“Anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn described skinwalkers as secret witches (mostly male, some female) who creep out in the night to take the form of swift-moving animals like the wolf and coyote. Image by 024-657-834 from Pixabay
The Navajo skinwalker wanders far across the American cultural landscape. Often reduced to a mere werewolf trope, this shadowy being frequently emerges in film, TV and even conspiracy theories. Yet the skinwalker’s true nature belongs to the night.
The world beyond humanity’s campfire has always seethed with danger. We have always populated the night with beings that blur the line between human and beast, the sacred and the profane, order and chaos. Archaeological discoveries in modern-day Germany date the contemplation of therianthropes (shapeshifting or half-animal beings) back to between 35,000 and 40,000 years in the past. More recent findings in Sulawesi, Indonesia, may push the date back even more, to at least 43,900 years ago. Either way, the concept remains a key feature of religion, myth and the fantastic.
The Navajo, or Diné, people of North America have their own long-standing beliefs on magic and shapeshifting – and the skinwalker, or yee naaldlooshii, continues to stand as one of the more widely known examples of both.
In his 1944 book "Navaho Witchcraft," noted anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn explored magical traditions of contemporary Navajos. Specifically, in his book he examined the "influencing of events by supernatural techniques that are socially disapproved." Kluckhohn noted that English language translations like "witchcraft," are useful shorthand in this case, but they’re not perfect. You can draw similarities between real or imagined European witches and skinwalkers, but the Navajo spirit world is undoubtedly unique.
Shape-shifters of the Night
Based on his interviews with Navajo people, Kluckhohn pieced together general descriptions of the various forms of "witchcraft" that existed within Navajo folk belief. He described skinwalkers as secret witches (mostly male, some female) who creep out in the night to take the form of swift-moving animals like the wolf and coyote. They were said to gather in foreboding places to work dark magic against their victims and engage in various taboo rituals of incest, corpse defilement and sibling murder.
Skinwalkers seem to fulfill roles occupied by folkloric beings in many cultures: the secret outsider, the plotter from within, the shapeshifter and the curse caster. But Kluckhohn also identified traits that were not common across all skinwalker accounts, stressing that skinwalker tales were inherently a part of living and malleable Navajo oral traditions. They evolved over time and depend on who’s telling the tale.
It’s all too easy to look at another culture’s folkloric traditions the same way you’d regard, say, a monster from Greek myth or a demon from medieval literature – creatures for which vibrant belief has long subsided and whose attributes are readily cataloged and canonized in Western tomes. But the skinwalker, as with many other folkloric creatures, does not reside in a text— no matter how many Western chroniclers have attempted to sequester them in one.
Studying the Elusive Skinwalker From Inside and Outside Navajo Culture
Other anthropologists have studied and written about skinwalker beliefs over the decades since Kluckhohn’s work. In the 1984 book "Some Kind of Power," Margaret K. Brady explored the social importance of skinwalker narratives among Navajo children. She discussed the way in which the skinwalker tales functioned to both serve as childhood ghost stories and also echo contemporary Navajo cultural concerns. In the 2016 book "Upward, Not Sunwise," anthropologist Kimberly Jenkins Marshall discussed the way skinwalker accounts and beliefs factored into Neo-Pentecostal Navajo communities. While it might seem paradoxical that one might convert to Christianity and retain belief in skinwalkers, Marshall explores the way traditional beliefs survive in the face of culture rupture.
In the 2007 journal article "Watching Navajos Watch Themselves," anthropologist Sam Pack examined the way often-flawed media representations of Navajo culture — including the 2002 movie "Skinwalkers"— clashed with their cultural understanding of what it means to be Navajo.
And so we come to another key aspect of the media’s relationship with the skinwalker: cultural appropriation. Pack writes that the Navajo viewers he questioned generally seemed to enjoy the film "Skinwalkers," despite some cultural and linguistic inaccuracies. And yet, he also stressed, "This does not mean that the Navajo respondents in my study did not challenge the rights of both Anglos and non-Navajos to undertake such films."
While 2002’s "Skinwalkers" was helmed by Cheyenne/Arapaho tribe member Chris Eyre and starred a predominantly Native American (but non-Navajo) cast, other media incarnations of the skinwalker have come at the hands of non-Native people.
Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling garnered criticism in 2016 for inclusion of an altered version of the skinwalkers in her online series "History of Magic in North America." Her critics charged that the move reduced an important and interconnected part of Native belief to a mere prop in an Anglo-centric story. In the Oregonian’s coverage of the controversy, however, Douglas Perry pointed to a counter example of an Anglo author whose treatment of Navajo culture was well received by the Navajo Nation. They awarded the late novelist Tony Hillerman the Navajo Special Friends of the Dineh Award in 1991. Hillerman frequently wrote about Navajo culture and even penned the 1986 detective novel "Skinwalkers" upon which Chris Eyre’s 2002 adaptation was based.
Where does all of this leave us concerning the mysterious skinwalker? Many contemporary Native Americans would argue that its place is in the living beliefs and customs of the Navajo – and that, as such, it is not necessarily open to interpretation and reinvention by those outside of it. Leave the skinwalker to the night.
Now That’s Interesting
Clyde Klukhohn wrote that while some skinwalkers were said to acquire wealth through grave robbing, others engaged in fee splitting. One witch would magically inflict an illness on a victim, while another would treat the illness and split the doctor’s fee with their secret cohort.