In Algonquian folklore, the wendigo or windigo is a cannibal monster or evil spirit native to the northern forests of the Atlantic Coast and Great Lakes Region of both the United States and Canada. The windigo may appear as a monster with some characteristics of a human, or as a spirit who has possessed a human being and made them become monstrous. It is historically associated with cannibalism, murder, insatiable greed, and the cultural taboos against such behaviours. The legend lends its name to the disputed modern medical term Wendigo psychosis, which is considered by psychiatrists to be a form of culture-bound syndrome with symptoms such as an intense craving for human flesh and a fear of becoming a cannibal. In some Indigenous communities, environmental destruction and insatiable greed are also seen as a manifestation of Windigo Psychosis.
While this creature is considered by many to be the creation of horror writer Algernon Blackwood in his classic terror tale, “The Wendigo”, this woods spirit was, and is, very real to many in the northern woods and prairies of the state. Many legends and stories have circulated over the years about a mysterious creature who was encountered by hunters and campers in the shadowy forests of the upper regions of Minnesota. In one variation of the story, the creature could only be seen if it faced the witness head-on, because it was so thin that it could not be seen from the side. The spirit was said to have a voracious appetite for human flesh and the many forest dwellers who disappeared over the years were said to be victims of the monster.
The American Indians had their own tales of the Wendigo, dating back so many years that most who were interviewed could not remember when the story had not been told. The Inuit Indians of the region called the creature by various names, including Wendigo, Witigo, Witiko and Wee-Tee-Go but each of them was roughly translated to mean “the evil spirit that devours mankind”. Around 1860, a German explorer translated Wendigo to mean “cannibal” among the tribes along the Great Lakes.
The wendigo is part of the traditional belief system of a number of Algonquin-speaking peoples, most notably the Ojibwe and Saulteaux, the Cree, the Naskapi, and the Innu people. Although descriptions can vary somewhat, common to all these cultures is the view that the wendigo is a malevolent, cannibalistic, supernatural being. They were strongly associated with the winter, the north, and coldness, as well as with famine and starvation.
Basil Johnston, an Ojibwe teacher and scholar from Ontario, gives a description of a wendigo:
The Wendigo was gaunt to the point of emaciation, its desiccated skin pulled tautly over its bones. With its bones pushing out against its skin, its complexion the ash gray of death, and its eyes pushed back deep into their sockets, the Wendigo looked like a gaunt skeleton recently disinterred from the grave. What lips it had were tattered and bloody Unclean and suffering from suppurations of the flesh, the Wendigo gave off a strange and eerie odor of decay and decomposition, of death and corruption.
The Wendigo is seen as the embodiment of gluttony, greed, and excess: never satisfied after killing and consuming one person, they are constantly searching for new victims
In some traditions, humans who became overpowered by greed could turn into wendigos; the myth thus served as a method of encouraging cooperation and moderation. This belief continues in the living cultures, with humans and corporations who wreak environmental destruction, who destroy communities with their greed and racism, now seen as suffering from the Windigo Sickness:
The Windigo is sick because its cut off from its roots. Its a ghost with a heart of ice. It eats everything in sight. Its hunger knows no bounds. When there is nothing left to eat, it starves to death. When it sees something, it wants to own it. No one else can have anything. This illness feeds on a spiritual void. Canada and US are presently in an advanced stage of the Windigo Psychosis. The Mohawks call it the Owistah disease. … The Windigos continue to attack our people and our environment. They relentlessly destroy our vast territories, forests and wetlands. They crave bitumen, a tar like substance that is turned into oil through an energy intensive process that causes incredible environmental damage. It will pollute the Athabaska River, fill the air with toxins, and farmlands will be wasted. Large boreal forests will be clear-cut. They want rare cancers and other diseases to kill us and breakdown our society to get rid of us.
According to the lore, the Wendigo is created whenever a human resorts to cannibalism to survive. In years past, such a practice was possible, although still rare, as many of the tribes and settlers in the region were cut off by the bitter snows and ice of the north woods. Unfortunately, eating another person to survive was sometimes resorted to and thus, the legend of the Wendigo was created.
