The Many Faces Of The Wendigo
by Chris Hibbard
hold tight to the Earth:
Wind Walker comes on large feet
skies open to him.
do you hear his tread?
Elephant of the northland,
God of cold journeys.
fear not his embrace
for you will taste of the stars
and we all must die.
he comes for you now
across the clear frigid miles
and his stride is long.
– David C. Kopaska-Merkel
The Many Faces Of The Wendigo
As human beings, we all enjoy being scared to one degree or another. The acts of sitting around a campfire sharing spooky stories and snuggling in the dark watching monster movies are practically rites of passage into adulthood that all children voluntarily go through. This is why we all know where Count Dracula is from; what the Loch Ness monster is; and why we can all laugh at beer commercials that feature the Sasquatch. Slightly less famous than any of these, yet still the most pervasive and well-known figure to come out of Native North American cosmology is the Wendigo, a horrifying spirit that eats human flesh, and turns upstanding young men into bloodthirsty cannibals.
When I first chose to write this essay on artistic interpretations of the Wendigo phenomena, I had no idea what a challenge I was in for. I had neglected to take into account the fact that the Wendigo is, essentially, at best mythical and at worst fictional. Because of this small fact, pictures, paintings and other images that capture the essence of the Wendigo are rather hard to locate.
An Internet search will turn up a Marvel Comics character of the same name that is a huge-apelike being of white fur and primitive intelligence that battles characters like The Incredible Hulk and Wolverine. You may also find mention of the U.S.S. Windigo, a Navy ship that fought in the Philippines, as well as two rather unspectacular horror films.
The “Windigo Psychosis” is a well-documented and legitimate psychological condition, and there is to this day a band of Ontario Indians that go by the name of Windigokaan, who dress as clowns and perform elaborate dances at their annual Sundance. Push back from the computer and visit the local library however, and there is an absolute treasure trove of Wendigo-related information to be found, though still very little in the way of art.
Wendigo tales are most common among throughout the widespread Algonquian-speaking tribes of North America: the Ojibwa/Chippewa, Cree, Micmac, Montagnais and Naskapi. The myth has since spread to and been adapted by the Lakota, Iroquois, Passamaquoddy and Métis. As well, there are other entities such as the Kwakiutl Man-Eater of the Pacific Northwest, Skinwalker of the Utah Navajo, and western Canadian Beaver tribe’s Wechuge that bear a striking resemblance to Wendigo, enough so that is likely that they are coastal variations of the same story.
The Wendigo itself goes by many names, depending on which tribe is telling the tale, and in which part of the continent one is inquiring. It is known as Windigo to natives of northern Swampy Cree and Salteaux Ojibway areas; Wittigo, Witigo or Atoosh in the south and eastern Cree regions; Witiko to the Seneca Indians and Hamatsa to the Kwakiutl Nation. To others it is called Kokodjo, Atcen, Hamatsa, Wihtiko, Wiindigoo, Wee-tee-ko, wee-tee-go, tornait or toonijuk. When referred to in the plural tense, Wendigo is known as Windigokaanag, Windigowag or Wihtikowan. Nevertheless, a Wendigo by any other name is still a Wendigo, and is quite the fascinating myth.
Wendigo as monster
It is quite widely accepted that the Wendigo is (or was) an evil Manitou, a dark spirit, the opposite of all things good. The evil spirit or bad Manitou that is incarnate in the giant monster variation of Wendigo is said to have been placed on Earth by the Creator just as humans and beavers were. According to legends, the Wendigo stalks many parts of the United States and Canada, ranging from the forests of Quebec, Minnesota and northern Alberta to the tundra and ice fields of Baffin Island and Labrador.
Its appearance can vary much like its name, yet many sources describe the Wendigo spirit as being a giant, a gigantic skeleton made of ice. In these stories, the Wendigo may have a tall and lanky body made of flexible ice, ranging in size from “higher than the treetops” to “twenty feet above the highest mountaintops.” Others describe it as a walking corpse with long, stringy hair; and still more as with jaundiced skin covered in pale fur and even with a star on its forehead. In one variation of the story, the creature could only be seen if it faced the witness head-on, because it was so thin that it was invisible from the side. That few of the descriptions of the giant form of Windigo are identical may perhaps be due the “blind fear” that is supposed to overcome anyone who encounters such a horrific beast.
