In the Navajo community, witchcraft is viewed with the highest contempt and is a very serious crime. But the most volatile and dangerous of these witches is the yenaldlooshi, which when translated means “with it, he goes on all fours” or “he that walks like an animal.” Also known as the Mai-Coh or Limmikin, it is more commonly known by outsiders as the Skinwalker. These people are witches that shapeshift into animals using magic animal skins. These people are evil to the core, bent on nothing more than destroying the lives of those around them.
In order to become a Skinwalker, the witch must commit an unthinkable crime: murdering an immediate relative. This is a very serious taboo to the Navajo people, and is a terrible crime regardless of one’s cultural heritage. As was said earlier, the Skinwalker is evil to the core, most being homicidal and violent. The creature cares for nobody other than itself, and the Skinwalker most often kills out of greed, anger, envy, spite, or revenge. The creature resorts to grave robbery to increase its own personal wealth, as well as to collect much-needed ingredients for use in its own brand of black magic. Yet another common method of becoming wealthy used by Navajo witches is the unethical practice of fee-splitting. This is done when a Skinwalker causes a victim to become ill, and a healer (usually a witch himself) heals the victim. The healer is then paid, and the culprits then split the proceeds, each taking half of his or her share.
It is said that some particularly powerful Skinwalkers have the power to steal the skin or the body of a victim. By merely locking eyes with the intended victim, the Skinwalker can absorb that person into its body, effectively enabling the creature to become that person at will. This may be somewhat like hypnosis, and the stronger the victim’s will, the more difficult it is for the Skinwalker to take possession of the victim’s body. In theory, the absorption attempt may be able to be resisted, although only if the victim’s will is stronger than that of the Skinwalker. When the Skinwalker takes over a victim’s body, it takes complete control, making the victim say and do things that are completely beyond their ability to control. And all the while, the victim remains fully conscious and alert to the horrors being committed with their body, and all the while being helpless to stop it. Exactly how this is done isn’t really known.
However, the Skinwalker’s eyes may be the key to identifying the creature in its human form. The Skinwalker will avoid bright lights when it can, not because it causes the creature any harm, but because the eyes of a Skinwalker burn red like coals in a fire. When the Skinwalker is in animal form, its eyes do not glow at all. It is said that, in addition to being able to shapeshift, the Skinwalker is also able to control the creatures of the night and to make them do its bidding. Some Skinwalkers are necromancers, able to call up the spirits of the dead and to possibly reanimate the corpses of the recently dead to attack their enemies. The Navajo themselves absolutely refuse to touch a corpse, for fear of accidentally summoning the shade of the deceased or making oneself vulnerable to the Skinwalker’s dark magic.
Except for an animal skin, the Skinwalker prefers to go about naked, even in the dead of winter. Because of the Skinwalker’s choice of shapeshifting into predatory animals, wearing the skins of those particular animals is a major taboo, and is deeply frowned upon by the Navajo community. Wearing the hide of a sheep or a cow is acceptable, but if an individual should choose to wear the skin of a predator, he is liable to be accused of being a Skinwalker. The Skinwalker is also known for wearing the skulls of the animals it becomes in addition to their skin, which is said to bring additional power to the witch. Sometimes, the Skinwalker does not do evil of its own accord, but instead works under the will of another. Occasionally, a truly vile person will hire the Skinwalker to perpetrate some evil deed, for which the Skinwalker will be amply rewarded. When it comes down to punishing the Skinwalker if it is caught in the act (a rarity, indeed), Navajo law is very direct and straightforward when it comes to witchcraft: when a person becomes a witch, they immediately forfeit their humanity and their right to exist, and thus the Skinwalker can be killed without any legal or moral consequences.
The Skinwalker and most Navajo witches are usually active at night, when they are less likely to be seen and they may conduct their profane rituals in secrecy. These rituals are the Native American equivalent of the European Black Mass, which undoubtedly involves bloodletting, sex, and desecration of religious icons. Navajo witchcraft itself is known as the “Witchery Way,” in which the magic revolves around the use of human corpses in various concoctions that are designed to curse, harm, or even to kill an intended victim. The four basic ways of Navajo witchcraft are “Witchery, Sorcery, Wizardry, and Frenzy.” These ways have no connection to European witchcraft, but are merely additional pieces of Navajo spirituality. According to these beliefs, people must live in harmony with each other and the Earth. It also teaches that there are two types of beings: the Earth People (humans) and the Holy People. These entities are invisible spirit beings that have the ability to either help or harm people. The Navajo also take a spiritual approach to sickness, disease, and personal problems. These things are believed to be due to disorder within an individual’s life, and they can be remedied with prayer, singing, various herbs, help from a shaman, and traditional rituals. However, there is a dark side to the religion. While the shaman uses his knowledge to heal and to help his people, there are others (like the Skinwalker) who use witchcraft to direct and control supernatural forces in order to cause harm, misfortune, sickness, or death to others. But despite this, Navajo witchcraft is only another aspect of the Navajo religion as a whole.
