In some Native American traditions (Navajo, Hopi, Mohawk...) the skin-walker or yeenaaldlooshii is a human who is able to shapeshift into various animal forms through witchcraft. Skin-walkers are generally considered frightening, evil, dangerous, and difficult to kill.
Yeenaeldooshi means literally "with it, he goes on all fours" in the Navajo language. The Mohawk Indian word "limikkin" is sometimes used to describe all skin-walkers.
A skinwalker is usually described as naked, except for a coyote skin, or wolf skin. Some Navajos describe them as a mutated version of the animal in question. The skin may just be a mask, like those which are the only garment worn in the witches' sing. The skinwalkers are described as being fast, agile, and impossible to catch. Though some attempts have been made to shoot or kill one, they are not usually successful.
Skin-walkers sometimes transform themselves into animals simply for the purpose of traversing great distances quickly. They may also transform in order to wreak havoc on others, as their identity will be hidden and they will be able to escape quickly if necessary.
A skin-walker typically wears the pelt of the animal he or she will transform into, usually with no other clothing. Because of their association with skin-walkers, wild animal hides are taboo in Navajo culture and rarely seen.
"They curse people and cause great suffering and death," one Navajo writer explained. "At night, their eyes glow red like hot coals. It is said that if you see the face of a Naagloshii, they have to kill you. If you see one and know who it is, they will die. If you see them and you don't know them, they have to kill you to keep you from finding out who they are. They use a mixture that some call corpse powder, which they blow into your face. Your tongue turns black and you go into convulsions and you eventually die. They are known to use evil spirits in their ceremonies. The Dine' have learned ways to protect themselves against this evil and one has to always be on guard."
- Like the werewolf, the skin-walker is a shape-shifter, human at times, and at other times taking on the aspect of an animal, usually at night. In its animal form, a skin-walker may be virtually anything, including a wolf, coyote, fox, bear, owl, or crow. Although skin-walkers may have a favorite form that they customarily use, they have the power to become anything they wish. In animal form, a skin-walker is very fast and impossible to catch.
- According to Navajo legend, skinwalkers can have the power to read human thoughts. They also possess the ability to make any human or animal noise they choose. A skinwalker may use the voice of a relative or the cry of an infant to lure victims out of the safety of their homes.
- Both humans and animals can easily tell a skin-walker from a real animal, as the skin-walker is unable to move completely naturally in animal form. For some unexplainable reason even a well seasoned skinwalker cannot obtain the perfect animal gait or leave the proportionally correct sized animal tracks.
- A skin-walker can only be defeated if one can discover his or her human identity. This is possible if the skin-walker is tracked back to his or her home, or, in some stories, if a skin-walker is wounded and the same injury is later noted on a human. It is said that if a Navajo was to know the person behind the skinwalker they had to pronounce the full name by saying, "[Name], you are a skin-walker !". And about three days later that person would either get sick or die for the wrong that they have committed.
- While it is virtually impossible to kill a skin-walker in human form, there are magical ways to protect oneself and even to kill a skin-walker. Traditional faith healers can perform ceremonies to protect one from the danger of skin-walkers, or a person going out at night can cover his or her body with corn pollen, cedar ash, or juniper berries. " If a person discovers the human identity of a skin-walker, he or she can kill the witch
Similar creatures can be found in numerous cultures' lores all over the world, closely related to beliefs in werewolves (also known as lycanthropes) and other "were" creatures (which can be described as therianthropes). While the skin-walker is known mainly from Navajo folklore, analogies exist in the mythology of other tribes, including the Mohawk, Hopi, and Aztecs. The Yaqui have a similar creature they call Morea-kame. this is a person who practices witchcraft or what we might ball black magic. These creatures also change shape, appearing as animals or even as ghosts. They kill using their thoughts or the evil eye.
- A Yeenaaldlooshii is one of several varieties of Navajo witch (specifically an ’ánt’iihnii or practitioner of the Witchery Way, as opposed to a user of curse-objects (’adagash) or a practitioner of Frenzy Way (’azhitee)). Technically, the term refers to an ’ánt’iihnii who is using his (rarely her) powers to travel in animal form. The ’ánt’iihnii are human beings who have gained supernatural power by breaking a cultural taboo. Specifically, a person is said to gain the power to become a Yeenaaldlooshii upon initiation into the Witchery Way. Both men and women can become ’ánt’iihnii and therefore possibly skinwalkers, but men are far more numerous. It is generally thought that only childless women can become witches.
