Got Cannibals?

When we think of cannibalism in North America, we often envision worst-case scenarios of cultural practices, as in the case of the Aztecs, where eating fellow humans held spiritual significance, or survival, as practiced by the desperate Donner Party.[1] Today, the popular press often takes full advantage of cases where the hunger for human flesh is driven by psychosis as in the case of Jeffrey Dahmer.

But first, semantics. Most dictionaries define cannibalism as the eating of human flesh by another human. Despite its initial application to humans, the term was co-opted by zoologists and is now defined more broadly as the eating of the flesh of an animal by another of its own kind, or intraspecific predation.[2]

Here are a few historical examples of cultural – and survival – cannibalism in North America.

1492: The New World

On Day One of this continent’s recorded history, the very word cannibal was given birth by Christopher Columbus who referred to the natives of Haiti and Cuba as canibales, a variant of Carib, the name they gave themselves. Whether or not the Caribs were actually cannibals is disputed, but fifteenth-century observers accused them of such behavior and the name stuck.

1519 – 1521: Mexico

800px-Magliabchanopage_73rThe Aztecs are perhaps the most widely studied ancient New World peoples. It’s true that ritual cannibalism took place in the context of human sacrifices, but the thesis that human flesh was a significant portion of the Aztec diet is not widely supported. And given European sensitivities on the practice, the following testimonies could have been exaggerated.

Hernan Cortez wrote in one of his letters that an Indian ate a piece of flesh taken from the body of an Indian who had been killed. The first Mesoamerican ethnographer, Sahagun, published an illustration of a captured Aztec being cooked by an unknown tribe.

A sacrificed victim was sometimes given to the warrior responsible for the capture. He would boil the body and cut it to pieces to be offered as gifts to important people in exchange for presents and slaves. Some human parts made their way to markets near present day Mexico City.

Bernal Díaz saw young men in cages ready to be sacrificed and eaten.  He said Aztec warriors were so confident of victory against the conquistadors in an upcoming battle, that, “…they wished to kill us and eat our flesh, and had already prepared the pots with salt and peppers and tomatoes”. In temples, Diaz found large pots where the human flesh of sacrificed natives was boiled and cooked to feed the priests. He also said he witnessed human meat for sale; thick wooden cages full of Indian men, women and boys who were fattened, then eaten. Díaz’s testimony is corroborated by other Spanish historians.[3]

2000 B.C. – 1700: The American Southwest

Scientists have developed criteria that provide a post-death signature of cannibalism for skeletal remains. Evidence of human consumption has been found near Polacca Wash, First Mesa Hopi villages, in present day Arizona, where thirty bodies showed extensive evidence of violence, butchery, and likely cannibalism.[4] In the Mesa Verde region of today’s Colorado, Anasazi (the Ancient Ones) cannibalistic activities are supported by bone evidence, blood residue, and the presence of human coprolite (petrified poop).

Archeologists continue to dig for further evidence of humans eating humans in the American Southwest. I suspect more gustatory evidence will be found just beneath the surface.

Early Europeans

1527: Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and the Karankawa

Cabeza_de_Vaca_PortraitThe journey of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca remains one of the most amazing feats of exploration in the Americas. In early 1527, he left Spain for North America and landed near Tampa Bay, Florida. The party soon overstayed its welcome with local Indians. Pursued by the natives and suffering from numerous diseases, the surviving members of the expedition were reduced to huddling in a coastal swamp and living off the flesh of their horses. In late 1528, they built several crude rafts from trees and horse-hides and set sail hoping to return to Cuba. A hurricane dumped de Vaca, and eighty of his companions, on the Gulf Coast near what is now Galveston, Texas.

The local Karankawa, reputed cannibals, welcomed de Vaca. For the next four years he, and a steadily dying number of his comrades, lived in the complex native world of what is now East Texas. Legends say the Karankawa ate captured enemy warriors and leaders after battle to ingest magic power, but not for food. Other Texas Indians were also accused of similar ritual eating, but de Vaca reported the opposite. He saw no cannibalism in the natives. In fact, the Indians were furious at the Spaniards for eating human flesh during the winter of 1528. In October 1534, Cabeza de Vaca escaped with the three remaining Europeans, and made his way west and south to Mexico and safety.[5]

16th Century: Iroquois Nation

Seneca-Iroquois-giant humans-moundsIn Ameria’s Northeast, the Iroquois nation practiced human cannibalism to appease the appetite of a war god who demanded that captives be taken, tortured and eaten. The evidence for Iroquoian cannibalism comes from historical accounts of Jesuit missionaries who worked with the Iroquois and the warring Huron nations. There are also numerous Dutch, English, and French accounts of captives witnessing the fates of their comrades who were tortured, cut up and eaten in front of them. The Iroquois were reported to practice cannibalism until 1756.[6]


