“Out of shape” (Skinwalkers)


Most cultures have crypto critters and among the Navajo, these are called skinwalkers. These quasi-beasts are imbued with the ability to transform into an animal, mostly ones that are either tricky or scavengers, such coyotes, foxes, and crows, though they can also take the form of the intimidating (wolf) or the wise (owl). The likes of beetles and mallards never seem to apply to these situations. Whichever form the skinwalker takes is based on which animal’s abilities will serve them best in a given situation.

While they do take the general form of animals, legend had their size being a little distorted and they also have disproportionate features and glowing red eyes. They are described and vicious and bloodthirsty, and were a Navajo’s greatest fear.

To be sure, the skinwalker is neither a friendly, furtive creature like Nessie, nor an alluring, manlike beast in the mold of Sasquatch. It is more comparable to a Chupacabra or skunk ape, but still more dastardly because they are not considered isolated, evolved creatures, but flawed, transformed humans who wreak havoc on former friends and family.

Since they are said to take the form of known animals, any sighting of a wild beast, especially a canine, could be inferred as being a skinwalker. Because of this, skinwalkers are substantially differentiated from Bigfoot, Yeti, and Nessie, in that no composite description has emerged from disparate accounts.

Nor have there been many treks to their supposed stomping and chomping grounds. One notable exception was hotel and aerospace entrepreneur Robert Bigelow maintaining a command post on his ranch, fitted with 24-hour cameras, in a decade-long attempt to digitally capture a skinwalker. Even by the loose evidence standards of cryptozoological hunts, Bigelow came up empty.

Indeed, there are few alleged video captures of such critters. One of the few further sullied NatGeo’s reputation. An episode of the network’s Navajo Cops purportedly captured a howling skinwalker on audio. Typical of crypto or ghost hunts, the piece of evidence was assumed to be whatever the person is looking for instead of considering other possibilities.

These modern adaptations have the skinwalkers being less animalistic and more resembling humanoid hybrids that chase cars and terrify campers in the rural Southwest. Other contemporary tales have skinwalkers being unable to be felled by bullets, an update necessitated by the advent of firearms, which the legend predates. One present-day story even incorporates the hook killer urban legend, though it fails to explain how the animal got ahold of the pointy accoutrement or knew how to use it.

The Navajo are recalcitrant to address the subject, which leaves plenty of room for outside believers to get creative. Regarding the Bigelow ranch, skinwalker enthusiasts claim the previous tenant lived there 30 months before leaving due to concern over the shapeshifters. While he did leave after two and a half years, the reason was that Bigelow gave him a truckload of money to do so.  

The ancient Navajo stressed living in harmony with nature and from this stemmed the concept of supernatural abilities that could be used for good or bad. Medicine men were revered and considered a link to the spirit world. Countering them were the skinwalkers, the rough Navajo equivalent of demons, who mangled magic for their own twisted ends.

In the tribe, men were seen as hunters, gatherers, and warriors, while women were viewed as the bringer and sustainer of life. Hence, males were normally thought to be the ones who took their traits to the dark, shapeshifting side for malevolent use. There were a few exceptions, but women who were suspected of transforming were usually old and childless. Having failed in their duty to the group, they exiled themselves in bitterness and shame in order to plot revenge.

Whatever their gender, skin­walkers were assumed to have violated a cultural tenet to gain this shapeshifting ability. It would be roughly akin to a human selling their soul to the devil in Christian teachings.  

Skinwalkers figure prominently in legends surrounding the Long Walk of the Navajo, the lesser-known complement to the Cherokee Trail of Tears. Many Navajos blamed this tragedy on shapeshifters, even though the Cavalry members who were driving the tribe toward cultural oblivion would seem the more tangible, obvious place to lay blame.  

Scapegoats arise when fortunes decline and some societies have blamed Muslims, Jews, immigrants, or communists, while others favored unseen enemies like witches, demons, and skinwalkers. In the Navajo case, this included the presumption that shapeshifters were behind unexplained livestock deaths, human sickness, or purloined property.

Implicating an outsider or traitorous insider are strategies that become more pronounced during times of social upheaval. And an extreme example of upheaval is having one’s entire community frog-marched to internment camps categorized as “reservations” and having one’s clothing, language, symbols, religion, and traditions eradicated. That this devastation would be pinned on a culture’s ultimate nightmare makes sense, although it failed to establish that the phenomenon was real.

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