Skinwalkers Are Shapeshifting Witches in Navajo Folklore

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. Skinwalkers go by different names in different Native American tribes. The Navajo version is called yee naaldlooshii, which translates to “with it, he goes on all fours.”

A man or woman becomes a skinwalker by committing a heinous act, like killing a family member. This gives them supernatural powers, allowing them to shapeshift from a human to an animal at will. They often become coyotes, wolves, foxes or bears, though they can shapeshift to any animal. They wear the skin of the animal they want to become (hence the name “skinwalker”), which depends on the needs of the task they want to perform. They might become a bear in order to have a lot of strength. Skinwalkers voluntarily assume this role — it’s not a curse, like being a werewolf.

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Skinwalkers can also read people’s minds, control animals of the night, like owls, call up spirits of the dead, and are almost impossible to catch and get rid of. They must continue to kill or they’ll die. You can tell if you’re in the presence of a skinwalker by their eyes. If you shine a light on one when he’s an animal, his eyes glow bright red. When he’s a human, his eyes seem animal-like. Skinwalkers were blamed for everything that went wrong in Navajo society: crop failures, bad marriages, sicknesses, sudden death — you name it.

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In order to get rid of a skinwalker, you need a powerful shaman who knows the right spells and incantations to get the skinwalker to turn on itself. You can also shoot the witch with bullets dipped in white ash, but the shot must hit him in the neck or the hand.

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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.


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