It's my day in the 2011 MonsterFest, hosted by Sommer Leigh (awesome name, wouldn't you agree?) of Tell Great Stories.
What are they?
We are going to focus on the Navajo version of the skinwalker: yee naaldlooshii (which translates to "with it, he goes on all fours.") A skinwalker is a witch who can shape shift, at least partially, by using an animal's pelt. They are best known in the form of the coyote, but can take any shape, so long as they possess that animal's pelt.
What's so scary about that?
Not only can they shape shift (some say not fully), but they also practice mind control and read minds. Skinwalkers are known to cast spells that can cause illness or death, cause car accidents, mimic voices or the cry of a baby to draw people out of their homes, and wreak havoc overall.
People report creatures whose eyes don't reflect their headlights, stalking them from the roadside. These creatures can keep pace with a car and, ultimately, force it off the road.
Others report something half human, half animal staring in their windows at night or climbing on the roof. They will try to break in, pounding on the doors and windows. They possess great speed, agility, strength and any other abilities they may glean from the animals whose pelts they wear. In owl or crow form, they can even fly.
Never meet a skinwalker's eyes, or they may take over your body. Some believe they can also use human skin to shape shift. If you're lucky, they will simply read your thoughts.
Skinwalkers sometimes use corpse powder, reported to be made of bone dust, to kill. They blow it in a person's face, which causes their tongue to turn black and their bodies to convulse. Eventually, they die.
How will I know one if I see it?
For one, there will be a naked man standing around with an animal pelt on his head. He will likely look pretty menacing. Sort of like he wants to kill you or step into your skin like a designer suit.
Aside from that, their eyes are said to glow yellow when they're in human form, yet not reflect light in animal form. Alternatively, they may have glowing red eyes. Also, they tend to look like a mutated form of the animal when shifted, rather than completely like that animal. If an animal is deformed, steer clear.
This sounds pretty groovy; how does one become a skinwalker?
How? By committing pure evil. Skinwalkers choose to be evil; they aren't born with a curse or bitten against their will. They learn some of the same things medicine men learn, making them educated and intimately knowledgeable with the workings of your mind and body. If they break cultural [moral] taboos, they gain their powers. One common way to become a skinwalker is to murder a family member, especially a sibling.
Holy evil skin-wearers, Batman! How can I fight them?
Due to the fact that skinwalkers often shift into predators, the Navajo have forbidden use of the skins of coyote, wolves, bears, owls, foxes, crows and cougars. Furthermore, Anasazi ruins are to be avoided, as it has long been thought that powerful magic could be created there.
Avoid talking about skinwalkers. Discussing them will bring their attention on you.
The only way you can harm a skinwalker is with a bullet coated in white ash. Beware, though, as you must take care not to be caught trying to kill a skinwalker; if they catch you, your gun will likely jam. Then you die.
Actually, there may be another way. If you discover who the skinwalker is, you can say their full name three times, which will cause them to perish. Good luck tracking them, though! If they know they've been recognized, they will become intent on killing you to keep their identity secret.
So where did they come from in the first place?
No one really agrees on this. Some think they started with other tribes (the Lakota, for one, or the Anasazi). Others feel they came to be after the forced marches by the whites. They developed the ability to shape shift in order to get away from the white soldiers and use the animal's strengths to keep them safe.
Another interesting origin story (from the Wikipedia entry on skinwalkers) involves the poor members of the tribe. They went door-to-door in ceremonial garb to collect food left out by those in each hogan. When people stopped leaving food out, the poor became angry and disillusioned, turning evil. Let this be a lesson to you, penny pinchers!
These are old stories, though, right? Just silly old tales.
Actually, the Navajo believe there are still skinwalkers. In fact, there has been a lawsuit in recent years, brought against an alleged witch/skinwalker by attorney Michael Stuhff during a custody battle. The child in question reported to his mother that his father had taken him to see a witch and a ceremony had been performed. During the ceremony, a dark doll and a pale doll were buried, indicating that the mother and lawyer (allegedly) would end up buried in that area. The judge, being a Navajo, recognized this particular ceremony and shot down the father's lawyer's argument that it was a Blessing Way, another ceremony he was quite familiar with. The verdict was upheld.
Reservation police have come forth with stories of animals pacing their vehicles at 60mph. Sometimes it is more man than animal.
You can still find people who will tell you of their encounters with skinwalkers. Whether it's the mother whose door was ripped open on an early morning paper route, or the man who watched a maddened creature crawl all over a neighbor's house, scratching at windows, pounding on doors. The skinwalker exists in the here and now, and no longer cares only to exact its vengeance on the Navajo people, but anyone who dares cross Navajo land. So lock your doors and windows tight, block the chimney, stay off Navajo land, and for heaven's sakes, if you hear a baby crying outside, don't go to investigate. It may be the last thing you do.
Hey, what's that pounding I hear on the roof?
Sources (and further reading):
Wikipedia article on skinwalkers
Rocky Mountain Legends
Skinwalkers - What Are They?