Native American Cannibals – Are They Still Out There?
American history is often considered lean on the topic of cannibalism. True, the University of Colorado’s Union Cafeteria is named after one, Alfred Packer (1842 – 1907) who ate, the story goes, two of the three Republicans in his county. A few of us may remember modern-day cannibals like the Stella Maris College Rugby Team (1972) or Jeffrey Dahmer (1960 – 1994), but North American folklore is actually filled with stories of human flesh eaters.
In Southwestern Colorado, researchers have discovered the first clear evidence that Native Americans practiced cannibalism at a small Anasazi (ancient ones) settlement. Down south, early Spanish explorers took care to avoid the Karankawa of Southeast Texas who practiced ritual cannibalism. South of the U.S. border, Pre-Columbian Aztecs were notorious for eating their enemies. Upstate New York’s Mohawk were called man-eaters by their Algonquian enemies in colonial times.
As proof of their abhorrence of these eating habits, Algonquian-speaking people (Mohegan, Cree, Arapaho, Blackfoot and Cheyenne, to name only a few) of the U.S. and Canada tell tales of the dire consequences of eating human flesh: transformation into a hideous monster called the Windigo (sometimes spelled Wendigo).
The Windigo is described as a half-beast demon that possesses both human and monster characteristics. Descriptions of the beast vary, but generally it is said to be tall and lanky, have glowing eyes, long, yellowed fangs and extremely long tongues. Most have sallow skin sometimes matted with hair while some have scales. All Windigos are driven by an uncontrollable craving for human flesh.
How does a person become a Windigo? According to lore, one is created whenever a human resorts to cannibalism for survival. Once the initial crises of starvation ebbs, cannibals, no matter how repentant, become victims themselves and find their cravings for human flesh never ending. It is unclear what kind of transformation a person undergoes to become a monster or how much he remains a human, but one point is clear: they are possessed by a condition they cannot control, an illness without cure or relief except in death.
There are at least two Windigo-related cases on official record, both in Canada. One occurred in 1879 involving a Cree trapper named Swift Runner. The Northwest Mounted Police found evidence that he had killed and eaten his entire family. At trial, Swift Runner confessed and was hanged that summer.
The most famous Windigo-hunter was a Cree as well, named Jack Fiddler, who claimed to have killed at least 14 of the creatures. His last murder resulted in his imprisonment at the age of 87. In 1907, Fiddler and his son, Joseph, were indicted for the murder of a Cree woman. They both pleaded guilty to the crime with the defense that the monster had to be killed before she murdered members of the tribe. Fiddler committed suicide before trial. His son died in prison.
Some legends start for reasons lost to antiquity, but Windigo sightings are still reported. Some believe that these monsters are roaming the cold, dark wilderness of North America. Others would like to believe that legends are only that. The real question is: are Windigos phantoms of our past, or are they still out there?