17th Century: American Mid-west/North –Windigo (or Wendigo)

windigo_faceWhat about the thought that eating one person may lead to eating others? Such is the windigo creature, a legendary, half-beast of the Algonquian people along the Atlantic coast and Great Lakes region of the US and Canada. The windigo possesses characteristics of a human or a monster and suffers from what is now called the disputed modern medical term, Windigo Psychosis. This condition features symptoms such as an intense craving for human flesh and a fear by the sufferer he/she is a cannibal. Two men were tried for acts supposedly driven by this psychosis. In 1878, Swift Runner, a Canadian Cree, and his family were starving. Twenty-five miles away from emergency food supplies at Hudson Bay, Swift Runner butchered and ate his wife and five children. He was executed the next summer. Another well-known case was that of Jack Fiddler, an Oji-Cree chief known for his powers at defeating windigo by killing them. 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, then granted a pardon three days before he died.[7]

Recent Cannibalism

1874: Alferd Packer

Alferd_PackerIn the winter of 1874, Packer left with five others for an expedition in the Colorado mountains prospecting for gold. Two months later Packer returned alone. When questioned of the whereabouts of the men that had been with him, Packer said he ha killed them in self defense and was forced to eat their remains in order to survive the elements. His story was not believed. After two signed and separate confessions, Packer was given a forty-year sentence. At trial, lore has it, the judge admonished Packer by saying, “Alferd Packer, you son-of-a-bitch, there were three Republicans in this county and you ate two of them.” Amazingly he was later granted parole because sufficient doubt remained about his innocence.[8]

APRG-MAIN-LOGOHis name lives on. The University of Colorado’s student union eatery, the Alferd Packer Restaurant & Grill, offers everything from salads to burgers in home-style comfort, plus lots of grab-n-go items for that quick stop between classes or meetings. Maybe winter mountain gold hunting?

1847: Donner Party

The Donner Party has become synonymous with cannibalism in the United States. The Donner Party (or Donner-Reed Party) set out for California by wagon train in May 1846. Delayed by a series of mishaps and mistakes, they spent the winter of 1846–47 snowbound in the Sierra Nevada near Truckee (now Donner) Lake, high in the mountains. Their food supplies ran extremely low, and by mid-February, forty-eight of eighty-seven survived to reach California, many of them having eaten the dead for survival. Historians have described the don-4episode as one of the most bizarre and spectacular tragedies in Californian history and western-US migration. Here, the driving force was self-preservation and the preservation of close kin, especially children. About half of the party could not overcome their deep-seated feelings against cannibalism, however, and claimed that they never participated in the act. Women survived the ordeal better than men for several reasons, including having a smaller body size, a slower metabolic rate, and more body fat; expending less energy procuring firewood, primarily a man’s task; and for some, having strong maternal instincts that drove them to keep themselves and their children alive at all costs. Although at the end, half of the party succumbed to extreme hunger and cold, fewer would have survived had they not chosen to eat their dead comrades.[9]

The grizzly story of cannibalism in America is long and far more common than one would imagine. As repulsive as it is, cannibalism has a constant presence in history, whether motivated by hunger or psychosis, and is here to stay.



Where Shamans Play


Urraca Mesa: A Gateway to the Demon Realm

Written by Jen Wolfe on October 12, 2011 in Haunted Southwest

Located on the property of Philmont Scout Ranch in Northeast New Mexico is a place called Urraca Mesa. It is known for the highest number of lightning strikes per year in the whole state of New Mexico. In addition, compasses don’t work correctly there — scientists believe it is due to the high content of iron or lodestone in the cap of the mesa. As seen from above, the mesa takes on an ominous shape — the western edge has the aspect of a skull with a slight indent where the eye would be. Even the word urraca has terrible connotations in the Anasazi and Apache language. It means magpie, a mid-size black bird that is a member of the crow family. The Mapgie was a portent of evil. If the Magpie called your name, you were doomed to an ill fate. In short, the Native Americans believe the mesa to be a truly evil place and the gateway to the demon realm.

Long before European settlers ever arrived in the area, an ancient people called the Anasazi settled there. For generation upon generation, they lived and died in the Sangre de Cristo Mountain country, in the canyons and along the banks of the Cimarron River. Then, about 900 years ago, they suddenly vanished. Archeologists have discovered hints that their demise was sudden and extremely violent. Some evidence suggests that many people were tortured.

