest level of their power, before choosing to use their abilities for evil, rather than good. Using their powers to shapeshift into animals, their intentions are only to cause harm to others in a form other than human.

Their original name is yee’naaldlooshii, which translates to, “by means of it, he goes on all fours.” To become a skinwalker, a witch must only kill a close family member or relative — after which, they’re endowed with the power to “wear the pelt” of any animal he or she wishes. Because of this legend, it’s considered taboo to wear the skin of animals in traditional Navajo culture, other than simple buckskin or sheepskin, though both are only used in religious or ceremonial purposes.

Though they can supposedly transform into any animal they choose, the most common include owls, coyotes, wolves, foxes, and crows, as these animals are seen as the real harbingers of danger in Navajo tradition.

Similar to the taboo of wearing animal pelts, it’s also reportedly dangerous to even speak aloud of a skinwalker, else risk summoning one straight to you. Because of this, many traditionalists might refuse to discuss the legend, in fear of angering one. For the most part, using the word “skinwalker” by itself is perfectly safe, as they’re not likely to respond to something in a language that isn’t their own — but call out to one as yee’naaldlooshii, and you’re sure to find with an unwanted guest.

Some accounts claim they run on all fours, even when in human form. Some say before they transform into an animal, a Skinwalker witch might disembowel herself, leave her intestines hidden somewhere in the woods, before escaping in her animal form. After returning for them later, should they be missing, she’ll surely die.

What actually makes Skinwalkers so dangerous? Supposedly, the reason there isn’t any physical proof of one, is because anytime someone gets too close, the witness seemingly ceases to exist. Otherwise, a Skinwalker, having once been a witch, has the ability to ruin everything in your life — targeting you, your family, your friends. How do you know you’re near one? Other than their strange appearance — appearing as animals, but in unnatural ways — they’re also said to reek with the stench of death. Skinwalkers take on all the traits of the animal they copy, including strength and hunting prowess,and some have been reported as running at incredible speeds, even chasing people in cars.

To be more specific, Doug Hickman, an educator in New Mexico, had this to say: “The Navajo Skinwalkers use mind control to make their victims do things to hurt themselves and even end their lives. The Skinwalker is a very powerful witch. They can run faster than a car and can jump mesa cliffs without any effort at all.”

For me, I personally believe I’ve encountered something similar to a skinwalker, though I can’t say for sure. They’re not known to inhabit the area where I lived in a few summers ago, but from what I know now, there’s little other explanation I can come up with.

My dad remarried a few years ago, and together they moved out into the country, on the outskirts of the nearby Indian Reservation. About 30 minutes away from the nearest town where my friends and other family still lived, I would often find myself driving home through the reservation late at night, sometimes even early in the morning, after midnight. One night, traveling home on the dark country roads, I remember looking out my window, and seeing somethingbefore slamming on my brakes.

At first, I thought it was a dog on the side of the road, maybe belonging to one of the nearby houses out in the fields. As my brain watched it, though, I realize, it was far too big to be a dog. If it was, it had to be a great dane, or something biggerbut the way it walked was unnatural, nothing like a dog. Its legs didn’t bend like any canine I’d ever seen, it was like the joints bent backwards, rather than how they should have. I don’t want to say they bent like a human crouched on all fours, because the thing didn’t look human, eitherbut there’s really no other way I can describe it. Its body shined like it didn’t have any fur, but it was pure white in color. Even without any streetlights, with just the headlights of my car, I could see that.

I really only saw it for a split second, because the instant my brain realized it wasn’t normal, my foot hit the gas and I rocketed away as fast as I could. Growing up in an area rife with legends and lore of creatures that roam the reservation at night, I knew better than to stop and investigate further. The thing didn’t even ease itself out from the tall grasses on the side of the road, didn’t chase me or attempt to lunge at my carbut my brain knew something was wrong. Knew it wasn’t right, knew it wasn’t something I needed to mess with. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten home faster than I did that night.

I don’t want to say for certain that it was a Skinwalker, or anything other than maybe just a weird dogbut over the years, I’ve learned to trust my gut more than anything else. From my childhood home that filled me with a real, suffocating dread when I was all alone, to the same weight that crushes me when I visit my dad out in the middle of nowhere, I know when to trust my gut because something isn’t right.

He’s since moved into a new house, though only a few blocks away from the first. Still out in the country, next to the reservation, where the closest city is at least a 20 minute drive down unlit backroads. At night, I can hear things walking around outside, on the other side of the sliding glass door in the guest bedroom where I sleep. I’ve heard tapping on the window, I’ve heard scratching, I’ve watched the outside motion-sensor flood lights flicker on and off with nothing in the yard.

I can’t imagine what must be waiting for me when I go back again, now that I’ve learned so much more about Skinwalkers, and the way they’re attracted to the sound of their own name.

From the Navajo in Arizona, to the Apache Tribe in Texas, it’s clear there’s more to the world of the paranormal than just lost souls, angry spirits, and the occasional alien abduction. Sometimes, it’s mortals ourselves who fall deep into despair, into greed, into darkness, who return as something else reprehensible, walking the earth with no motivation except to harm others. So, the next time you’re out hiking, hunting, or camping with your family and deciding which type of food to barbecue, how many sleeping bags you need maybe consider packing a little extra, just in case you have to appease something else hiding between the trees.

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(I wrote this article before listening to the Astonishing Legends podcast episode — you can probably imagine my shock when they mention a “great-dane sized creature” in the first story.)

Kelsey Morgan
Kelsey graduated from Boise State University with a BA in Visual Arts, and is currently working as a freelance writer, while doodling anime on the side with one hand and petting cats with the other.

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