Dark Tales of Native American Folklore

Thanksgiving is just around the corner for me and my fellow American readers, and with this holiday usually comes cartoonish depictions of Native Americans feasting beside pilgrims at a banquet celebrating their friendship. But though most Americans will spend this time of year stuffing themselves with turkey and cranberry sauce, probably few could name the specific tribe the Pilgrims encountered, let alone anything about their culture.

"The Friendly Skeleton" Painting by Richard Hook (First People website. Copyright Richard Hook)
“The Friendly Skeleton” Painting by Richard Hook (First People website. Copyright Richard Hook)

It’s important to remember that North America was inhabited by a variety of different peoples, each with their own rich culture and history long before the first European settlers arrived, though since that time they have faced discrimination and erasure. We also need to acknowledge that the stories and voices of these people are often left out not only from our history books, but also from our studies of literature. Oral story-telling has played a significant role in many of the cultures indigenous to America, and the folktales and legends passed down from generation to generation are part of a wide body of literature belonging to this underrepresented group. One of the things I hope to do with this blog is discuss the Gothic in wider terms than merely the most popular themes and works from the Western European tradition. A while back, I discussed some of the dark myths and monsters of the Jewish tradition. This week, I want to highlight some of the legends and tales from Native American folklore that I find most fascinating.

Rolling Heads

These particularly terrifying disembodied heads appear in the folklore of a number of different Native American tribes, including the Cheyenne, Ojibwe, Cree, and others. Usually depicted as either the victim or culprit of cannibalism, the head rolls menacingly along the ground toward its victims—either trying to consume more people or to take revenge on those that consumed it. In some of the most interesting tales, the rolling head is both victim and culprit, having discovered autocannibalism after licking a wound and proceeding to devour as much of its own body as it could reach. For an example of such an autocannibalistic rolling head, check out this Wintu legend from the First People website. The Iroquois have similar legends about flying heads, who also tend to cause whirlwinds—as if chasing after and eating people wasn’t enough.

Stone Giants (aka Flint Coats)

Giants are also prevalent throughout the different folkloric traditions of America, and like the Rolling Heads above, they tend to be associated with with eating humans. Iroquois legend tells of giants who are covered in thick armor-like coats of stone. In some versions of these tales the giants were once human, while in others they are descendants of a being who represents personified flint. Clever monster-slayers who figure out how to outsmart and defeat these armored Goliaths are a popular theme in Iroquois legend. You can read one such tale about a warrior named Skunny-Wundy here.

Mishipeshu (aka Water Panther/Great Lynx)

Pictograph of Mishibeshu from Lake Superior Provincial park, attributed to the Ojibwe. (Wikipedia)
Pictograph of Mishibeshu from Lake Superior Provincial park, attributed to the Ojibwe. (Wikipedia)

Mishipeshu (also referred to as Mishibeshu, Michibichi, and several other variations) is a supernatural being prominent in the legends of the Algonquin-speaking tribes that lived around the Great Lakes area prior to European contact. This frightening underwater creature is often described as blending the features of a big cat such as a tiger, lynx, or panther with those of a serpent. It also usually has some combination of fangs, horns, scales, spines, a long tail, and a feline head and claws. Mishipeshu resides in the deepest part of lakes and rivers, and may threaten or drown those who seek to cross. In some legends, a woman has hybrid children with Mishipeshu and he drowns an entire town that threatens his offspring. Mishipeshu is also strongly associated with the copper mines of the Great Lakes region and in some tales is described as guarding these copper deposits or even being made of the metal himself. The Milwaukee Public Museum’s collection of tales from the Ojibwe oral tradition includes a brief story called “The Underwater Panther” illustrating this connection to copper.

Ghost-witch (Skadegamutc)

The ghost-witch, also called skadegamutc or skudakumooch, features in the folklore of the Wabanaki tribes, such as the Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, and Abenaki. Reminiscent of the vampire of European folklore, the ghost-witch is an undead creature that rises at night to feast upon the living. It is thought to be created when an evil shaman dies and their body is free to reanimate at night. In many stories, the only way to kill a ghost-witch is to burn the body. You can read an Abenaki account of such a creature collected by the Native Languages website here.

Windigo (also spelled wendigo)

The windigo makes an appearance in this issue of a Marvel X-men comic.
The windigo makes an appearance in this issue of a Marvel X-men comic. (Wikipedia)

The windigo is perhaps one of the most well-known monsters from Native American legend, having appeared in pop culture from Marvel comics to movies and video games. These terrifying man-eating ice creatures appear in the legends of several Algonquin-speaking tribes such as the Cree and the Ojibwe. In many stories, the windigo was once a human but has been transformed into a massive and insatiable ice monster. When the wendigo is killed, the frozen body of the person it once was can be found inside. The windigo can be thought of as a personification of winter famine, and like many of the other humanoid man-eating creatures mentioned on this list, also helped to reinforce the taboo against cannibalism.You can read two brief stories about Windigos in the Milwaukee Public Museum’s collection of Ojibwe tales.

I hope you enjoyed these stories and maybe even learned something new. What other cultures might you be interested in hearing dark tales from? Let me know in the comments! And enjoy your Thanksgiving!

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