A more common description of the Wendigo is as such: humanoid in appearance, twenty to thirty feet tall with long arms, no lips, jagged teeth too big for its mouth (or yellowish canine fangs), an extended tongue and wicked claws on each hand. Very repulsive, this human-like Wendigo is said to be naked, covered in tree sap, moss and other swamp detritus, with skin stretched too tight over an emaciated frame and a from which huge red eyes glow like embers. The Wendigo fiend’s visage is manlike but horrible beyond all imagining, so much so that to look directly upon it is to faint or be killed instantly. If not composed entirely of ice, then it either has a heart made of ice or ice flowing through its veins.
No matter the description however, these tales of the monstrous Wendigo, handed down via oral tradition from generation to generation for over 500 years, all have similarities.
The Wendigo is always cannibalistic and ever ravenous for the meat of the “long pig” or human. The more that it consumes, the bigger and more powerful it is said to grow; and the bigger it gets, the more it must consume to be satisfied. The Wendigo smells like rotting leaves or rotten meat, with a voice that ranges from a hypnotic whisper to a deafening roar, with foul breath that it exhales in loud, sinister hisses. It is most dangerous in the winter, though some tribes believe that it is particularly active in the spring, when there is no snow to reveal the tracks of its passage.
Wendigo are solitary beings; its name alone is translated (depending on the regional dialect) as “He Who Lives Alone”, or “Spirit of the Lonely Places”, though it is commonly also known as “Windwalker” in Minnesota and “The Evil Spirit That Devours Mankind” to the Inuit. Some Windigo can reportedly fly on the winds of a blizzard or walk across water without sinking, while others are merely stronger than a grizzly bear or can perfectly mimic human speech, which it uses to deceive its victims into a false sense of trust.
These giant creatures were the antagonist of many folk tales, most of which parallel a Jack and the Beanstalk theme, with a human ‘underdog’ defeating a cannibalistic giant and acquiring his treasures. In these tales the protagonists are usually young males who manage to deceive and trick the Wendigo into leaving him be, usually through tests of cunning and intelligence. In many cases though, it was necessary to fight the Wendigo directly, often by employing the help of a local shaman or sorcerer.
Most tales relate that the Wendigo roamed about the forests and hills silently, accompanied only by rustling sounds and a cold wind. According to myth, the Wendigo would sometimes come into camps and carry sleeping people away. On clear, cold nights, hunters and trappers would report hearing its screams throughout the night. The next morning they would find immense rocks and fallen trees that had been moved with much ease, with only manlike footprints around it. Other stories claim that hikers and hunters who become lost are lured by visions of food and shelter only to fall into the Wendigos clutches – becoming his next meal. Supposedly, the Wendigo creature is very cunning, and knows how to hunt and track while staying out of sight. As a man travels, it is always behind his back. No matter how quickly he may turn, the Wendigo turns faster. As he tramps through bush or forest, hills or desert, with no other company but his thoughts, he becomes slowly aware that Wendigo stalks him, yet when he turns, there is nothing but the slightest movement of a bush.
Originally, white settlers considered the presence of the Wendigo to be a death omen. A sighting of the creature anywhere in the region seemed always to be followed by an immediate death in the community. Other folktales show a Wendigo that need not stalk his prey, for it can use entire trees as snowshoes and cover vast distances in a single step, all the while hidden by blizzards that swirl around it. Many tales mention a favorite hunting method of the Wendigo: scaring its prey so badly that they run into a tree, over a cliff, or to sheer exhaustion, where upon the Wendigo strikes. Another Wendigo hunting technique involves a Wendigo scream, so loud and shrill that it paralyzes its intended meal.
Wendigo as corruption
A Chippewa Legend
Two Ojibwa Indians in a canoe had been blown far from shore by a great wind. They had gone far and were hungry and lost. They had little strength left to paddle, so they drifted before the wind. At last their canoe was blown onto a beach and they were glad, but not for long.
