The most infamous of evil creatures in Native American culture are the skin-walkers. As the name suggests, these beings can take the forms of various animals, sometimes even people. Like the were-animals of European culture, skin-walkers are inherently evil and work to wreak havoc among those around them. As with the werewolf or rougarou stories, they actually begin as mortal men who do something so wicked that they are burdened with an animal form. Unlike werewolves, however, the skin-walkers seem to be more willing participants, witches who have gone too far in search of power rather than hapless victims of a blood curse.
It is said that all skin-walkers are witches, but not all witches are skin-walkers. It is also worth noting that in Native American legends, most witches are actually male, with very few females participating in the vile acts required to become one. Necrophilia, cannibalism, incest, murder, one must commit an atrocious deed in order to gain the power to hide behind the skin of another. Past that and magical powers, it is not clear what is required to become a skin-walker. If one was to be discovered in any tribe, it had to be exterminated immediately. It is believed that in order to transform the skin-walker must wear a pelt or skin of the animal it wishes to masquerade as.
Encountering one of these beings is known to be terrifying. Usually they can be seen in Indian Reserves, they will keep pace with a person’s car or run at them as though to ram it. Sometimes there have even been cases of skin-walkers running people off the road. Once they have revealed themselves and properly startled and induced fear in their victims, they will back off. The person they are stalking will be relieved at first, but upon returning home they will be haunted by the creature outside of their home. Skin-walkers will do what they can to get inside, peering through windows, fiddling with door knobs, and even crawling up onto the roof to pace all night and unnerve its frightened prey below. Generally these creatures do not bother with people who are not of Native American descent, but if they sense spiritual power that they desire in an individual, they latch on and attempt to kidnap the person so that they may have that power for themselves.
Skin-walkers have always been feared. But it seems like in the past they were more inclined to mingle with normal mortals, killing and causing chaos where they could, while these days they are seen more as more beast than human. They no longer try very hard to disguise themselves, focusing more on creating fear over remaining discreet. Ways to identify an animal as a skin-walker are as follows: the animal will suddenly walk upright, the animal will move stiffly or unnaturally, or the animal will give off a highly unsettling aura when looking directly into its eyes. Identifying a skin-walker in human form is more difficult. The most reliable way is to wound the skin-walker in animal form, and when it flees to follow the trail of blood or to look for similar injuries to the one you inflicted on your friends and neighbors. Their eyes will also glow in the dark, like those of a cat.
While believed to have the ability to change into whatever they would like to, including other humans, animals favored by skin-walkers are the cougar, bear, coyote, wolf, crow, owl, eagle, or fox. Because of this, it is considered taboo in some Native American cultures to own or wear skins of those animals. But there is one fabled skin-walker of Alaskan legend that is none of those animals.
The Kushtaka is a shape-shifting otter man that inhabits the southeastern portion of Alaska and a little bit of Canada. Unlike most skin-walkers, Kushtaka is said to only take the form of otters, half-otters half-men, and sometimes just hairy men. In addition to its odd choice of animal form, these ottermen are not always spoken of in dark tones. There are many local legends where a Kushtaka would help an adventuring hero or return a wayward child. But there are equally many bad stories, too, seeming to indicate that the creature is no better than its skin-walker counterparts from further south. They are, however, very different when it comes to their intentions toward men. Most skin-walkers seem to cause trouble for the sake of causing trouble, but it is mentioned several times that Kushtakas are often trying to trick people into becoming other Kushtakas.
Why is that a bad thing? Well, in the Tlingit belief system, the people from whom these stories stem from, it is said that in order to be reincarnated and reach everlasting life, one must be human. Being half otter pretty much condemns your soul to some sort of purgatorial existence on this plane forever, unless one finds a shaman kind and powerful enough to life the curse.
It really would be a stretch to say the ottermen are harmless, but it is easy to point out that one stands a better chance of coming away from a Kushtaka than the shape-shifters of Navajo legend, at least in the physical sense. These water-dwelling beings use a variety of methods to trick people into wandering close enough for them to grab. At times they are aggressive, stalking humans until they are weak and easy to make off with. At other times they are more subtle, cooing like a baby or screaming like a wounded woman in order to lure concerned individuals to the water to help.
Many think that the Kushtaka was a creature made up to frighten children and keep them from wandering too close to the rivers and streams without supervision. Some today believe it to be yet another misidentified Sasquatch or Bigfoot creature. Talk to any of the Tlingit, they will be quick to correct you. To them the ottermen are highly spiritual creatures, something that can weave between the mortal world and the spirit world with ease, unlike the flesh-and-blood Bigfoot.
However, it cannot be denied that the one well-written account from the 1900’s does sound more like an ape-creature than an otter-human hybrid. Harry Colp was a gold-prospector out on a midday jaunt through the woods. While he was scoping out the area, he caught sight of some fat grouse and took the liberty of shooting some down. One fell further than the other and he had to walk a ways to get it. Near where it fell, he discovered some interesting-looking rock formations that might lead to gold, so he began examining the ground. When he turned around, there were several grotesque-looking monsters charging up the hill toward him. He described them as being ape-like, vaguely humanoid with thick, greasy fur and foul-smelling scabs covering parts of their bodies. The stench, combined with the shock, caused the man to faint on the spot. When he awoke, it was nighttime, and he was lying at the bottom of his canoe. He left and never returned to the area.
The stench, combined with the matted fur and apish features does scream Bigfoot. Many are of the opinion that it is not Kushtakas that the man saw at all, but something else entirely. It does seem to lack the strange, ethereal quality that an encounter with a skin-walker might. Those who encounter the beings are almost always gripped with an overpowering terror, something that they cannot explain. While it was clear that poor Harry was petrified by his encounter, it seems wholly different from the unnerving sightings reported by others.
One such example comes from a man whose family owned property in the heart of an unspecified Indian reservation. He awoke one night to the sound of two animals fighting outside, and, seizing his gun, he went outside to investigate. It was winter, and when he got outside he found two stray dogs standing and facing each other, fighting. He pumped a shell into his shotgun and the dogs, hearing the noise, froze and turned to look at him. When they caught sight of the gun, they both bolted. But as they were running, they were running only on their two back legs. Like a man.
While they will hunt and attack humans, an encounter with a skin-walker is generally more surreal than a Bigfoot sighting. Meeting a giant unknown ape in the middle of the woods is definitely still an odd occurrence, but it lacks the dreamlike weirdness that skin-walkers possess. They break the rules of nature, sometimes morphing directly in front of their victims. One could be looking at a fox one moment and then a man with a hollow fox skin slung over his shoulders in another.
Stories of skin-walkers are startlingly common throughout the mid-west. Even today locals will warn you not to travel through the Indian reserves at night, lest you attract the attention of a skin-walker…