The Legends Of The Navajo Skinwalkers

By Karen Harris

Navajo Indian, dressed in spruce branches rather than animal pelts. Source: (Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

Legends of the Navajo skinwalkers: terrifying mythical creatures from folklore (or "cryptids) that are human, but can take the form of hideous beasts. And this dates back to hundreds of years before Stephenie Meyer enthralled the world with what she got rich doing. The Native American shapeshifting skinwalkers were frightening beings of pure evil and, perhaps, served as a cautionary tale against dabbling in the spiritual unknown. Here are some of the facts about the Navajo skinwalkers, and some things you may not have, or just didn't, know. It's okay, that's why we're here.

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Like werewolves, but with bears too

Like the European stories of werewolves, the Navajo skinwalkers are cursed humans who can transform into other creatures, mostly wolves, bears, and birds of prey. They were known as Yee Naaldlooshii, which translates to “with it, he goes on all fours.” Stories of the skinwalkers tell us that they are often shaman who cross over to the dark side by participating in secret, forbidden rituals and ceremonies that summon evil forces that allow him to take the form of different predatory animals. The lure of the evil forces is so strong that many shamans remain in their animal form for too long and lose their humanity, leaving them a dangerous, bloodthirsty hybrid. 

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A secret society of skinwalkers

The Navajo stories explain that the skinwalkers belong to a secret society of evil shamans who could be living normal lives among the tribe by day, but meet in hidden caves in the night to participate in wicked, twisted rituals that break the Navajo societal norms, including: cannibalism, incest, and desecrating graves. Leading these rituals is the leader of the skinwalkers. He is typically an old, but powerful man. 

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Initiating the skinwalkers

The skinwalkers were an exclusive club. To become a skinwalker, the shaman had to prove that he was worthy. The initiation into the skinwalkers' secret society actually involved killing a close family member. Only then could they acquire the great supernatural abilities that they craved. 

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Wearing skins

The skinwalkers, according to the Navajo legends, could take the shape of any animal just by wearing its skin. For this reason, the Navajo people had a strict policy against wearing animal pelts. The tribe only wears sheepskin and buckskin—because these come from non-dangerous, non-predatory animals—and these skins are only worn during ceremonial events. Skinwalkers, on the other hand, regularly wear the pelts of wolves, coyotes, bear, cougars, and fox. They will even wear animal skulls and antlers on their heads. 

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The frightening abilities of the skinwalkers

As shapeshifters, skinwalkers could take the form of any animal they wanted, not just the ones whose skins they wore. A good skinwalker could turn himself into a hawk or a cow or a dog. In addition, skinwalkers could transform themselves into any person they wanted, stealing the faces and identities of others to win the confidence of their victims. Some Navajo tales explain that a skinwalker who took the form of another tribe member could be discovered by looking in his animal-like eyes. But it was ill-advised to look into the eyes of a skinwalker. They could take control of another person’s thoughts and actions by simply locking eyes with them. Skinwalkers could move very quickly and showed incredible endurance. Some stories tell of skinwalkers running more than 200 miles in a single night. 

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Evil deeds

Skinwalkers were responsible for murders, animal attacks, and disappearances among the Navajo people. Sicknesses and unexplained deaths were also attributed to the presence of skinwalkers. Skinwalkers terrorized humans with nighttime noises and by chasing lone individuals away from the villages. 

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Stopping a skinwalker

The Navajo legends say that one cannot fight evil with evil. The only way to stop a skinwalker is to learn his true identity and then to call him by his full name. This dose of reality is enough for the skinwalker to stop his evil ways. He will then have to face to the wrong that he inflicted on others, which is often enough to get the skinwalker eventually killed. 

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Skinwalkers today

Most Navajo people still believe in skinwalkers, though most that do are reluctant to talk about them. The fear of skinwalkers still manifests in the Navajo way of life. Very few Navajo people will venture outside at night alone. Sighting of strange, unexplained creatures have been attributed to skinwalkers, even to this day. Modern, creepy skinwalkers often appear in secluded roadways late at night and try to get drivers to swerve and crash their cars. Other reports claim that skinwalkers have been seen leaping over moving cars or running alongside fast-moving cars on desolate freeways. 

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Karen Harris


Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.