Looking for the tracks of animals, they saw some huge footprints which they knew must be those of a giant. They were afraid and hid in the bushes. As they crouched low, a big arrow thudded into the ground close beside them. Then a huge giant came toward them. A caribou hung from his belt, but the man was so big that it looked like a rabbit. He told them that he did not hurt people and he like to be a friend to little people, who seemed to the giant to be so helpless.
He asked the two lost Indians to come home with him, and since they had no food and their weapons had been lost in the storm at sea, they were glad to go with him. An evil Windigo spirit came to the lodge of the giant and told the two men that the giant had other men hidden away in the forest because he liked to eat them. The Windigo pretended to be a friend, but he was the one who wanted the men because he was an eater of people. The Windigo became very angry when the giant would not give him the two men, and finally the giant became angry too. He took a big stick and turned over a big bowl with it. A strange animal which the Indians had never seen before lay on the floor, looking up at them. It looked like a wolf to them, but the giant called the animal ‘Dog.’ The giant told him to kill the evil Windigo spirit. The beast sprang to its feet, shook himself, and started to grow, and grow, and grow. The more he shook himself, the more he grew and the fiercer he became. He sprang at the Windigo and killed him; then the dog grew smaller and smaller and crept under the bowl.
The giant saw that the Indians were much surprised and please with Dog and said that he would give it to them, though it was his pet. That, as the Indians tell, was how the first dog came to the Earth.
The ‘other’ type of Wendigo is a different kind of monster, perhaps even worse, for this one is human – or was at one time. According to legend, it is said that the Wendigo was once a man like you and I, but has been changed forever in one of four ways.
If one is bitten by the aforementioned monstrous or giant Wendigo, they will “go Wendigo.”
If a human consumes the flesh and blood of other humans, (generally forced by extreme circumstances to eat their companion#s) that person becomes Wendigo, developing an unnatural and insatiable craving for human flesh from then on.
The third way to become Wendigo is by enchantment or magic; with which an evil sorcerer or dark shaman with ill intent casts a spell on you, thereby turning you into the Wendigo.
The fourth and final way to become Wendigo is through dreams or vision quests. Legend has it that if one dreams of the Wendigo, hears it calling their name, or even dreams of ice and snow while sleeping at night or in the midst of a vision quest, the body is then vulnerable to infiltration by the Wendigo spirit, and one will awaken changed, different from before – now host to the Wendigo spirit.
Of the four causes of becoming Wendigo, the most common seems to be starvation leading to eating another for survival. All stories portray the ‘going Wendigo’ process as gradual. Some legends claim that with the Wendigo possession comes supernatural abilities, heightened senses and increased strength and speed, but in most, there is merely a desire for human flesh, so much so that they will no longer eat other meats or food.
The initial symptoms of one who had been possessed by the Wendigo were profound melancholy, brooding about food shortages and thinking too much about “plump fat beavers” (considered to be like human flesh). This brooding progresses to no longer keeping company with relations and friends, but roaming all alone through the forests, until his craving turns to violence and cannibalism. Moreover, as with the giant type of Wendigo, once he has turned cannibal, his hunger only grows greater, he becomes insatiable.
This would have been especially horrific in small communities, for it often resulted in the murder of family and friends, those closest to the victim turned Wendigo. Once turned, depending on the source of the infection, and the story to which you adhere, the change may be permanent, temporary, or reversible. In those cases in which one eventually reverts to their human form, they are often overcome with remorse and shame for their actions, so much so that they beg and plead others to kill them before the urge to eat ‘long pig’ strikes again.
In some otherwise ‘permanent’ instances, a local shaman or medicine man could treat a victim in the early stages of Wendigo transformation through the application of hot tallow or boiling fat, which they would force the victim to drink in order to melt the heart of ice that they now possess, before they reach the critical point of no return.
If it was suspected that a Wendigo was living among or near the village, this was taken very seriously. One such case was in the 1700’s in the Lake of Woods area in Ontario. A young Indian man announced that he had a “strong inclination to eat his sister, and would do anything he must to have human flesh.” His tribe was surprised and predictably anxious, until the band council announced their decision that he must die, and would be executed by his own father. The young man was strangled by rope, and his body was then burnt to ashes on a large pyre, until not a single bone remained, allowing no chance for the evil Manitou to return.
