In some Native American legends, a skin-walker is a person with the supernatural ability to turn into any animal he or she desires. To be able to transform, legend sometimes requires that the skinwalker does wear a pelt of the animal, though this is not always considered necessary.
Similar lore can be found in cultures throughout the world and is often referred to as shapeshifting by anthropologists.
Navajo skinwalker: the yee naaldlooshii
Possibly the best documented skinwalker beliefs are those relating to the Navajo yee naaldlooshii (literally “with it, he goes on all fours” in the Navajo language). A yee naaldlooshii is one of several varieties of Navajo witch (specifically an ’ánt’??hnii or practitioner of the Witchery Way, as opposed to a user of curse-objects (’adag?sh) or a practitioner of Frenzy Way (’azh?tee)). Technically, the term refers to an ’ánt’??hnii who is using his (rarely her) powers to travel in animal form. In some versions, men or women who have attained the highest level of priesthood are called “clizyati”, “pure evil”, then they commit the act of kill
The ’ánt’??hnii are human beings who have gained supernatural power by breaking a cultural taboo. Specifically, a person is said to gain the power to become a yee naaldlooshii upon initiation into the Witchery Way. Both men and women can become ’ánt’??hnii and therefore possibly skinwalkers, but men are far more numerous. It is generally thought that only childless women can become witches.
Although it is most frequently seen as a coyote, wolf, owl, fox, or crow, the yee naaldlooshii is said to have the power to assume the form of any animal they choose, depending on what kind of abilities they need. Witches use the form for expedient travel, especially to the Navajo equivalent of the ‘Black Mass’, a perverted “sing” (Navajo ceremonial) used to curse instead of to heal. They also may transform to escape from pursuers.
Some Navajo also believe that skinwalkers have the ability to steal the “skin” or body of a person. The Navajo believe that if you lock eyes with a skinwalker, they can absorb themselves into your body. It is also said that skinwalkers avoid the light and that their eyes glow like an animal’s when in human form, and when in animal form their eyes do not glow as an animal’s would.
Some Navajos believe that if you made eye contact with a skinwalker, your body will freeze up due to the fear of them and use that fear as energy against the person.
A skinwalker is usually described as naked, except for an animal skin. Some Navajos describe them as a mutated version of the animal in question. The skin may just be a mask, like those which are the only garment worn in the witches’ song.
Because animal skins are used primarily by skinwalkers, the pelt of animals such as bears, coyotes, wolves, and cougars are strictly tabooed. Sheepskin and buckskin are probably two of the few hides used by Navajos; the latter is used only for ceremonial purposes.
Often, Navajos will tell of their encounter with a skinwalker, though there is a lot of hesitancy to reveal the story to non-Navajos, or to talk of such frightening things at night. Sometimes the skinwalker will try to break into the house and attack the people inside, and will often bang on the walls of the house, knock on the windows, and climb onto the roofs. Sometimes, a strange, animal-like figure is seen standing outside the window, peering in. Other times, a skinwalker may attack a vehicle and cause a car accident. The skinwalkers are described as being fast, agile, and impossible to catch. Though some attempts have been made to shoot or kill one, they are not usually successful. Sometimes a skinwalker will be tracked down, only to lead to the house of someone known to the tracker. As in European werewolf lore, sometimes a wounded skinwalker will escape, only to have someone turn up later with a similar wound which reveals them to be the witch. It is said that if a Navajo was to know the person behind the skinwalker they had to pronounce the full name, and about three days later that person would either get sick or die for the wrong that they have committed.
Legend has it skinwalkers can have the power to read human thoughts. They also possess the ability to make any human or animal noise they choose. A skinwalker may use the voice of a relative or the cry of an infant to lure victims out of the safety of their homes.
Skinwalkers use charms to instill fear and control in their victims. Such charms include human bone beads launched by blowguns, which embed themselves beneath the surface of the skin without leaving a mark, and human bone dust which can cause paralysis and heart failure. Skinwalkers have been known to find traces of their victim’s hair, wrap it around a pot shard, and place it into a tarantula hole. Even live rattlesnakes are known to be used as charms by the skinwalker. A skinwalker can use anything of personal belongs and use in ceremonial rituals against the person they are doing evil towards.