But how real were (or are) these creatures? Could the legend of the Wendigo have been created merely as a “warning” against cannibalism? Or could sightings of Bigfoot-type creatures have created the stories. While this is unknown, it is believed that white settlers to the region took the stories seriously. At times, they even took the sightings and reports quite seriously and made it enough of the local culture that stories like those of Algernon Blackwood were penned. Real-life stories were told as well and according to the settlers’ version of the legend, the Wendigo would often be seen (banshee-like) to signal a death in the community. A Wendigo allegedly made a number of appearances near a town called Rosesu in Northern Minnesota from the late 1800’s through the 1920’s. Each time that it was reported, an unexpected death followed and finally, it was seen no more.
In historical accounts of Wendigo psychosis, it has been reported that humans became possessed by the windigo spirit, leading them to crave human flesh and other obscene things. The most common response when a person showed signs of Wendigo psychosis was a curing attempt by traditional native healers. In the cases where these attempts failed, reports indicate that the possessed person began either to threaten those around them or to act violently or anti-socially; generally they were then executed. Cases of this type of Wendigo psychosis, though evidently real, were relatively rare, and it was even rarer for them to culminate in execution. Theories about how to deal with contemporary cases vary.
What caused us greater concern was the intelligence that met us upon entering the Lake, namely, that the men deputed by our Conductor for the purpose of summoning the Nations to the North Sea, and assigning them a rendezvous, where they were to await our coming, had met their death the previous Winter in a very strange manner. Those poor men (according to the report given us) were seized with an ailment unknown to us, but not very unusual among the people we were seeking. They are afflicted with neither lunacy, hypochondria, nor frenzy; but have a combination of all these species of disease, which affects their imaginations and causes them a more than canine hunger. This makes them so ravenous for human flesh that they pounce upon women, children, and even upon men, like veritable werewolves, and devour them voraciously, without being able to appease or glut their appetite — ever seeking fresh prey, and the more greedily the more they eat. This ailment attacked our deputies; and, as death is the sole remedy among those simple people for checking such acts of murder, they were slain in order to stay the course of their madness.
One of the more famous cases of Wendigo psychosis reported involved a Plains Cree trapper from Alberta, named Swift Runner. During the winter of 1878, Swift Runner and his family were starving, and his eldest son died. Twenty-five miles away from emergency food supplies at a Hudson’s Bay Company post, Swift Runner butchered and ate his wife and five remaining children. Given that he resorted to cannibalism so near to food supplies, and that he killed and consumed the remains of all those present, it was revealed that Swift Runner’s was not a case of pure cannibalism as a last resort to avoid starvation, but rather of a man with Wendigo psychosis. He eventually confessed and was executed by authorities at Fort Saskatchewan.
Another well-known case involving Wendigo psychosis was that of Jack Fiddler, an Oji-Cree chief and medicine man known for his powers at defeating wendigos. In some cases this entailed euthanizing people with Wendigo psychosis; as a result, in 1907, Fiddler and his brother Joseph were arrested by the Canadian authorities for murder. Jack committed suicide, but Joseph was tried and sentenced to life in prison. He ultimately was granted a pardon, but died three days later in jail before receiving the news of this pardon.
Fascination with Wendigo psychosis among Western ethnographers, psychologists, and anthropologists led to a hotly debated controversy in the 1980s over the historicity of this phenomenon. Some researchers argued that essentially, wendigo psychosis was a fabrication, the result of naïve anthropologists taking stories related to them at face value without observation. Others have pointed to a number of credible eyewitness accounts, both by Algonquians and others, as evidence that wendigo psychosis was a factual historical phenomenon.
The frequency of Wendigo psychosis cases decreased sharply in the 20th century as Boreal Algonquian people came into greater and greater contact with Western ideologies and more sedentary, less rural, lifestyles.