Wendigo is a mythological creature or evil spirit that originates from the folklore of Plains and Great Lakes Natives as well as some First Nations. It is based in and around the East Coast forests of Canada, the Great Plains region of the United States, and the Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada.
The wendigo is a malevolent, cannibalistic, supernatural being that invokes feelings of insatiable greed, hunger, and murder in those that fall under its influence. It is also associated with winter, coldness, famine, and starvation.
The word wendigo appears in many Native American languages, and has many alternative translations. The source of the English word is the Ojibwe word wiindigoo. In the Cree language it is wīhtikow, also transliterated wetiko. Other transliterations include Wiindigoo, Weendigo, Windego, Wiindgoo, Windgo, Windago, Windiga, Wendego, Windagoo, Widjigo, Wiijigoo, Wijigo, Weejigo, Wìdjigò, Wintigo, Wentigo, Wehndigo, Wentiko, Windgoe, Wītikō, and Wintsigo. The Proto-Algonquian term has been reconstructed as *wi·nteko·wa, which may have meant “owl”.
The wendigo is part of the traditional belief system of a number of Algonquian-speaking peoples, including the Ojibwe, the Saulteaux, the Cree, the Naskapi, and the Innu. Although descriptions can vary somewhat, common to all these cultures is the view that the wendigo is a malevolent spirit that possesses human beings and turns them into cannibals.
The legend of the wendigo may have originated as a way to explain cases of cannibalism among people who were driven to extreme hunger by harsh winters or famine. It may also have served as a warning against greed and selfishness.
Some anthropologists and psychologists have suggested that there is a form of psychosis known as “Wendigo psychosis”, which is characterized by symptoms such as an intense craving for human flesh and an intense fear of becoming a cannibal. Wendigo psychosis is described as a culture-bound syndrome that occurs only among certain Native American groups. However, some scholars have disputed the existence and validity of this diagnosis.
Some legends say the wendigo is an emaciated figure with ashen flesh. Others describe it as a giant creature up to 15 feet (4.5 meters) tall or as a beast that grows larger the more it eats. It may have sunken or glowing eyes and sharp yellowed fangs and claws. Its lips are chewed or entirely missing because it has eaten them. It may be hairless or have fur, and it may have pointed ears and horns or antlers like a deer. It smells of rotting flesh and is usually first detected by humans by its horrible odor.
Wendigos are believed to have exceptionally sharp eyesight, hearing, and sense of smell as well as superior strength and speed in order to stalk and overpower their victims. They live in colder climates among the woodlands and lakes of Canada and the northern United States. They can move easily through deep snow and across ice. A shaman may be the only person who can subdue and destroy a wendigo, using either a silver bullet or a dagger. Some legends claim the wendigo’s heart must be cut out and melted or burned in a fire before its spirit is truly vanquished.
The wendigo is sometimes described as a spirit rather than a physical presence. In Cree mythology, for example, the wendigo is believed to be an evil spirit that possesses humans. The spirit enters a person by biting him or her or through a dream. The possessed person becomes cannibalistic or otherwise deranged or violent. Some people are believed to be more susceptible to becoming possessed by a wendigo than others; those who are greedy or gluttonous as well as those who are suffering from hunger or starvation are more likely to fall prey to its influence. Some First Nations communities also believe that other symptoms such as insatiable greed and destruction of the environment are also signs of Wendigo psychosis.
There are many stories and legends about encounters with wendigos among different Native American tribes.
One of the most famous stories is that of Swift Runner (Ka-Ki-Si-Kutchin), a Cree trapper who lived near Fort Saskatchewan in Alberta in 1878-1879. He was accused of murdering his entire family (his wife and six children) during a winter famine and eating their flesh. He claimed he was possessed by a wendigo spirit that made him do it. He was arrested by Canadian authorities and hanged for his crimes in 1879 at Fort Saskatchewan.
Another well-known story is that of Jack Fiddler (Zhaunagush), an Oji-Cree chief and shaman who lived near Sandy Lake in Ontario in 1907-1909. He claimed he had killed at least 14 people who were either possessed by wendigos or were about to turn into one due to starvation or illness. He said he did this to protect his community from their evil influence. He was arrested by Canadian authorities along with his brother Joseph Fiddler (Pesequan) for murder in 1907 at Norway House in Manitoba.
Jack Fiddler escaped from custody but died shortly after; Joseph Fiddler was tried and sentenced to life imprisonment but was granted a pardon after public outcry.
There are also many other stories about people who encountered wendigos in various forms; some survived while others perished.