This particular tale is not unusual, and there are many others to be found in which the mere thought of cannibalism could not be tolerated, and the killing of such a deviant individual by the community was considered a regrettable act of self-defense, since that member was now a constant threat to normal social intercourse. There seems to be a unanimous consensus among all bands and tribes that once a human has tasted human flesh, they could no longer be satisfied with any other meat. It would seem that the tribe felt that once the taboo against eating human flesh has been broken a single time, the violator would have no inhibitions against repeating the act repeatedly.
There are other reported instances of an alternative measure taken to execution – social ostracism. Looked upon with predictable superstitious dread and horror by all members of the tribe, that individual would be forced to make their lodges some distance from the rest of the tribe, far away from the children. However, in these instances, the individual afflicted with cannibalistic desire seem to have not been injured or tormented in any way, rather pitied and shown mercy for the misery that they surely must have endured in order to end up in such a state.
In the early half of the twentieth century, there was a surprising number of what can best be described as Wendigo trials, much like those held for witches in Salem, Massachusetts 300 years earlier.
In 1907, Pe-Oe-Quan, an elderly native shaman, was rumoured to be responsible for killing over twenty people in his tribe. He claimed to have been sure that “the Weetigo” had possessed each one of the twenty. Although the native justice system accepted this situation, the British justice system was appalled by it and promptly charged Pe-Oe-Quan with 20 counts of murder. Pe-Oe-Quan hanged himself before the police were able to apprehend him, so the Northwest Mounted Police arrest the tribe’s chief, a man named Mistainnew, who had also been implicated in the deaths. Mistainnew was tried and convicted in Pe-Oe-Quan’s stead and was sentenced to life imprisonment at Stony Mountain penitentiary where he eventually died.
That same year, a Cree man named Jack Fiddler, who claimed to have killed 14 Wendigo during his lifetime, was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a Cree woman whom he claimed was on the verge of “becoming Wendingo”. Both Fiddler and his son Joseph pled guilty to the crime, insisting that it was their decisive action that averted what could have easily become tragic for the rest of the tribe members. He too was sent to Stony Mountain penitentiary, where he died of consumption three years later.
Yet another story revolves around the town of Rat Portage, now know as Kenora, Ontario. It would seem that for some time prior to this event, the Sabaskong Bay band in the area had been terrified by the presence of a “Weetigo.” This Weetigo was appearing in human form, and was rather threatening to the band members. In an attempt to protect themselves from harm, the band set up a system of round-the-clock watches. On the eighth night of the watch, one of the guards saw a mysterious figure flitting from one spot to another with a blanket streaming behind it in an unusual way. The guard raised a rifle and fired at what he was firmly convinced was the Weetigo.
The young guard would have been hailed as a hero among his people if the figure had been the roaming spirit, but tragically, the guard stood charged with the murder of his own foster father. As tragic as this story is, the jury brought in a decision of guilty – punishment six month’s hard labour. Considering the leniency of this sentence relative to the crime committed, it seems clear that the court recognized that the man firmly believed he was firing at an evil ghost and not a live person.
The last known reports of Wendigo activity in Canada were recorded in Kenora, Ontario in 1940, at which time there was a major famine due to three consecutive harsh winters. In 1970, an elderly couple and their two adult children all reported spotting a Wendigo in the woods near their house in Roseau, Minnesota. Their report was filed but not taken seriously.
Wendigo as both
Both types of Wendigo are considered dangerous and horrifying, and in many cases, one is no different from the other. Some tribes claim that the Wendigo is a shapeshifter that changes its appearance to help it hunt. This somewhat explains some of the many discrepancies in Wendigo descriptions.
Many tribes believe that the Wendigo originates as a human being, who once possessed by the evil Manitou is transformed into the beast. It is considered a flesh-eating demon of winter that has a man buried deep inside of it. The Innu people of Quebec and Labrador believed that the human who was host to a Wendigo spirit would grow exponentially in power and size with each meal he took, along with the spirit inside of him. In such cases, the only way to kill the spirit (and the man who is now seen as a giant) is with the help of Kushapatshikan, a Shaking Tent Ceremony.
