The Wendigo is a terrible spirit in Native American culture, specifically those of the Cree, Ojibwe, Innu, and most of the tribes surrounding the Great Lakes. Tales of the Wendigo have continued to spread and now can be found throughout most Native American cultures, even in the heart of the United States, but the beast is generally associated with the colder climates of Canada and the northern states.
The Wendigo is a monstrous being known for its insatiable hunger for human flesh. The origins of the beasts vary only slightly, and stories surrounding them are generally along the same vein. The creature is generally associated with cannibalism, an act abhorred fiercely by the Native Americans to the point of being unthinkable even in the most dire situations, such as famine. Whether the Wendigo stories began as a result of the taboo or whether the taboo began as a result of the stories is unknown. The tribes cannot recall a time when Wendigo stories were not recited. The word “Wendigo” can be roughly translated into “spirit that devours mankind”, but was translated by early linguists to simply mean “cannibal”.
It is believed by the aboriginal peoples of North America that if one consumes the flesh of another human, one becomes a Wendigo, someone who cannot control their urges to consume human flesh. In some cultures the Wendigo is simply seen as a gaunt-looking human, perhaps slightly taller than normal or unnaturally thin and hollow-looking. They would become pale, bleached of all color, sometimes with sharp claws or teeth used to devour those around them. A Wendigo will not distinguish between friend or enemy, kin or food; they simply pounce on whoever is nearest and begin to feed.
Others imagine the spirit to be more beastly, still vaguely resembling a man, but with bestial and grotesque features to mark it as more of a monster. Even in monstrous form, it is still described as painfully thin with sunken eyes and tattered lips. In some stories it even oozes blood from its feet, leaving trails of crimson footprints wherever it goes. Certain legends have it growing in size in proportion to what it eats, leaving it perpetually starving and entirely unable to grow fat on what it consumes. It is usually depicted as having a deer’s head, or the skull of a deer with sharp teeth and jagged horns, the claws of a bear, and slightly human hands and torsos. Some tribes will tell you it resembles a giant more closely, shaggy and dark, while still more describe it as a snow beast with thick fur and glowing ice-blue eyes.
Eating the flesh of another human is the most popularly spoken of method to becoming a Wendigo, yet there are also tales where it is contagious. It would seem that some cultures view becoming a Wendigo as something of a possession, where the spirit inhabits the body of the victim and warps his or her mind until she is forced to act on the unholy urge to consume the meat of those around them. It is these stories that has led many scientists to believe that Native Americans were plagued by a disorder dubbed “Wendigo psychosis”, which tends to be more of a process than a sudden snap or transformation.
There are many tales passed down about people becoming afflicted with the disorder. It was unusual for the cases to get to the point of the victim actually eating someone, but it was generally thought that it was better to kill oneself before eating another human. This meant that the tribes that had someone come forward with cannibalistic thoughts would execute them before allowing them to continue on and put others at risk. It is believed that this would rarely happen, as the tribes also had shamans who could remedy these thoughts before the victim became a full-blown Wendigo.
One case where things went awry, however, was in 1878, when a Native American man by the name of Swift Runner was struggling through the winter with his family. Facing starvation, they decided to seek shelter and refuge from a Hudson’s Bay Company post, where emergency goods were kept for harsh seasons like this. The family was ten miles away when Swift Runner suddenly snapped, butchering his wife and their five children and feasting on them in the middle of the woods. A few days later, he admitted to what he had done and was subsequently executed for the murders. He did not “transform” in any sense of the word, but it was extremely bizarre for him to turn on his family when they were so close to safety.
Fear of cannibalism persisted until the early 1900’s, when modernization began to pick up speed in the lands the tribes inhabited. The last executions were performed by a man named Jack Fiddler, who was a chief and shaman who supposedly specialized in Wendigo exorcisms. Those cases that he could not crack he opted for euthanization, which led to the deaths of over ten people who claimed to be turning into Wendigos.
While the fear is long gone in this day and age, there are still stories cropping up every so often about odd-looking creatures that greatly resemble how the Wendigo of Native American folklore is described. They seem to remain near Indian Preserves, appearing beside the uninhabited back roads to stalk and torment humans. Anyone unfortunate enough to spot one is usually filled with deep, primal fear. By car it is unusual for someone to be followed, but on foot the Wendigo will remain right behind its target, breathing raggedly in their ears and stalking
People who encounter one describe a strange set of instincts keeping them locked on a certain path. They will sense that they should not look at the creature, and that they should not run. Yet the fear will course through them and force them into movement, though at a pace so slow that it makes for a truly hair-raising experience.
There are no accounts of a Wendigo actually devouring somebody, like in the legends, but it is doubtful that anyone who experienced such a thing would be able to talk about it… And, as is the nature of these things, those who witness the beast are usually completely and utterly alone.