- Yenaldlooshi gain power by killing a close relative, sometimes even a sibling. They are known to desecrate sand paintings by urinating, spitting, & defecating on them. They also practice cannibalism and necrophilia. Yenaldlooshi are also said to be able to create a pollen from ground human infant bones that when sprinkled on sleeping Navajo families, causes sickness, social problems, & death.
- Although it is most frequently seen as a coyote, wolf, owl, fox, or crow, the Yeenaaldlooshii is said to have the power to assume the form of any animal they choose, depending on what kind of abilities they need. Witches use the form for expedient travel, especially to the Navajo equivalent of the 'Black Mass', a perverted sing (and the central rite of the Witchery Way) used to curse instead of to heal. They also may transform to escape from pursuers.
- Some Navajo also believe that skinwalkers have the ability to steal the "skin" or body of a person. The Navajo believe that if you lock eyes with a skinwalker they can absorb themselves into your body. It is also said that skinwalkers avoid the light and that their eyes glow like an animal's when in human form and when in animal form their eyes do not glow as an animal's would.
- Because animal skins are used primarily by skinwalkers, the pelt of animals such as bears, coyotes, wolves, and cougars are strictly tabooed. Sheepskin and buckskin are probably two of the few hides used by Navajos, the latter is used only for ceremonial purposes.
- Some tribes believe that skinwalkers can use the spit, hair, or shoes and old clothing of a person to make curses that will attack that specific person. For this reason many Navajo will never spit or leave shoes outside. They also take great care to see that any hair or nail clippings are burned.
In ancient Hopi culture there was a ritual ceremony once performed called the Ya Ya Ceremony. In this ceremony members would change themselves into various animals using the hide from the animal they chose, and the members use certain animal attributes like sight, strength,etc. The ceremony was banned after members developed a disease of the eyes.
- In Norse folklore, a skin-walker is a person who can travel in the shape of an animal and learn secrets, or take on certain characteristics of an animal. The person is then said to be wearing that animal's hide. The most well-known example of the latter is the warrior who takes on the strength and stamina of a bear, called "bear shirt" or ber sarkur, the origins of the word berserker; similarly, there were wolf-based warriors, called ulfheðnar or "wolf-coats". They were said, aside from the battle-rage the animal spirit granted, to have the ability to send out their soul in the form of their animal, in a practice called hamfarir or "shape-journey".
- According to Mythology, the Norse hero Sigmund and his son Sinfiolti became Skinwalkers for a short time, discovering two magic wolf skins that turned them into wolves when they put them on. When they became overcome by their animal instincts and began fighting over meat, Sigmund almost killed his son and so they decided to burn the skins.
- The use of an animal shape for other purposes was considered unholy, and people accused of having such abilities were frequently cast out or summarily executed. Females so charged got off more lightly.
One story told on the Navajo reservation in Arizona concerns a woman who delivered newspapers in the early morning hours. She claims that, during her rounds, she heard a scratching on the passenger door of her vehicle. Her baby was in the car seat next to her. The door flung open and she saw the horrifying form of a creature she described as half-man, half-beast, with glowing red eyes and a gnarly arm that was reaching for her child. She fought it off, managed to pull the door closed, then pounded the gas pedal and sped off. To her horror, she says, the creature ran along with the car and continued to try to open the door. It stayed with her until she screeched up to an all-night convenience store. She ran inside, screaming and hysterical, but when the store employee dashed outside, the being had vanished. Outsiders may view the story skeptically, and any number of alternative explanations might be suggested, but it is taken seriously on the Navajo reservation.
Although skinwalkers are generally believed to prey only on Native Americans, there are recent reports from Anglos claiming they had encountered skinwalkers while driving on or near tribal lands.
Once Caucasian family still speaks in hushed tones about its encounter with a skinwalker, even though it happened in 1983. While driving at night along Route 163 through the massive Navajo Reservation, the four members of the family felt that someone was following them. As their truck slowed down to round a sharp bend, the atmosphere changed, and time itself seemed to slow down. Then something leaped out of a roadside ditch at the vehicle.
"It was black and hairy and was eye level with the cab," one of the witnesses recalled. "Whatever this thing was, it wore a man's clothes. It had on a white and blue checked shirt and long pants. Its arms were raised over its head, almost touching the top of the cab. It looked like a hairy man or a hairy animal in man's clothing, but it didn't look like an ape or anything like that. Its eyes were yellow and its mouth was open."
