The Windigo Psychosis
by Chris Hibbard
“August 15, 2005 – In 1896 a man traveling through the woods near Trout Lake, in northern Alberta, reported having a strange vision of a creature. The encounter apparently drove him mad. He, and his fellow villagers, believed he’d been possessed by a Windigo – a malevolent spirit that afflicts its victims with an insatiable hunger for human flesh. As his condition worsened, the man’s neighbours locked him in a cabin. One eyewitness, a fur trader from Scotland, said that the man hardly resembled a human being at one point. Frightened villagers eventually executed the man, buried him and piled logs on his grave to make sure he couldn’t come back to life, as he had vowed to, unless a priest came to the village within three days. Strangely enough a priest did arrive – apparently the first ever in that area – and found all the villagers huddled in a shack, fearing for their lives.”
– spooky tale told in Northern Alberta
The Windigo Psychosis
Some mental illnesses are uniquely connected to culture. Through a combination of psychiatric and somatic (nervous system) symptoms, they are considered to be a recognizable disease only within a specific society, and are known medically and anthropologically as ‘culture bound” or “culture specific” syndromes. There tend to be true biochemical or structural alterations of any body organs or their functions, and these diseases are not widely recognized in other cultures. One example of these “culture bound” syndromes is the Windigo Psychosis – linked to Native American culture, even more specifically to the Northern tribes, such as the Chippewa, Ojibwa, Cree and Inuit.
This psychosis usually developed in the winter months when families were isolated by heavy snow and had inadequate food supplies. The initial symptoms (thought to be psychosomatic) of the Windigo Psychosis were depression, distaste for most ordinary foods and a subsequent poor appetite, nausea, and vomiting, followed by periods of semi-stupor. Gradually, the victim becomes obsessed with paranoid ideas of being bewitched and is subject to homicidal and sometimes suicidal thoughts. He feels that he has been possessed by the Windigo spirit or monster and it is controlling him, it is this delusion that gives the psychosis its name. An affected person may see the people around him or her turning into beavers or other edible animals, leading the victim to become violent, homicidal, and cannibalistic. It is commonly thought that once this stage is reached and the victim has tasted human flesh, he or she must be killed.
According to myth, these supernatural beings (also called Wendigo or Witiko to the Cree) were human flesh eaters. People who have Windigo Psychosis increasingly see others around them as being edible and have an accompanying fear of becoming cannibals. An insatiable desire to eat human flesh even when other food sources were readily available would be recognized as symptoms of the Windigo Psychosis, are sufferers would often requested to be executed or banished from the area before they could harm others and act out on their desires.
In response to this dangerous ‘delusion’, traditional native healers would try curing attempts. These might include the force-feeding of copious doses of hot grease, including bear fat, melted deer tallow, and sturgeon oil, stuffing the individual to satisfy the cravings. If these attempts were to fail, or if the afflicted individual began to threaten those around them by acting violently or anti-socially, they were then generally executed. With this being said, cases of Windigo Psychosis, though very real, were relatively rare, and it was even rarer for them to actually culminate in the execution of the sufferer.
A modern medical diagnosis of this condition might label it as paranoia because of irrational perceptions of being persecuted – though in these cases, the persecutors themselves are supernatural beings, Windigo monsters that are trying to turn the individual into something more like themselves. While in contemporary North American culture, the perceived persecutors of paranoid people are often government agents or extra terrestrial visitors, victims of Windigo Psychosis experienced extreme anxiety and sometimes attempted suicide to prevent themselves from specifically becoming Windigo monsters.
One of the more famous cases of Windigo Psychosis involved a Plains Cree trapper named Swift Runner from Athabasca Landing, Alberta. During the winter of 1878, Swift Runner and his family were starving, and his eldest son had died. Within just 25 miles of emergency food supplies at a Hudson Bay Company trading post, Swift Runner acted out on his delusions, butchering and eating his wife and five remaining children. He eventually confessed, and was executed by authorities at Fort Saskatchewan. That he resorted to cannibalism so near to food supplies, and that he killed all those present indiscriminately, reveal that Swift Runner’s was not a case of pure cannibalism (a last resort to avoid starvation) but rather a man suffering from Windigo Psychosis and becoming a homicidal cannibal.
Ethnographers, psychologists, and anthropologists hotly debated the historical accuracy and or legitimacy of the phenomenon in the 1980s, and some researchers argued that Windigo Psychosis was essentially a fabrication, a mistake by naïve early anthropologists who recorded stories related to them at face value, without understanding the underlying metaphor to the tales.
These stories would often be about men who turned into monsters after dreaming about their friends or families looking like giant beavers. In these stories, the taboo of cannibalism surfaced as something to be aware of, something to remember. If one dreams of their kin as beavers, they must be careful, for they are starving and becoming possessed by dark spirits. These stories represent the threat of cannibalism as applied to notions of community harmony and balance. When on turns on his friends and family, he is a threat to the society at large. On a grander scaled, these tales are a symbolic representation of what can go wrong during the periods of isolation that characterized people’s winter and spring hunts.