In regards to magical practices, Skinwalkers are said to gather in small groups in dark caves in order to initiate new members, plot their activities, kill people from a distance with black magic, engage in necrophilia with female corpses, and to commit cannibalism, incest, and grave robbery. Here, they perform their dark ceremonial rites, which are blasphemous mockeries of traditional Navajo religious ceremonies. Instead of sprinkling pollen (which is sacred to the Navajo and is used for blessing), the Skinwalkers scatter dust made from the powdered bones of infants in order to curse their victims. The Skinwalkers use bows carved from human shinbones to attack their victims, while the arrows are made of hardwood and tipped with flint (the arrowheads themselves may be cursed). They also make traditional sand paintings using colored ash, upon which the Skinwalkers will spit, urinate, and defecate, profaning and desecrating the religious nature of these paintings, which are usually of their intended victims. The leader of the Skinwalkers is usually an old man, perhaps a very powerful and long-lived Skinwalker. A small feast may take place, during which the participants eat coyotes and owls, as well as a type of ground-up blue lizard. As stated earlier, the Skinwalker goes about naked, wearing only beaded jewelry and ceremonial paint. All the while, they sit around in a circle and walk or run on all fours, singing or howling like wolves.
The Navajo themselves fear the Skinwalker so much that they are very hesitant to speak with outsiders about these creatures, and absolutely refuse to speak about it at night. One might suppose that this is a variation of the phrase “Speak of the Devil, and he shall appear.” The Navajo fear any consequences or attacks from the Skinwalker in retaliation for allowing outsiders to meddle in their affairs. In regards as to how the Skinwalker actually chooses to attack its victims, the methods are both numerous and terrible. It may choose to bite and claw the victim to death in its animal form, but the Skinwalker is usually far more subtle. At times, the Skinwalker will try to break into a home in order to frighten, harm, or kill the inhabitants. Each Navajo home (called a hogan) has a small opening in the thatched roof to provide ventilation. The Skinwalker takes advantage of this by making use of a deadly dust, known as corpse powder, made from dried and powdered human remains. The corpse powder may be sprinkled through these holes, causing grave sickness and eventual death to those dwelling within. If this powder is blown into a victim’s face, it causes the tongue to turn black and to begin swelling, followed by convulsions, paralysis, and the eventual death of the victim. It is said that the corpses of children, especially twins, are the best source for this powder.
The Skinwalker may make strange sounds, like banging on the walls, knocking on the windows, and scraping noises on the roof. These noises are all signs that the Skinwalker is out and about, trying to gain the attention of its victim. Rarely, an animalistic, beastlike figure may be seen standing outside of a window, looking inside with glowing red or yellow eyes and a fanged snarl on its face. This ferocious creature (possibly the Skinwalker’s man-beast form) will attack vehicles in hopes of causing a serious or even fatal accident. The Skinwalker is described as being extremely fast, agile, and impossible to catch. Attempting to shoot or otherwise kill the Skinwalker is usually unsuccessful, and the Skinwalker itself may even seek revenge for the attempt on its life.
According to Navajo legend, the Skinwalker has the power to read human thoughts, allowing it to use the victim’s own fears and secrets against them. The Skinwalker has the ability to control the minds of its victims, forcing them to comply with whatever the Skinwalker may have in mind. The Skinwalker is also able to mimic any human or animal sounds it chooses, perhaps using the voice of a loved one to lure a potential victim out of his or her home. It may also use this ability to distract homeowner so that it may steal property (like livestock) or to escape. The Skinwalker is adept in the use of black magic, using charms, chants, and spells to induce supernatural fear into its chosen victims, so that it may manipulate them into doing the Skinwalker’s bidding. It may use this ability to induce fear to curse its victims or even to kill them. It is possible that the Skinwalker’s very presence induces supernatural fear into both people and animals. The Skinwalker has a wide variety of weapons at its disposal, in addition to the human shinbone bows and arrows mentioned earlier. One of the most potent of these is a tiny bone pellet, which is fired from a blowgun into a victim’s body. These pellets imbed themselves into the skin without leaving so much as a mark, and afterwards causes sickness, social misfortune, and eventual death. Bone dust, once again made from ground-up infant bones, induces bodily paralysis and eventual heart failure. Another spell that the Skinwalker uses to kill is done by acquiring some of its victim’s hair, wrapping it around a potshard, and placing it into a tarantula’s hole. Live rattlesnakes may be released into the victim’s dwelling or his bed, causing him to grow sick and die from the rattlesnake’s bite. The Skinwalker also loves to cause trouble between the world of the living and the realm of the dead. The Skinwalker digs up a corpse, severs a finger or another small body part, and hides it inside the home of the intended victim. The ghost of the deceased will rise from the grave in search of its missing body part, and will then haunt whoever possesses it. The home’s owners will be both confused and terrified as to why this is happening to them.