Were the Anasazi attacked by a rival tribe? Did they turn on each other? Or can their death be attributed to supernatural forces?

The Navajo, who settled the area long after the Anasazi disappeared, began to sense evil spirits among the rocks, rivers and trees. Slowly, they tracked the spirits to Urraca Mesa, where they believe a gateway to the demon world exists. They believe that the eye in the skull area is a portal to the fifth dimension (the Native American version of Hell). Navajo Medicine Men have studied the petroglyphs and lore of the area and have come to the conclusion that a huge battle was fought atop the mesa between the Anasazi and the forces of darkness. The entire tribe entered the gateway to force back the evil spirits, while the most powerful shaman sealed the gateway with four (or six) powerful cat totems. The cats are said to scare away the Magpies who can open the portal. It is said that when the last of the cat totems fall or vanish, the gateway will reopen and hell on earth will be unleashed. Today, only two of the cat totems remain standing – the others have disappeared.

Visitors to this unhappy place have had some unusual experiences … creatures following them, strange voices and sounds the echo out of the night, and an eerie sensation of being watched or followed. Many people have seen a large blue ball of light floating over the mesa. When the ball of light is approached, many claim to see the figure of a Native American shaman within. One hiker, crossing the mesa at night, saw a hairless, humanoid-shaped creature, and short while later, a human figure limed in blue light. Native Americans claim the spirit of the shaman who closed the portal, guards it still, bathed in a blue nimbus.

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?


Sources & Bibliography:,,

Spider Woman and the Holy Ones

An amazing story of the origins of the earth as told by the Navajo Nation peoples.

Spider Woman and the Holy Ones

Seen on the Navajo Nation official site.

Rock formations.Traditional stories of our elders were told to teach and entertain the children and grandchildren. Legends of the holy people like Spider Woman. She was first to weave her web of the universe and taught Diné (Navajo) to create beauty in their own life and spread the “Beauty Way” teaching of balance within the mind, body, & soul. In the creation stories of my elders, there are four worlds. Diné of today live in the fourth world, known as the “Glittering World”. The first world was black, where only land, air, water, and language existed. First the spirit holy ones were created and than the holy people, this creation was the most important event, which took place in the first world. The second world was known as the blue world of water, where air and land mammals were created. The holy ones gave life to Spider Woman & Spider Man. Only their inner spirits or souls were made. Their physical bodies were made later to contain their spirits, as all animate beings did, when they evolved into future worlds. In the third world the holy ones advised Spider Woman that she had the capabilities of weaving a map of the universe and the geometrical patterns of the spirit beings in the night sky. At first she did not know what they meant, and was not instructed how it should be done, but curiosity became her energy and driving force to weave her creations. On a beautiful day when she was out on the land, exploring and gathering food at the same time. She came upon a small young tree, which was just beginning to grow. She touched with her right hand and wrapped her fingers around one of the branches. When she released her right hand, a string was attached to the branch and it was streaming out from the middle of her palm. She was not quiet sure what it was, at first. She shook her hand to release the string, but it stayed attached to her hand. She thought the strings might detach if she kept wrapping it on the branch of the tree. She kept wrapping the string around the small extended branch and she became worried when she realized that she would run out of space on the first small extended tree branch.

There were so many strings on the small branch that it seemed it would break off, and then Spider Woman ran the string to another branch on the same tree. After doing this for awhile, she realized she was creating a pattern. She started maneuvering and manipulating the strings into various shapes. At this particular moment, she knew this was the weaving the holy people instructed her to do. Immediately she broke the string with her left hand without hesitation. She sat and thought carefully about how to use her new gift. For the rest of the day she sat close to the tree and wrapped the strings into various patterns on other branches of the small tree.

When she felt comfortable with her gift, she returned home with her gathered food and showed her newly acquired skill to her husband, Spider Man. After a period of time, Spider Woman began weaving within her home. The holy people heard about Spider Woman’s new talent and came to visit her. During the visit the holy ones instructed Spider Man to construct a weaving loom and also create the tools used in the various processes of weaving. Today, Diné (Navajo) men are the key makers of weaving looms and tools. With each tool created, a song, and a prayer were made and offered to Spider Man to use each time he created the tools, and this gave the tools a sense of purpose and unique life.