The Shaking Tent was not only one of the most important rituals in the yearly cycle of harvesting and ritual activities, it was also an important method of direct communication with the caribou and other animal masters, as well as with Mishtapeu (a benevolent giant, the antithesis of the Wendigo) and the Wendigo spirit itself. The tribal shaman would use the tent to look into the hidden world of animal spirits, and to make contact with Innu in distant places. On such an important occasion as this form of exorcism, he would gather the souls of many Innu and animals, both past and present, into this tent to assist in waging a spiritual battle of great magnitude.
As soon as the shaman stuck his head in the tent, it would start to shake violently, indicating that a spirit had joined him, usually Mishtapeu, who helped him communicate with the other spirits. The more important the animal masters or spirits involved, the more power the shaman needed in order to be able to communicate. Generally, Innu who had witnessed the shaking tent ceremony were of the opinion that the tent itself was a very powerful but dangerous device. Unless one had a substantial amount of power, the Shaking Tent could be deadly.
Some Swampy Cree elders also maintain that the giant with its heart of ice and the human form can be the same person; that is, two forms representing opposing counterparts. They considered both forms dangerous, and both were killed in the same way, by the melting of their hearts. The Navajo Indians of Utah consider their Wendigo, which they call Windwalker, not as a possession but as a curse. This curse immediately causes the death of the victim, leaving only an empty shell of a body behind, empty that is, except for the Wendigo wearing it as you or I might wear clothing. For this reason, it was not unusual to never see that person again, for the next time they return will be as a huge beast, with a heart made of ice, immune to the cold and with the ability to control weather.
In these cases, because there is still a brain inside the shell, the Wendigo can be just intelligent and cunning as was the body’s previous owner. As creative as a human, with the strength and savagery of a monster, these Wendigowag are said to be much more predatory – bolder and more aggressive – than Wendigo of other tales. Anecdotes about Wendigo attacking travellers and even their lodgings, and wearing skulls and other human bones as jewelry, taking pride in their hunting ability. As well, these Wendigowag are said to stockpile human flesh in trees and caves to get them through the long winter, allowing them to hunt during the summer months as well, also unlike any other.
These particular Wendigowag are said to know their environment from memory: the location of every hill, every stone, every tree, making them closely allied with the animals of the forest. As such, they are reported to share their kills with the predators of the forest.
Many tales of Wendigo refer to the spirits growing more powerful as they age. This is with regard to the spirit itself, not the human host or the physical manifestation. Elder Wendigo may have the power to summon darkness in daylight, heal wounds instantly, in order to ‘go back for seconds’ so to speak, travel great distances in seconds and even summon animals from the forest to assist them on their hunts. One of the dreaded powers that an Elder Wendigo has is the fever. This fever causes potential victims to have horrible nightmares from which they awaken insane, only to run into the forest, never to be seen again.
Much like in the aforementioned Rat Portage case, for many Indian bands, preparations for defense would begin as soon as it was known that a Wendigo was near. All band members would await the monster in great consternation, none daring to leave the camp after dark, and few having the courage even to sleep. According to legend, when the Wendigo did appear, the greatest warrior in the village would go out to meet the Wendigo. Because a human being is no match for a spirit such as Wendigo, the Shaman would summon powerful spirits to protect the warrior and give him courage.
The Wendigo would utter a terrible yell, so loud that it resounded through the forest, paralyzing with fear all who hear it; but the challenger would yell as well. If the warrior could yell louder than Wendigo, the chances of his winning are good. The two would then grapple, the force of their impact hurtling their bodies into the air where they struggle until the Wendigo knows he is defeated. They then fall to earth; the Wendigo unresisting now, submitting to being beaten to death with items made of silver. The Wendigos heart would then be removed, its head severed and body dismembered, with each part being buried separately and miles apart, the heart in a box on holy ground. All this before the Wendigo’s torso is burned to ashes.
Wendigo as metaphor
An Ojibwa Origin Tale
According to an Ojibwa story, on the northern shores of Lake Nipigon there once lived an Indian trapper named Windigo. During a particularly cruel winter, it was so cold that the air crackled and the game vanished. Windigo had to go further and further from his cabin in search of food, and he became hungrier and hungrier as he tracked wearily back to the cabin empty handed each evening.
