Driving down a dark quiet highway in Southern Manitoba, a man sees someone bent over on the side of the road. Turning on his high beams, he slows down and rolls down the passenger side window. His pick-up truck crawls by what looks like a man, hunched over. About to call out to this stranger on the side of the road, it turns to look at the truck.
The driver, in shock, looked into the creature’s eyes. Empty sockets full of darkness met his gaze. The face was inhuman. Dead. It rose to seven or eight feet in height. Thin long limbs, gangly and dark. It was not a helpless stranger on the side of the road. It was something else. Something evil. A second went by, maybe two. It turned towards the truck, and moved towards it. The driver, perhaps motivated by adrenaline or some innate knowledge, was milliseconds quicker and hit the gas. The engine roared as he accelerated away. Looking in his rear view mirror, he could see nothing but darkness behind him. As far as he could tell, he got away.
This witness is one of many. Something lurks in the wilderness across Canada, and according to the various mythologies and cosmologies of the indigenous people who have existed in Canada since time immemorial, that something is very real.
There is a common problem when it comes to these stories, however. Most of us who discuss such things are caught in a precarious situation. We tell stories that are foreign to us. They are not of our tongue. It is no secret that the vast majority of paranormal and UFO researchers, cryptozoologists, ghost hunters, esoteric writers, and filmmakers are non-indigenous. To be blunt, the vast majority of us, myself included, are Caucasian. Yet, there we are, telling stories of Windigos and Skinwalkers, Sasquatch and Sky People. We talk of haunted hotels built upon “old Indian burial grounds” or ranches which sit on sacred or cursed tribal land. We use tropes and stereotypes. We culturally appropriate the stories of people whose language we do not speak, nor can even begin to ideologically understand.
We, as a community of researchers interested in such subjects, must be cautious. We do not have rights to these stories, nor are they ours. We borrow them and, at times, attempt to profit from them. We translate them in order to make them ours. With every translation and appropriation, something is lost and broken in the process. When we express these ideas, the words we use do not translate into the words from which the stories come. We mythologize and bastardize the stories, as well as the people who speak them. To be blunt, and I will only speak for myself, though I am not alone in this, such stories are not mine to tell.
I live in a land that is not mine. The monsters and spirits which roam in it are not mine either. These are things of a language and universe far removed from mine, yet they exist near me. I am only a mile away from that dark highway which played a temporary haunt for a monster, and it leaves me wondering; even though that creature is not a part of my heritage, can it still hunt me?
The teller of that story expressed to me that the creature witnessed was a Windigo, the evil spirit and beast of Algonquin mythology. I decided to dig deeper. I contacted Dr. Grace Dillon, a professor of Indigenous Nations Studies, at Portland State University. She not only is an expert on the Windigo, she is also Anishinaabe, which is the specific cultural and linguistic group of the Ojibway, the original peoples who lived upon the land where this sighting occurred.
There is a general oversimplification of the Windigo amongst non-indigenous peoples. It is generally viewed, similar to the Skinwalker, as a person or beast who has been corrupted by an evil spirit or force. It consumes human flesh and is never satisfied. However, there is much more nuance, and much of it cultural. Dr. Dillon explained that,
“For us, the wiindigo ("Nish” version) and/or whetiko (Cree version), is an entity to be quite cautious about and has proven to be altogether too real for many of us, whether we have direct personal experience with it or not…It is not mythology to us, although many Native, First Nations and Indigenous peoples have creatively brought in this entity in as an allegory in art works to exemplify many forms of greed, such as environmental degradation, sexual assault, boarding school experiences, and the like.”
She went on to explain that various groups had their own interpretations of the Windigo, and that it is an error to think of the Windigo as simply a physical creature or possessed person. I asked Dr. Dillon if the Windigo was one entity or were there many of them. She responded,
“A tricky question to answer since it is both an ‘it’ and a ‘they’ once human-persons are possessed and become Windigo themselves.”
She expressed that stories of the Windigo are only told at certain times of the year and only during certain seasons. These stories remain within the specific tribal or family group and are only told to outsiders if they are invited by the group itself. She even said that there are stories she would not put into print because they are reserved only for specific moments, such as the melting and breaking up of the ice on their traditional lake, Lake Superior.
In one of her papers regarding the Windigo, she cites University of Alberta scholar Nathan Carlson. In his paper, “Reviving Witiko,” Carlson states that Western scholars are not properly equipped to properly engage with the Windigo. She writes,
“Indigenous scholars emphasize that Western perspectives are incapable of accounting for the Windigo phenomenon, which can only be 'analyzed from within northern Algonquian cosmologies rather than Western perspectives if it is to be adequately accounted for' (Carlson 355). In hegemonic Western discourse, Windigo is dismissed as a form of insanity, and Windigo stories are relegated to the status of myth or legends born of the harsh winters across North America, where food became scarce, and people sometimes resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. The reality of the Windigo for Indigenous peoples is much more complex.”
Dillon goes on that non-indigenous people tend to fit the Windigo into a “monster analogy,” and cautions,
“…against the misunderstanding and appropriation that has troubled the exchange between Indigenous and Western thinking…”
In other words, the Windigo is not simply a monster or evil spirit, nor is it merely a psychological disorder that leads its host to cannibalism. It is beyond all that. While there are reports of Windigo possession and even sightings of a physical entity that is perceived to be the Windigo, it is something which is infinitely more complex. As I do not speak any Algonquin languages, the Windigo is, both literally and figuratively, unknowable to me. It is lost in translation, and in more ways than one.
Dr. Dillon did not leave me to wallow in my ignorance. She explained that the best way to understand the Windigo was to go back in time,
“In checking in with elders…who speak a much more ancient version of our Anishinaabemowin tongue, this entity is pre-contact and known to be singularly as ‘GREED,’ an unbalanced quality that is known to our peoples as quite contrary to our virtues of sharing in a ‘common pot’ sort of way.”
I am left to imagine what intense greed would manifest as. Can an intense and terrible all-consuming human flaw take form? Indeed, a formidable thought, and one without a solution. That being said, it begs a much larger question; does the Windigo need us as much as we, perhaps inadvertently, need it? Do we feed it and make it real? Is it a force that is inalienable to our minds and spirits? Do all of us have a little Windigo inside us?
I do not know what that driver saw that night on the side of the highway. Was it real or did he imagine it? Does that question even make sense in the context of the Windigo?
I do not know, nor can I. My tongue and my brain do not speak the right language. I do not possess the cultural or social knowledge required. As researchers, most of us are lost in a wilderness filled with Windigo, Skinwalkers and various other indigenous cosmological entities, and we need to recognize we have no idea what we are talking about. In other words, we know nothing. All I do know is that the Windigo is not my monster and, frighteningly, I live on the land where it roams.