While the frequency of Windigo Psychosis cases decreased sharply in the 20th century as forest and tundra dwelling Algonquian people came in to greater contact with Western ideologies and more sedentary lifestyle, there is substantial evidence to suggest that Windigo Psychosis did exist, including a number of credible eyewitness accounts, both by Algonquians and by Westerners. Interestingly enough, the Windigo tales seem to have taken root in Algonquian societies only after first contact with Europeans, implying that they are ritualized responses to the more explicit threat at hand – colonizers.
Some anthropologists have focused on the notion that windigo “possession” is a sickness, a psychosis manifested in isolation and under stress, and linked to the nomadic lifestyle of northern hunters and trappers trying to survive in a the harsh northern environment. The extreme cold and snow made it seem a real possibility that people would not be able to find food and might starve, especially as the weather got warmer towards spring: although still covered by ice, rivers are too dangerous to cross and the frozen ground does not absorb the runoff from the melting snow, making travel difficult and sometimes impossible for weeks at a time. Cannibalism might be a real threat or potential outcome of this forced immobility and starvation.
Aside from the aforementioned Swift Runner case, the absence of “real” (documented) episodes of cannibalism led some to reject the fundamentals of windigo beliefs. However, contemporary Native accounts show that there is still a widespread feeling in many Indian communities that the windigo is something negative, something to be feared and avoided. The Windigo or Wendigo as monster, spirit, or giant, is an entirely separate topic – one that is worthy of its own paper. I mention it here however, for though it is quite separate from ‘becoming Windigo’ – identifiable through its constant craving for human flesh – some tales relate that one may contract the Windigo Psychosis by confrontation with a Windigo, by dreaming of a Windigo or by being ‘sorcerized’ by a shaman into “becoming Windigo.”
Either way, self-diagnosis and self-identification as a Windigo was often the critical element. The desire to eat human flesh, or dreams about eating human flesh, may stem from an underlying desire to acquire a characteristic possessed by the person to be eaten. Even today in our society, we have a saying “you are what you eat.”
Three cases of recorded Windigo Psychosis involved older people who wanted to eat “the children.” It is possible that as their own vitality declined these people wanted to acquire youth from the children. In those cases, the sufferers were “cured” before they became were “full-blown” Windigo.
One Cree tale involves a woman who transformed into a Windigo and tried to eat her husband and her children. She was cured with a drink of melted bear’s grease which caused her to vomit ice, after which she “came back to her natural self.” In other cases, the illness was treated with duck meat and fat mixed with wild rice.
The Cree and other groups believe that “a human Witiko has a piece of ice inside him. To cure him, give him a bit of grease, which will melt this ice.” Although some cases of Windigo Psychosis were cured, the Northern Algonquians did not know enough about nutrition to cure most cases. Where it does occur, it emphasizes getting rid of the heart of ice instead of feeding fat. The actually vomiting the ice may be purely symbolic.
Some psychiatrists have applied other disorders to the Windigo Psychosis. Since starvation is often involved, anorexia is associated. Anorexia sufferers have been known go through bouts of insomnia and dramatic, extreme mood swings. As well, biological factors may play a role, as they do in another “culture-bound disorder” found among the Inuit, a condition called pibloqtoq. In this disorder, calcium and other dietary deficiencies appear to be related to the onset of hysteria, irritability and withdrawal. In some cases of pibloqtoq the sufferer may break into more violent behavior, shouting, tearing off his or her clothes and running around on the ice. After this a convulsive seizure may follow. Afterwards the victim will fall asleep and wake up in a normal state.
The Windigo Psychosis has likewise also been explained as being due to nutritional factors. The lack of adequate proteins and B vitamins, including thiamine, Vitamin C, and fatty acids that break down and contribute to absorption of vitamins, can all have strange side effects.
Looking at the Windigo phenomenon from the point of view of group sociodynamics instead of individual psychodynamics reveals that the crucial question is not what causes a person to become a cannibalistic maniac, but under what circumstances a Northern Algonquian is likely to be accused of having become a cannibalistic maniac and thus run the risk of being executed as such. The Windigo phenomenon is a variant of the “witch hunting” typical of societies under stress, in which the victims of the aggression are socially redefined as the aggressors.
In conclusion, the Windigo Psychosis is a fascinating one. It can be researched for hours from many different angles. As macabre and interesting as it sounded, the Trout Lake story at the beginning of this paper was documented in Edmonton’s first newspaper, missionary records, and Northwest Mounted Police reports. As a cultural phenomenon, Windigo Psychosis is explained through spirit possession or shamanistic sorcery. As a medical/biological phenomenon, by feeding the victim fat, it also helps with malnutrition.
But this medical slant does not account for the historic cases where two or more people apparently became affected by Windigo disorder at the same time in the same place. One story even suggests an entire village became affected as villagers slowly began to disappear. It also doesn’t explain why in some cases the victims seem to have been cured by Catholic priests. In those cases, the Windigo Psychosis seems to have been more a product of spiritual belief than by actual mental disease.
However, there are many conflicting stories, many arguments that contradict each other, and very few documented cases on the subject. The main contention of skeptics is that there are no reliable “non-native” eyewitness reports describing anyone with the strange condition that the native people feared.
No matter which stream of thought one subscribes to however, it can not be denied that cultural beliefs play a large role in how people perceive the world around them, and a lot of people believed in the Windigo monster in the 1800s. Whether the Windigo monster was real or not, it only needed to be perceived as such to be effective.