Eventually, for his mere subsistence, he was forced to drink a brew made from tree bark. When even this was depleted, Windigo was hungry, cold and crazed with fear. In desperation, he prayed to an evil sprit for help. His call was answered in the form of a dream, in which an evil sprit promised to help him by bestowing supernatural powers upon him.
When Windigo awoke, he saw that it was a clear, cold night with a full moon. He was still suffering from biting pangs of hunger, but he was no longer weak or tired. With enormous swift strides, Windigo walked south and soon approached a distant Ojibwa village. His eyes blazed as he gave three blood-curdling yells, which so terrified all the Ojibwas in the village that they fell down in a faint. No sooner had they fainted than they were all turned into beavers by Windigos evil sorcery. Windigo began to devour the beavers one by one, growing taller and taller, first as tall as a wigwam, then taller than the trees, then the mountains, until his head was above the clouds. But the bigger he grew, the hungrier he became. So when all the beavers had been eaten, Windigo went off in search of more food.
He was later defeated by a young man named Big Goose who was changed into a mighty giant named Missahba by a great Bear Medicine Man. Missahba and Windigo fought violently, throwing boulders and glaciers at each other, and the earth quaked violently. Upon Windigos defeat, Big Goose returned to his human form, and all the beavers devoured by Windigo were set free and assumed their human forms.
To this point, the Wendigo you have been reading about seems much like any other spooky tale or gruesome fairy tale. But in order to truly get to the bottom of the Wendigo lore, we need to understand the people who ‘invented it’, believed in it, and even went to prison for it, not to mention those who may have lost their lives because of it.
So let me set the scene. Subarctic Canada alone is about five million square kilometres of forest and tundra that is inhabited by fewer than 60,000 people. This means many moments of solitude, and with that comes loneliness. Now consider that winters can last up to nine months in that climate, and each winter night is long, cold, and dark. So what to do to pass the time – times may have changed, but the people who lived in this region over the last four centuries likely spent much of the winter holed up inside shelter, rationing out their dwindling food supplies, and telling tales.
There must have been a strong sense of underlying fear and isolation. To make a long story shorter, survival in the subarctic was a desperate struggle. It was probably not unusual for the food supply to run out before winter did. In situations with no food emotions run high, thoughts become muddled and unclear, and friends and family members get sick and die. During extremely frigid seasons, when game became so scarce that even rabbits had disappeared, it is not a big stretch to see how one member of a group could be tempted to kill and eat a weaker one. This very thing happened to the Donner Party in the Sierra Nevada in 1846 and to a Uruguay soccer team in the Andes Mountains in 1972.
So we have natives in this desolate area who are involved in a precarious relationship with an incredibly harsh environment, to the extent that survival was never a foregone conclusion, and certainly not to be taken for granted. As a result, stories and rumours about cannibalism would bubble to the surface as an indication of some hunting bands fearing they had reached the last resort.
Even more than dreading being eaten by others, theirs would have been a constant anxiety and a deep-rooted instinctual fear that they would be forced to revert to eating others if this years hunt failed. Given all this, it is quite likely, even probable that cannibalism for survival occurred, but it is equally probable if not more so, that such an action would be deemed repugnant, disgusting, taboo and just plain distasteful by the other Indians. On the other hand, it is rather unlikely that there was any semblance of socially approved ‘ritual’ cannibalism going on. In fact, faced with a choice between cannibalism or death, I would suppose that some chose the latter.
It has been suggested that the Wendigo legend arose out of these conditions specifically in order to prevent tribes from descending into cannibalistic behaviour, no matter how desperate the situation became. In the same way, children were likely trained to eat as little as possible and not to be selfish or gluttonous, and to avoid excessive amounts of butter and fatty foods, for those luxuries may soon be gone.
A Wendigo can be thought of as a human with more selfishness than self-control. They are always hungry no matter how much they consume. In a community with little food to begin with, anyone who took more than their allotted share could be a serious liability. In a close-knit small community, any overindulgent habit is self-destructive and any self-destructive habit affects everyone else. Even if food were plentiful, one would ideally still take only what they needed to avoid building up a taste for self-indulgence. One who is overindulgent could be thought of as Wendigo.
