Monsters of the Wild West: Wendigo

There were a lot of monsters in the Old West, but let's start with the best-known: The wendigo. This monster from Algonquin folklore seems to be the one Western movies look to most often, appearing in "Ravenous" and "The Lone Ranger," as well as spilling over into broader popular culture. "Hannibal," as an example, had a wendigo-styled figure that haunted the show, visually representing the program's cannibalism.

There are a couple of ways Algonquin Indians thought about wendigos, depending on the tribe. The word is probably derived from a  Proto-Algonquian word meaning owl, but there wasn't much that was owl-like about the Wendigo. It was often a powerful, emaciated figure, sometimes a giant. It was generally cannibalistic, and associated with famine, and with winter, the time of famine. In traditions that had the Wendigo as a giant, rather than become full, the wendigo would grow larger with each person it ate, so it was always growing but always famished.

And then there were traditions, referenced in the film "Ravenous," in which the wendigo was a invasive spirit, possessing a person and giving them an uncontrollable urge toward cannibalism. This tradition is also associated with a disputed, culturally specific mental illness called wendigo psychosis, in which Algonquin Indians would find themselves with an unbearable craving for human flesh, even when other food was available. Some would commit suicide, some would turn to medicine men who had experience with wendigos, and some would simply go on rampages, killing and eating family and friends. Whether or not this was a true pyschosis, there are credible eyewitness accounts of this sort of behavior.

Wendigos, and wendigo hunters, appear in newspaper accounts, and are often quite horrifying. It should be noted that these accounts must be read with suspicion, as they were written by white journalists who often had limited experience with Native communities and subscribed to racist notions of the Native American experience.

There is, for example, a story from the San Francisco Bulletin from August 22, 1879, called "A Cure for Cannibalism. How the Indians Serve Suspected Man-Eaters." The story tells of an incident at Lac Seul in northwestern Ontario, in which an Indian who was suspected of cannibalism who was immediately cut to pieces by his fellow tribesmen and thrown into a fire. The article states that fear of wendigos is so pronounced among some Indian tribes that any suspicious behavior is liable to lead to fears that someone is possessed, culminating in their violent deaths.

The Bay City Daily Tribune tells a similar story from December 15, 1897, reprinting a story that was widely published that reported about an Indian man whose wife was suffering typhus, and who became convinced she was possessed by a wendigo, and so broke her neck to prevent her from cannibalizing others. He was arrested on a charge of murder, according to the story.

The Duluth News-Tribune reported a story of a wendigo suicide on October 28, 1899, telling the story of a chief at Cat Lake, Ontario, who became convinced he was possessed and insisted he be shot. His tribe debated for two days, then decided they were obligated to obey his demands. The chief retired to his tent, lay down, and indicated where he should be shot. One he was dead, his tribe burned his body for two days to be sure the wendigo was destroyed.

Perhaps the most notorious story is that of wendigo hunter Jack Fiddler, an Anishinaabe Indian from Ontario who, if his claims about his wendigo hunting are to be believed, was functionally a mass murderer. According to Fiddler, he and his brother Joseph were responsible for the death of 14 people who had been possessed by wendigos, including their own brother, Peter Flett. In most cases, Jack Fiddler, who was a respected chief and shaman, was asked by family members to kill a relative who was possessed or about to be possessed; in some cases the possessed person themselves asked to be euthanized.

Fiddler's wendigo-hunting came to an end in 1907 when two Mounties arrested him for the death of Joseph Fiddler's daughter-in-law the previous year. While they were hed for trial, Jack escaped and hanged himself; he was 87 years old. Joseph went to trial and was sentenced to death; the sentence was eventually reversed, but Joseph died before he was released.

This sort of story is tremendously complicated, especially if there actually was such a thing as wendigo psychosis. There were actual stories of madness and mass murder followed by cannibalism, especially during periods of famine. For example, there was a Cree Indian named Swift Runner in Central Alberta who killed and ate six family members.

With that story as an example, and with no mechanisms for addressing a psychosis that causes people to commit acts of mass murder and cannibalism, euthanizing people who showed signs of the psychosis might have seemed a reasonable recourse. And there are other tales of this sort of mass cannibalism.

There is, as an example, a story in the Pennsylvania Democrat and Sentinel from September 12, 1860, telling of a Saulteaux Indian who stumbled upon a dead woman and, near her, her 10-year-old son cooking pieces of her flesh over a fire; nearby, he found the body of the boy's father and four brothers, all likewise murdered and partially cannibalized. The boy was later hunted down and shot by his own uncle after fleeing into the woods.


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