The eerie legend of the Windigo

An eerie legend from Manitoba, which makes for a very scary Halloween tale, involves First Nations’ folklore handed down through the generations to help explain remembrances of real-life situations involving unnatural deeds. The legend is about the Windigo, from the Algonquian word that means “evil spirit” and “cannibal.”

In The Great Lone Land, William Francis Butler related an encounter with an aboriginal man fishing on the Winnipeg River. Butler, who met with Col. Garnet Wolseley’s forces sent to quell the so-called Red River Rebellion (1869-70), wrote: “My companion, who was working the spinning bait while I sat on the rock, casually observed, pointing to the Indian —

“‘He’s a Windigo.’

“‘A what?’ I asked.

“‘A Windigo.’

“‘What is that?’

“‘A man that has eaten other men.’

“‘Has this man eaten other men?’

“‘Yes, a long time ago he and his band were starving, and they killed and ate forty other Indians who were starving with them. They lived through the winter on them, and in the spring he had to fly from Lake Superior because the others wanted to kill him in revenge; so he came here, and he now lives alone near this place.’”

There are many stories and variations of the name Windigo — Atchen, Chenoo, Kewok, Wheetigo, Windikouk, Wi’tsigo, Wi’tigo and Wittikka. Elder Mary Mason of Pukatawagan, Manitoba, refers to the Windigo (recordings of First Nations elders taped by Brandon University from 1998 to 2003) as Wihtiko.

In Cree and Ojibway legend, the Windigo is a horrible creature. “Nothing strikes more terror in the hearts of the Anishinabek than the thoughts of Windigo,” according to a sacred legend told by Carl Ray and James Stevens of the Sandy Lake Cree. “The cannibalistic Windigos strike from the north during the first moons of winter and will relentlessly haunt our lands searching for food as far to the south as the snow belt extends. Windigos have been known to attack during the summer but this is very rare.

“The Windigo was once a normal human being by having been possessed by a savage cannibalistic spirit,”continued Ray and Stevens. “When a human is possessed by Windigo, ice forms inside the human body, hair grows profusely from the face, arms and legs and the insatiable craving for human flesh develops.”

In effect, the stricken individual becomes a beast akin to a werewolf of European legend.

“When the ugly creature attacks it shows no mercy ... This monster will kill and devour its own family to try and satisfy its lust for human flesh ... When a Windigo has destroyed its own people, it will travel in a straight line across the forest until it finds the next group of victims. Usually high winds and blizzards accompany the Windigo ... It is said that the scream of the Windigo will paralyze a man, preventing him from protecting himself.”

Ray and Stevens said that the remains of a village destroyed in the “old days” are still found at Sandy Lake Ghost Point.

Mason said the Cree of Pukatawagan regard the Windigo not as solitary creatures, but as whole families of Windigos who kidnap children for eating. The families of Windigo are dispatched by the local culture hero Kayanway with one arrow marked for each cannibal. The hero has the power to sense each Windigo’s cold, frozen heart from a distance and track them down.

Among native people, the common belief is that the only cure for someone who has turned into a Windigo is death and destroying the heart is the only sure way to prevent the Windigo from returning from the dead. James Carnegie, the Earl of Southesk, wrote in his diary of 1859 and 1860 that he had witnessed such an action to deal with a Windigo among the Ojibway. According to the earl, the suspected Windigo was wounded severely and buried before he had died. Hours later “the unhappy wretch was heard moving in the grave, so they dug him up and burned him to ashes.”

The Ojibway have their own beliefs about the Windigo. According to Norval Morriseau, a Windigo lives upon the helpless and needy. The Windigo finds the weak who are having bad dreams “and promises them great things and puts false hope in their hearts, so they agree to give him a place in their hearts and dreams, then when the time comes when out of no reason the person has a craving for meat, which he tries to satisfy by eating moose or deer meat, but is unable to satisfy the craving for human flesh. Especially when the person falls asleep, the Windigo enters his body and begins to change into the spirit himself.”

Morriseau said another story told by the Ojibway is that those who arrive late to the hunting grounds and don’t take enough game will starve and then the Windigo spirit will enter them. Anyone who has the Windigo spirit enter him will see his family as beavers. As the temptation to eat grows, the weak-willed eat their family, the imagined beavers.

Scholars believe the Windigo legends are an attempt to explain in a religious context how good people turn bad — an evil spirit was on hand to trap the unwary. Or, the presence of a Windigo was a sign of selfishness by an individual in a society where sharing food was the norm and overindulgence and loss of self-control was frowned upon. Such habits were viewed by the Ojibway as self-destructive and the path toward turning into a Windigo. In other instances, its a way for parents to keep children in line, just like we say, “The bogeyman will get you if you don’t behave!” Stories of a Windigo could also serve as entertainment — after all, we watch horror movies.

James Isham, a Hudson’s Bay Company employee at York Factory  in Manitoba, wrote the first English account of a Windigo. He said the Cree referred to the creature as a “Whit te co.” He translated this to mean “devil.” Another account in 1823, near Lake of the Woods, is related by Major H. Long of the U.S. Army: “A more gloomy name is that of Cannibal or Wadigo Lake, which is derived from the unnatural deed in its vicinity. It is said that a party of Indians ... were once encamped near this ridge in the year 1811, and were quite destitute of provisions ... Finally there remained but one woman, who subsisted on the bodies of her own husband and children ... She was afterwards met by another party of Indians, who, sharing in the common belief that those who had once fed on human flesh, always hunger for it, put an end to her existence.”

On December 20, 1879, Swift Runner, a Cree, was hanged at Fort Saskatchewan after confessing that he “made beef” of his wife, children, brother-in-law and mother-in-law. He explained his cannibalism as resulting from a Windigo entering his dreams for years and telling him to eat human flesh.

In the native legends of the Windigo, the creature was slain, but his spirit continues to haunt those who become obsessed with excesses. The wise engage in moderation lest the Windigo enters their dreams. The legends associated with the Windigo are, in effect, the First Nations’ version of a Medieval morality play.