Yet another part must be traditional. By this, I mean that in most traditional First Nations theology and mythos, every rock, plant, tree, and lake is occupied by a spirit that is considered just as real as any human or animal. In fact, there is often no differentiation whatsoever made between the natural and the supernatural. This is the animistic viewpoint. There may be no supreme being, but there are certainly many powerful ones. Granted, there is some level of distinction between what is real and what is not, as there is in any working society, but a casual viewer or visitor with little competence in the local Algonkian tongue may have been unable to detect what we know to be an often-subtle native boundary between reality and fantasy.
This failure explains how literary accounts can explain that informants frankly and voluntarily admitted there were some people among themselves who indulged in human flesh. Hence, we have accumulated a mass of evidence on cannibalism among Indians, but how accurately was that information recorded, translated, and disseminated to the public and academic communities? Do Indians truly believe that there were man-eating giants who stalked the woods, or were they being slightly less than ‘literal’?
For example, an elderly Cree man named George Custer recently related a description of “Wentigo” to a retired fur-trader, which somehow made its way into Legion, a Canadian magazine. In this second-hand account, Custer stated that Wentigos were in fact, mentally imbalance persons who did not respond to the treatment of local medicine men and were as a result, exiled to the woods to live in isolation, among the animals. Custer claimed that these “wild men” could be smelled by the medicine men, who claimed that they began traveling in packs like foxes, following trails but never walking on them, living underground and fighting those who came near with teeth and sharpened fingernails.
These ‘wild men’ eventually caused so much strife to the community, which had exiled them, with theft and the like, that the community sent out hunters to eliminate them. The tale that Custer tells makes no mention of ice hearts or power over blizzards. It merely states that the tribe kicked someone out, that person left but still caused trouble, and eventually needed to be dealt with.
On a religious level, the Wendigo legend may have helped explain why bad things happened to otherwise good people. Even though highly skilled at surviving in the wilderness, occasionally a hunter or even a whole group may have failed to return from an outing. If so, it must have been hard for others to accept that skilled hunters and foragers could simply get lost and never return.
Finally, there is the Wendigo story as a simple practical tool – a boogeyman tale that parents could invoke to keep their children close by. “Don’t wander off or you’ll be sorry!”
So, when considering the unique combination of elements involved in the Wendigo myth: animistic belief, spirit helpers and vision quests, a constant specter of starvation, a fear of cannibalism, a distrust of outsiders, and a reliance on storytelling – it seems only natural that these things become personified in an entity like Wendigo, evil incarnate. Wendigo is the embodiment of all those things that are hated the most, but that cannot be ignored or forgotten, at the risk of ones own safety. Literally, the Wendigo is a giant enemy made of cold and hunger; and metaphorically, it could represent the looming shadow of death and despair that can descend during long hard winters, in which game is hard to come by and bellies are empty for days at a time.
So where does this thinking lead? To a balanced life – a life of respect for others, for oneself, for the animals, the land and the weather. Without a balanced life, there is simply Wendigo – the embodiment of violent splendour, wild seduction and harm to the world as we know it.
It is unlikely that many Native people today put much stock in Wendigo tales, and some have even spoken out, disputing the ‘monster’ title that is haphazardly hung on the Wendigo, referring to it instead as simply a bad Manitou, the spirit of chaos and cannibalism. I believe that these people are correct in saying this. The Wendigo we have today is much, much worse. It is now purely a metaphor for those things in life that corrupt and lead one astray, such as alcohol, money, gambling and power.
While we may have lost one Wendigo, the one of myth and legend that has long claws and smells like rotten meat, we have gained ten million more – Wendigowag with flashing lights for eyes that eat our souls one nickel at a time; tricking us into thinking it will give it back. We live with Wendigowag that pollute our air one gallon at a time; and invade other countries so we can do it two gallons at a time. We kneel before Wendigowag that tax our houses, and buy them from us one board at a time. We even have Wendigowag that live inside us, known as Diabetes and Cancer and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
We respect and admire those Wendigowag that let us pour booze down our throats until we can never have enough. It is almost enough to make one long for the good old days, where one Wendigo would steal into the village in the night, picking on one weakling, only to be hunted down, beheaded and burned on a pyre. At least that was an enemy that we could fight.
But who am I kidding? I wonder what’s on T.V. Here’s hoping it’s a monster movie, I could sure use a good scare.
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