The Skinwalker is notoriously hard to kill, and defeating one requires the assistance of a powerful shaman, who knows spells and rituals that can turn the Skinwalker’s evil back upon itself. These medicine men charge an exorbitant fee for their services, but most victims are more than willing to pay after being unduly harassed by the Skinwalker. As for more mundane means, attempting to shoot or otherwise kill one of these creatures is usually unsuccessful, as the Skinwalker can use its magic to make guns jam, and can even stop the bullets in mid-air. Even if the bullets do hit the Skinwalker, they may not have any effect whatsoever. However, if the creature actually is wounded by chance and manages to escape, a similar wound will appear on the Skinwalker’s human form. In the Werewolf folklore of Europe, this phenomenon is known as sympathetic wounding. This leaves the creature clearly marked and makes it vulnerable to discovery, and will be dealt with according to tradition. If one knows who the Skinwalker truly is, he must say “(name of the accused), you are a Skinwalker.” The witch will fall sick and die within three days time. Similarly, if a Skinwalker is captured and the news is broadcast, the witch will die within a year.
The only way to kill a Skinwalker, according to Navajo legend, is to shoot the creature with bullets that have been dipped into white ash (although some legends say that silver will work as well). The bullets themselves must be hollowpoints, which are filled with white ash and then sealed with melted wax. Even then, the Skinwalker must be shot through the neck while the witch is in animal form. The bullet will strike the Skinwalker’s real head, and any shot that is aimed elsewhere will pass harmlessly through the body. It is said that, if wounded, the Skinwalker will bleed a yellow liquid instead of blood. However, there is a way to defeat the Skinwalker without actually killing the creature, although if the attempt is successful, it will surely prompt the witch’s revenge. The Skinwalker is able to speak while in animal form, but it will not willingly do so because it may cause the witch to permanently lose his powers. If one could trick the creature into speaking while in animal form, it will reassume its human form and will be unable to shapeshift ever again.
It is said that sometimes the Skinwalker is invisible to human eyes, but it will leave tracks that are larger than those of any natural beast. It is very bad luck to cross over a Skinwalker’s tracks if the creature is in front of them – one must step over them. As well as the creature’s eyes, the Skinwalker can be distinguished from a real animal in that its tail hangs down and moves constantly, while their ears move up and down constantly as well. The Skinwalker’s eyes, as well as glowing when the creature is in human form and vice-versa in animal form, are seen as mere slits in their masks. Against the Skinwalker’s poison, the gall of an eagle, a bear, or a mountain lion are the best remedies. Sweats will help rid oneself of the fear of Skinwalkers.
Arnold, Neil. Monster! The A-Z of Zooform Phenomena. Great Britain: CFZ Press. Copyright ©2007 by CFZ Press.
Brown, Nathan Robert. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Werewolves. New York: Penguin Group, Inc (USA). Copyright ©2009 by Nathan Robert Brown.
Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. The Encyclopedia of Vampires, Werewolves, and Other Monsters. New York: Facts on File, Inc. Copyright ©2005 by Visionary Living, Inc.
Hall, Jamie. Half Human, Half Animal: Tales of Werewolves and Related Creatures. Bloomington, Indiana: 1st Books Library. Copyright ©2003 by Jamie Hall.
Kluckhohn, Clyde. Navajo Witchcraft. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press Books. Copyright ©1944 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
Kriss, Marika. Werewolves, Shapeshifters, and Skinwalkers (For the Millions Series). Los Angeles, California: Sherbourne Press, Inc. Copyright ©1972 by Marika Kriss.
O’Brien, Christopher. Stalking the Tricksters: Shapeshifters, Skinwalkers, Dark Adepts, and 2012. Kempton, Illinois: Adventures Unlimited Press. Copyright ©2009 by Christopher O’Brien.
Kelleher, Colm and George Knapp. "Skinwalkers - What Are They?" Rense.com. August 9, 2007. Accessed on February 25, 2017. <http://www.rense.com/general77/skin.htm>