According to Navajo myth, the only way to successfully shoot a skinwalker is to dip bullets into white ash. Often people attempting to shoot a skinwalker find their weapon jamming or frozen. Other times the rounds fire but have no effect.
If spotted, the skinwalker will run away, and, if chased, his foot print will not be present even if only a few feet away. Also, if it is fired at even at point blank range, it will have no effect, and it may attack, or run off. The only way to kill a skinwalker if no white ash is present is to shoot the skinwalker in human form.
History of the skinwalker
There are a few legends to the roots of the skinwalker. One such comes from the long walk. During this time, Skinwalkers would shapeshift to flee the horrors of living under the torture of the white man. It made them faster and the soldiers were unable to detect them running.
Another was that the skinwalker was started by the poor community in the old days. At night a skinwalker would dress up in ceremonial dress and go from door to door. The more well-off people would leave something outside their hogan for the skinwalker. Eventually with times changing people forgot about the skinwalker and stopped leaving things for them. This led to resentment among the poor and they turned on those who forgot them. And now they exist as a hateful people out for revenge.
Skinwalkers do evil towards people they do not like for any kind of reason. For example, a family may have more than their family. Jealousy is usually the cause of the witchcraft towards people. It’s always something that someone has, they want for themselves.
Finally there are those who tell of the skinwalker as a medicine man. It was started by the Lakota, when they would dress up like wolves to hunt the bison. The tradition made its way to the Navajo people and it was adopted by the medicine men. However, in this legend it does not explain how the Skinwalker became full of hate for his fellow tribe.
Many Navajos believe the Anasazi had a lot to do with the witchcraft that runs in their community. Thus, Anasazi ruins and graves are strictly taboo. It’s said that a skinwalker will use the bones of the Anasazi for their charms.
According to Raymond Friday Locke in the Book of the Navajo, the practice of animal emulation began with a hunter who thought of using the head of a deer so that he could approach them more closely to kill them. He was unsuccessful until the Gods came and showed him not only how to make the mask but how to emulate the animal. The practice of wearing the skins of the deer and emulating them began for the purpose of hunting. Locke also links the practice of witchcraft involving animal emulation and shape shifting to the Navajo folk tale of Coyote’s wife. Believing that Coyote had been murdered, his wife takes the form of a bear and begins to curse and slay her husband’s killers with witchcraft. The association of skin-walkers with Coyote is a prevalent belief in both their common usage of coyote skins and reputations of being tricksters. Skinwalkers are known as a Native American version of a Loup-garou. Even children have been known to become a skinwalker.
Totem animals and the art of the Medicine Man
The Navajo people have a very strong emotional bond with the Earth and the plant and animal kingdoms that are so much a part of their everyday lives. Certain animals are more sacred to some individuals, families and tribes. These animals could be said to bless, heal or guide the people and become totem animals.
Totem animals are honored with their likeness in the dress, dance, music and artwork of the people. The traits and characteristics of the totem animals could be gifted to the people who developed a deep friendship with the spirits of these helpful creatures. Some individuals developed such a deep connection with nature and her magic that they could talk with the plants and animals and bring knowledge of medicine and other healing arts to their tribes. These few adepts became medicine men, healers, or wise ones.
Medicine men were known to be able to travel to other states of being. It was through the gifts of their totem animals that this travel was made. They were often seen wearing the skin of the animal that granted them this power and would sometimes be seen in animal form.
Often ancestors and heroes would appear as animals important or sacred to the family or tribe, or as an animal the individual was known for. People especially reported seeing these strangely human animals when receiving good fortune or divine messages. Some would hear the animals speak to them, act as a human would or witness impossible colors or breeds that do not exist.
Like the folk and nature religions in other parts of the world are called witches, these sacred beliefs are greatly misunderstood and demonized by a fearful society. To use the term skin-walker to speak of violence, hatred, witchcraft and demons is more provocative than to understand the path of a healer, a wise one or a medicine man.