I was prompted to write this post after seeing a link to this article on Facebook. While this photo was almost immediately debunked as an image from a movie, the fact remains that there is a lot of fear around this particular “monster”. If you are not aware of the phenomenon, then you can always rely on Lon Strickler’s Phantoms and Monsters as a place to find witness reports.
The skinwalker is a subject that fills the traditional Dineh ( what the white folks call Navajo) with dread. I believe that this being may be found amongst the stories of other tribes in the region, such as the Ute, but the skinwalker is primarily a Navajo myth. To this day, people on the reservation, even those who are not very traditional, hesitate to speak or write about the skinwalker thus it is very difficult to gain information about these beings unless you are a tribal member. What we know about the skinwalker comes to us mostly from anthropologists who have lived with the Dineh long enough to gain their trust and get them to talk, a little, about the subject.
In the culture of the Dineh, the concept of hozho, balance and beauty, is paramount. All of their spiritual practices are aimed toward restoring the tribal member to health by bringing that person back into balance with the forces around him or her. If a person is ill or has suffered from a trauma (such as going to war), that person, if they are traditional, will seek out certain members of the tribe who can diagnose their imbalance and prescribe a “sing”. These events are carried out by highly trained medicine people and can go on for days. Sings vary and appeal to a wide array of beings in the Navajo cosmology but all have in common the purpose of bringing the person who has requested the sing back into balance so that they can live with greater harmony, peace and health.
Part of the reason that the skinwalker provokes so much dread amongst the Dineh is that this person has chosen to live outside the recognized order; the skinwalker has chosen to walk a path of imbalance and power and has resorted to diabolical means to acquire that power. Given the Dineh legends and accounts given to people like William Morgan in his 1936 work Human Wolves Among The Navajo, the skinwalker is a magic worker who, rather than using his or her (rarely – most walkers are men) talents for the good of the people, has chosen instead to develop the power of shape shifting. Indicators are that part of this misappropriation of power may be a method of survival; the Dineh are a sheep raising culture and one of the wrongs the skinwalker is known for is stealing and eating other people’s sheep.
While the thieving of sheep is quite the crime in Dineh culture, since it literally takes food out of another tribal member’s mouth, it is the method by which one becomes a skinwalker and the other supposed powers of this renegade magic worker that make the skinwalker such a source of fear. While we can not, for certain, sort tall tales and ghost stories from “fact” when it comes to the skinwalker, most anthropological sources agree that these shape shifters come into their power through an initiation process that involves the killing and eating of a relative (a crime of such horror to the Dineh that it is almost literally unspeakable). Once this horrible act is accomplished, the potential skinwalker is accepted into the fellowship of other ‘walkers and receives their powers.
According to the stories, most skinwalkers accomplish their shift by the donning of an animal skin. Reading the stories, one can never decide whether the Dineh actually believe in the physical transformation of the skinwalker into an animal or whether they simply see the person as possessed by the spirit of an animal. While the wolf is the most feared form the ‘walker can take (remember this is a sheep raising culture), other animal spirits can apparently possess the skinwalker including coyote, bear and even the eagle.
It is universally agreed that the outstanding characteristic of the skinwalker is its speed. There are witness reports of skinwalker type beings running alongside a car moving at full speed on the freeway. It is also pretty universally believed that to see a skinwalker is to court death or at least foul luck. A traditional Dineh, upon seeing such a creature, would go immediately to one of the diagnosticians I mentioned above and then have a sing to restore him or herself to balance and to reflect any negative energy back to its source.
I have spoken, in some discussion on werewolves, about the possibility of a magic worker actually assuming a “cloak” of etheric substance and appearing as an animal or part animal. While I have not encountered a skinwalker, I believe that this might be some of what is going on here. Certainly the medicine practices of Native people in that land have the power to do such things and there are stories of shapeshifting throughout the First Nations of the US and Canada.
I would note, too, that while the skinwalker is generally seen as a human magic worker, there are forces at work in the area that the Dineh call home that could and I think would latch onto the fear that the Dineh have of the skinwalker and use it for their own (feeding) purposes. I’ve spent time in the Superstition Mountains, somewhat south of the Dineh lands but certainly in the same geographic region and I can tell you that there are areas of those mountains that are inhabited by spirits that are not hospitable to people.
But that would be the subject of another of my real life adventure stories . . . see you next time.