Windigo of First Nations oral tradition — fearsome and loathsome creature

by Bruce Cherney

Perhaps what Bobby Clark of Norway House saw and videotaped near Nelson House on April 16 this year was not a Sasquatch, but a Windigo. After all, a Windigo has more to do with First Nations lore in Manitoba than a Sasquatch, which is typically associated with British Columbia. And, like the Sasquatch, a Windigo by tradition is an extremely hairy creature.

While Sasquatch are said to have been sighted in Manitoba, First Nations people in the past have told of encountering a Windigo, though mainly during the winter. But, tradition also says that Windigo sightings, though rare, can occur in the spring and summer.

In The Great Lone Land: A Narrative of Travel and Adventure in the North-West of America, William Francis Butler related an encounter with a native man who was fishing on the Winnipeg River. Butler, who was heading east to meet Col. Garnet Wolseley and the British regulars and militia sent west 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.”

This would explain why Butler’s native companions did not feel threatened by the Windigo in their midst.

“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.

“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 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 amount 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 whites 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.

The first written account of a Windigo dates to 1636 by Jesuit missionary Paul le Jeune in Quebec. A local woman in a trance apparently informed the priest that an Atchen was coming to attack a nearby village. When the priest asked what an Atchen was, he was told it was a type of werewolf — at least, that’s what he told his superiors in Quebec.

That he referred to the Windigo as a werewolf is not overly surprising. Researchers have identified in First Nations people a condition brought on by prolonged isolation, depression and starvation which they call Windigo psychosis that bears a similarity to lycanthropy associated with Europeans who believe they are werewolves.

James Isham, a Hudson’s Bay Company employee at York Factory (now 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; they amounted to about 40; their numbers diminished through famine, the survivors feeding on the bodies of the deceased relations. Finally there remained but one woman, who subsisted on the bodies of her own husband and children, whom she had killed for this purpose. 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 killed and ate them despite having plenty of dried animal meat to eat. Swift Runner was said to have been gentle and trustworthy and a good husband and father. He explained his cannibalism as resulting from a Windigo entering his dreams for years and telling him to eat human flesh.

Cannibalism among the first inhabitants of North America has hit the news in recent years when it was confirmed that the Anasazi, pueblo dwellers who lived in what is now New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, had butchered, boiled or roasted people in the 12th century. It had been speculated that cannibalism had been practiced after discoveries were made in 1992 by archaeologists of bones showing signs of butchering and cooking, but critics — mostly Hopi — claimed that the Anasazi were peaceable people and the findings were a lie. The native critics said cannibalism among their ancecestors was a fantasy constructed by evil whitemen who were looking for ways to defame their people.

Then ancient human feces from the sites were examined and were found to contain the protein myoglobin, which is confined to human hearts and muscles and could only be found if one person ate another. Myoglobin was also found in cooking pots and human blood was found on nearby butchering tools located in homes. lt was definitive proof that the Anasazi had at least for a time practiced cannibalism. The only question remains as to why.

It should come as no surprise that early North Americans practiced cannibalism — it has been practiced throughout the history of mankind in all corners of the globe. Sometimes it was associated with religion, other times it was brought on by drought or other natural hardship as a means of survival, and on other occasions it was a way to terrorize and keep in line the tribe or people next door. 

The Aztecs of Mexico sacrificed thousands of humans victims annually and then ate the flesh believing this would bring them closer to the gods. The Iroquois and Huron of Eastern Canada were said to have tortured, sacrificed and then eaten captives. Archaeologists have found the remains of 34 consumed people at one site in Ontario.

In modern times, it has sometimes associated with psychopathic behaviour — think of Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs, who cooked a victim’s liver with fava beans and washed the meal down with a bottle of chianti. Actually, the Lector charter is said to be based upon a U.S. serial killer of 1950s who did eat his victim’s body parts.

Even the fairytale Hansel and Gretel invokes the sinister side of humanity be relating how an evil witch lures two children to her gingerbread house to be plumped up with sweets to make the children more savoury when cooked and then eaten.

Yet, denial of cannibalism is universal.

“British sailors would never do such things!” exclaimed the British public when Dr. John Rae returned to England in 1854 with the first evidence of the unwolrdly demise of the ill-fated crew of the Franklin Expedition which had set out to discover the fabled North-West Passage.

The Inuk told Rae that the crew in their last days had become cannibals. Rae also wrote in his report to the British Admiralty that “the mutilated state of many of the corpses and the contents of kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last resource — cannibalism — as a means of prolonging existence.”

Of course, the admiralty and public rejected this claim since cannibalism is among the most abhorant of practices. But, subsequent studies of Franklin Expedition crew’s remains have shown some to have been butchered at a site in Erebus Bay on King William Island.

Reports of cannibalism haunted the survivors of the Donner Party trapped by heavy snows in the Sierra Nevadas. Almost half of the 87 people who had set out from Illinois in 1846 for California died. The pioneers built camps along a lake to hole up until the winter snows abated. In the meantime, a party of 15 men, women and children attempted to brave the summit and reach civilization. It took them a month and in this time they witnessed murder, madness and cannibalism. Nine of the men died and seven were eaten by their companions.

After their arrival at Sutter’s Fort, the first rescue party set out for the main body of pioneers. It was early February and not everyone could be taken out by the rescuers and supplies were low. When these ran out, those left behind began to eat the dead. By April, the last survivor had been brought out.

In 1972, 16 members of a Uruguayan soccer team survived for 70 days in the Andes after their plane crashed by eating those who had died. Their tale was turned in the popular book Alive and a subsequent movie based on the book. 

So-called civilized people can and do resort to cannibalism when the alternative is starving to death.

The recent movie Ravenous recalls the Donner Party but with a plot twist: a survivor arrives at an outpost in the wilds of California, telling the soldiers manning the post of settlers eating everything they had until they had no other choice than become cannibals. This survivor convinces the commanding officer to mount a rescue operation to save the few survivors. A sage native begins to suspect the survivor and tells the others of the legend of Windigo and that once a man tastes human flesh his craving is insatiable. The movie then becomes a battle of good against the evil of cannibalism.

An episode of the Canadian-produced Psi Factor TV series takes place in Northern Manitoba and involves a trapper who turns investigators into Windigos when he bites them.

Tales of cannibalism are relegated to the shadowy netherworld. No wonder, the Cree and Ojibway of Canada and the northern U.S. have the legend of the Windigo to explain why people can revert to cannibalism when adversity strikes. In the native oral tradition, there are the benign spirits, the hero, the demigod and fearsome spirits such as the Windigo. 

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 native version of a Medieval morality play.

And, unlike the so-called Sasquatch sightings — Clark’s video is so fuzzy and distant it’s hard to say what was being filmed — there is at least some basis in truth for the presence of a Windigo — people have turned into a cannibals for one reason or another throughout the history of the world.