The father described as a fearless man who had served two tours in Vietnam, turned completely white, the blood drained from his face. The hair on his neck and arms stood straight up, like a cat under duress, and noticeable goose bumps erupted from his skin. Although time seemed frozen during this bizarre interlude, the truck continued on its way, and the family was soon miles down the highway.
A few days later, at their home in Flagstaff, the family awoke to the sounds of loud drumming. As they peered out their windows, they saw the dark forms of three "men" outside their fence. The shadowy beings tried to climb the fence to enter the yard but seemed inexplicably unable to cross onto the property. Frustrated by their failed entry, the men began to chant in the darkness as the terrified family huddled inside the house.
The story leaves several questions unanswered. If the beings were skinwalkers, and if skinwalkers can assume animal form or even fly, it isn't clear why they couldn't scale a fence. It is also not known whether the family called the police about the attempted intrusion by strangers.
The daughter, Frances, says she contacted a friend, a Navajo woman who is knowledgeable about witchcraft. The woman visited the home, inspected the grounds, and offered her opinion that the intruders had been skinwalkers who were drawn by the family's "power" and that they had intended to take that power by whatever means necessary. She surmised that the intrusion failed because something was protecting the family, while admitting that it was all highly unusual since skinwalkers rarely bother non-Indians. The Navajo woman performed a blessing ceremony at the home. Whether the ceremony had any legitimacy or not, the family felt better for it and has had no similar experiences in the ensuing years.
- The first skin-walker film is The Werewolf, a 1913 lost film.
- Skinwalkers (1986) is also the title of a mystery novel by Tony Hillerman.
- A skin walker is the villain in the movie Shadowhunter (1993).
- Skinwalkers were mentioned in the movie Arizona Werewolf, a version of which retitled Werewolf was shown on Mystery Science Theater 3000.
- Skin-walkers feature prominently in Thunderhead (1999) a novel by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.
- There is a 2002 TV movie called Skinwalkers, based on Hillerman's novel.
- Skinwalker is also the title of a 2003 comic book published by Oni Press written by Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir with art by Brian Hurtt.
- Skin Walker (2004), stars Roxana Zal, RuPaul and Joey Buttafuoco
- Skinwalker: Curse of the Shaman (2005), shows two college student investigating an Indian curse.
- There is also a 2007 film also entitled Skinwalkers.
- In the television series Smallville, one episode was titled "Skin Walker". It involved a Native American female with the ability to change into a white wolf. She attacked people working on sacred land to protect it. The source of her power was the exposure of her ancestors to Kryptonite (in Smallville parlance meteor rocks) by Kryptonian visitors to Earth in pre-historic times.
- In the Ben 10 episode Benwolf, an alien werewolf is believed to be a Navajo werewolf.
- The protagonist, Mercedes ("Mercy") Thompson, in Patricia Briggs' novel, Moon Called (2006) and its sequels, is a skinwalker with the ability to change into a coyote.
- In Supernatural, Dean and Sam mention skinwalkers during the episode 'Skin', associating them with other shapeshifters and agreeing that all such creatures can be killed by a silver bullet to the heart.
- Birds of the Feathe, the first aired episode of the television series The Dresden Files, features a villain referred to as a skinwalker.
- A song entitled "Skinwalker" appears on the 1994 Robbie Robertson album, Music for the Native Americans.e.
- The book Kitty Takes a Holiday' by Carrie Vaughn features two skinwalkers that follow the Native American superstition that one must kill a member of the immediate family to become a skinwalker.
- Wall, Leon and William Morgan, Navajo-English Dictionary. (Hippocrene Books, New York City, 1998 ISBN 0-7818-0247-4)
- Brady, M.K., Some Kind of Power: Navaho Children's Skinwalker Narratives. (University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, 1984 ISBN 0-87480-238-5)
- Marika, K.. Werewolves, Shapeshifters and Skinwalkers. (Sherbourne Press, Los Angeles, 1972)
- Teller, J. The Navajo Skinwalker, Witchcraft, & Related Spiritual Phenomena: Spiritual Clues: Orientation to the Evolution of the Circle. Infinity Horn Publishing, Chinle AZ, 1997 ISBN 0-9656014-0-4)
- Kluckhohn, Clyde. Navaho Witchcraft. , Boston, 1944. Library of Congrezzss cat. No. 62-13533zz