At this time Spider Woman began to sing the weaving song, given to her by the holy ones. The songs are empowering for the textiles, just as they are for the weaving tools. The tools were made from various trees. The weaving fork from the juniper tree, used to push the weft down, placing layers upon layers of weft, and thus creating a life. The sound of the weaving fork hitting the weft is considered the heartbeat sound of the textile. The weaving loom was made of the main trunk of a young juniper tree, with all the branches removed. It is made into two main supporting beam, which stand upright on the right and left sides of the loom frame, which represents the pillars holding up the sky and keeping the mother earth secure. The third beam is placed at the foot or base of the two pillars, which represent the earth on which we live. The forth beam is placed at the top, and represents the sunbeams and rainbows, protecting mother earth. It also represents the sky (atmosphere) and the universe. Diné men sang as they made the tools and weaving looms as instructed by Spider Man and Spider Woman, which were created in the fourth world, called the “Glittering World”.

The fourth world is where human beings were created, in the form of First man and First woman and inherited their physical bodies in a place called “Diné tah “. This place is considered to be the center of the world and a sacred place to Diné people. As children growing up at Spider Rock, Canyon De Chelly and Canyon Del Muerto, our grandmother would tell us of mischievous and disobedient children that were taken to Spider Woman and woven up in her tight weaving, after Talking God had spoken through the wind spirits to instruct Spider Woman on how to find and identify the bad little kids. Spider Woman would boil and eat the bad little kids, that is why there are white banded streaks at the top of Spider Rock, where the bones of the bad children still bleach the rocks to this day.

Today young weavers are instructed to find a spider web in the early morning dew glistening with sunlight and sparkles and place the palm of their right hand upon the spider’s webbing without destroying or damaging the web, and the gift of weaving will be transposed into the young weaver’s spirit forever.

Story by Adam Teller and Grandma Thompson

See more of the Navajo Nation here.

People of the Pueblo de Cochiti

Peter Romero’s home and people are a proud tradition.

Please visit their site for more information:

The Pueblo de Cochiti, (Cochiti), is located 55 miles north of Albuquerque, New Mexico and is contained within 53,779 acres of reservation land that sustains 1,175 Pueblo members according to the 1990 BIA census. Cochiti, the northernmost Keresan Pueblo in New Mexico, is located in Sandoval and Santa Fe Counties, approximately 13 miles northwest of Interstate 25 and 35 miles southwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The topographic elevation varies from 5300 to 6800 feet above mean sea level and is characterized by the Rio Grande, which flows through reservation lands.  The principal land use includes farming, livestock, recreational, economic development, and agricultural and Pueblo home/residential construction purposes.  The demographic breakdown includes: 880 acres for agricultural; 4,443 acres of lake areas and wild river Bosque/wetlands; 7,042 acres dedicated to economic development consisting of residential and commercial lease properties and a golf course; and 41,424 acres of rangeland, pinion/juniper woodlands and Pueblo and residential use lands.

The people of Cochiti continue to retain their native language of Keres.  They maintain their cultural practices and have instituted programs dedicated to teaching and educating the younger generation Pueblo traditions and cultural practices emphasizing the native language.  Cochiti is well known for their craftsmanship in making jewelry, pottery, (storyteller), and drums.

Water in the Rio Grande, flows through Pueblo lands and is intermittently stored behind Cochiti Dam, which at a maximum capacity stores 502,330 acre feet of water known as Cochiti Reservoir. Cochiti has recently developed a Farm Enterprise Plan, which included the restoration of large acreage’s of traditional farmland inundated by seepage caused by the storage of water behind Cochiti Dam.  The reclamation of these lands, in cooperation with the US Army Corps of Engineers, (COE), was completed in September of 1994.

The Santa Fe River which headwaters in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains east of Santa Fe NM flows downstream through Santa Fe NM, La Cienega, NM and finally into pueblo lands at the mouth of La Bajada Canyon.  The river flows through Pueblo lands and discharges into the Rio Grande several miles hence.

Historically, Cochiti has had no private employers or economic enterprises.  This was changed with the Pueblo’s acquisition of the Town of Cochiti Lake and the creation of Cochiti Community Development Corporation, (CCDC) in 1995.  The Town of Cochiti Lake was established under a 99-year lease agreement with private investors to establish residential housing units under a strict building code and relative covenants.  The property has been under the direct management of Cochiti since the early 1980’s and has been a primary revenue source for the community.

Of primary importance to the Pueblo de Cochiti are the land, air and water on and adjacent to the reservation, which is the lifeline of the Pueblo Traditions and Culture. The Pueblo is located in the heart of the traditional homeland and it would be impossible to retain peoples and culture if the environment is impacted to the point where the Cochiti decide the land is dangerous to utilize for habitat, farming, fishing, hunting, and maintaining Cultural Tradition.